Adam Rippon skates unapologetically, as if every movement is a declaration of some part of himself, every twist and turn and spin oozing confidence. He is an expert in artistry, as much performer as athlete, unfettered by convention and propelled by conviction.
That on-ice authenticity helped Rippon, 28, become the oldest American skater to make his first Olympic team in more than 80 years. In a sport that so often looks to youth, his trademark self-expression — and, therefore, his skating — improved with age.
Rippon speaks unapologetically, too, with unfiltered bravado. He once foretold "his coronation" and more than once lauded the hard-earned shape of his buttocks — a conversation others started for him, though he was not afraid to finish it. He has spoken out against Vice President Pence, who will head the U.S. Olympic delegation attending the Opening Ceremonies on Friday in PyeongChang, South Korea. He has said he will not visit the White House if invited, largely because he disagrees with this administration's policies toward LGBT Americans.
Rippon became the first openly gay American to qualify for these Winter Olympics when he was named to the U.S. team in early January. He and snowboarder Gus Kenworthy, who qualified not long after Rippon, will be the first openly gay American men to compete in the Winter Olympics.
Straight athletes don't have to talk about the deepest corners of their personal lives, to analyze their feelings, to weigh the pros and cons of sharing them. For Rippon, like many others, it has to be part of the conversation. He is an Olympian because he is unapologetic on the ice. He is one of the more fascinating U.S. athletes heading to PyeongChang because he is unapologetic off the ice as well. He would be neither if not for a years-long process by which he became comfortable with himself, and realized he had nothing to apologize for in the first place.
Rippon remembers the first time he heard someone talk about being gay. He was young, growing up outside Scranton, Pa., as the oldest of what would eventually be a family of six children, when someone brought it up.
"Oh my God, they're disgusting," was the wrenching reaction.
"I really brought that with me: that people think gay people are disgusting," Rippon said. ". . . I remember thinking, 'Okay, I might be gay. But I won't tell anybody. Nobody will ever know.' "
His mother, Kelly, raised her kids with tolerance. They went to Catholic school, but she exposed them to various religions and wouldn't let them use words such as "stupid" or "hate." But kids at school and things he watched and read made him feel like something was wrong with him. His voice was always a little higher. He tried to speak lower so no one would notice. His mannerisms were different from the other boys'. He tried to change those, too.
"I think about it now, and it's so sad," Rippon said. ". . . I hope young kids don't ever have to feel like that."
Rippon wanted to be good at sports such as baseball, like the other kids. He just wasn't.
But each winter, they would flood the baseball field at nearby Montage Mountain, and he would beg his mother to take him to skate. He'd skate successfully for five minutes, fall, then declare himself done for the day. Then, around age 10, Rippon was invited to a skating birthday party. His mother, a dancer who had dabbled in on-ice choreography, showed him some basics. She would turn her back for a moment and, instead of clutching the wall like most preteens might, Rippon was twisting and turning with near-textbook grace. She asked him where he learned that.
"He said, 'I just figured out if I want to go that way, I go like that,' " Kelly Rippon remembered.
Six weeks of group lessons followed, and then she signed him up for individual lessons. By the time he was 18, he was the U.S. junior national champion.
Even after that title, Rippon was never the most highly touted man in American skating. After he missed out on the Olympic team in 2014, he wasn't sure he wanted to continue.
But entering the Sochi Games, Rippon saw his best friend, American women's figure skater Ashley Wagner, profess her opposition to Russia's laws regarding anti-gay propaganda, even as the U.S. Olympic Committee advised athletes about the potential repercussions of taking public political stances.
"She said, 'I didn't do anything; I just spoke up about people getting treated badly,' " Rippon said. "When she said that, it changed the course of my life."
By that time, Rippon had been out to his friends and family. In the fall of 2015, Rippon came out publicly in an article in Skating Magazine.
"I realize now that it's important that I share my story," Rippon said. ". . . Also, it'll be easy for me to do an interview, to interact with people. When you're not hiding anything, it's just very easy to be yourself — shockingly."
The freedom that came with being himself changed things as much on the ice as it did off it.
He started writing his own practice plans and submitting them to his coach for review. He recommitted to fitness with a new trainer, revamped his style and suddenly looked like an entirely different skater — and, frankly, an entirely different person from the awkward, curly-haired kid who had been skating on the outside of the American elite for years. A few months after coming out, in January 2016, he won his first U.S. national championship.
"It was just like, in all aspects of my life, I felt myself owning who I was," Rippon said. ". . . For such a long time in my life, I didn't trust my own voice at all. I always tried to do what other people wanted. For the first time in my life, I had my own opinion."
Over the next two years, he medaled in four events a season. Even a broken foot, suffered in January 2017, didn't stop him from entering this year's national championships as a favorite to make the Olympic team. Heartened by his consistency over two-plus years, U.S. figure skating forgave a fourth-place finish and an uncharacteristically shaky free skate at nationals and made him a groundbreaking member of the 2018 U.S. Olympic team.
"First and foremost, I'm an athlete. And I'm an Olympian. I'm not a gay Olympian. I'm just an Olympian that's also gay," Rippon said. "I don't mind reading that — like, 'gay Olympian Adam Rippon.' It's fine. I hope that, in a way, it makes it easier for other young kids who are gay. If they go to the Olympics, they can just be called Olympians."
Rippon was surprised that the title of "first gay male Olympian" was still available. In his sport alone, many have come out after their skating careers, such as 1988 Olympic gold medalist Brian Boitano, 1996 national champion Rudy Galindo and Olympian Johnny Weir.
Weir, now a popular commentator for NBC, said he thinks skating probably has the same percentage of gay athletes as other sports.
"I think it would be belittling to [Rippon's] years of hard work, blood, sweat and tears to focus solely on his sexuality," Weir said. "But it is an incredible step for American athletics and the Olympic movement to have out athletes. . . . It's wonderful that young LGBT people around the world will have someone like them to look up to."
Because Rippon never had anyone to look up to, he doesn't mind that most of the coverage is about his off-ice story. In a mid-January interview with USA Today, Rippon criticized Pence for his long-standing opposition to gay rights. Asked about the comments later, Rippon called it "a no-brainer" to speak his mind.
"I think his track record on LGBT rights is very clear and straightforward about his opinion of gay people," said Rippon, who studied Pence's policies around the 2016 presidential election to learn more about him. "So when I was asked the question of what I think, I said exactly what I thought."
A decade or so ago, this part of Rippon's story would have been unthinkable. Now, it's hard to believe he ever considered hiding at all.
"Look at me now," Rippon said. "The only things I've been talking about the last few days are Mike Pence, being gay and my eyebrows. I guess the joke was on me."