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GANGNEUNG, South Korea — There is no spotlight quite like the Olympics and there are few Olympians more comfortable in its glare than Adam Rippon, who won bronze for America earlier this week in team figure skating.
He’s colorful. He’s comical. He is also, along with freestyle skier Gus Kenworthy, one of the first Americans to compete at the Winter Olympics while openly gay. That distinction has earned him significant celebration, but also plenty of negativity.
Some want him to fall. Some want him to fail. Some want him, mostly, to shut up. Some of it is nasty. Some it is pathetic. All of it is idiotic.
Rippon, a 28-year-old from Scranton, Pennsylvania, who skates Friday in the men’s individual short program, just sort of shrugs it off.
He is determined not to have his Olympics defined by those who will never take the time to listen to his words and attempt to understand his message.
It’s why he said, when asked, that he didn’t want his experience defined by the presence of Vice President Mike Pence. And why he declined to respond to Donald Trump Jr., who tweeted Wednesday that Rippon shouldn’t mention Pence’s name at all.
“No,” Rippon said Thursday after his practice session. “No.”
About the only thing Rippon loves more than skating is speaking, so a no comment speaks volumes. Trump Jr. and anyone like him isn’t his concern. They are likely unreachable. The next generation isn’t, especially the kids of the world who might be struggling with being different, being uncertain or being ostracized. They can hear him.
“I’m some gay kid from the middle of nowhere that you’ve never heard before,” Rippon said. “There’s some negativity but it’s because I am different. I think to those kids out there, yeah, there is always going to be pushback. There are always going to be people out there who won’t like you or will be resistant to you speaking your mind or being true to you are. But they really don’t matter. It’s about whether you like yourself. If you like yourself, nobody else matters. If you love yourself you are living your very best life.
“And baby, right now I am living my very best life.”
Many of the anti-Rippon comments center on a basic premise, the person saying them isn’t a bigot, they just don’t like Rippon throwing his sexuality in their face.
This is figure skating, though. Part of its popularity is based on sexuality, hot guys and beautiful women in artistic and athletic motion. They often act out dramatic love stories while wearing revealing costumes and make-up. None of this is new.
Besides, when the American pairs team of Chris Knierim and Alexa Simeca-Knierim openly talk about being married and end their skates with a kiss, are they throwing their sexuality in people’s face, or just being who they are? When they speak about their deep Christian faith, are they talking too much about their personal lifestyle, or providing a testimonial and serving as a role model for others who believe the same?
How about the American ice dancing team of Evan Bates and Madison Chock, who are dating? Should they shut up, or just be themselves?
“People [who] wish for me to fail are immature,” Rippon said. “And I feel sorry for them.”
The struggle for young people to come to terms with their sexuality, their uniqueness, their place in the world is often painful. Depression, suicide rates, drug and alcohol abuse are higher in those teens. They can devastate not just young lives, but entire families.
It’s been that way for generations. It will continue without acceptance. Who would want that suffering to continue?
Rippon, and anyone out there who can show a path of comfort to the afflicted, shouldn’t be rejected or scorned. He’s a beacon of hope, a small solution to something that can happen in anyone’s home. He’s harmless.
Yet the negative comments. The negative tweets. The fear of some guy skating on television.
People rooting for him to fail?
“You know what, if I had never failed in my life I would never be where I am today,” Rippon said. “I’m here today because I did fail. And there were times I didn’t want to get back up. There were times I wanted to throw my skates in the trash and just start doing something else. But I didn’t do that. I learned from all my mistakes. I learned that it is OK to make mistakes.
“I am here today because of my failures. That’s why I am so strong.”
Friday comes the short program, no pressure to win because he probably won’t. Besides, he already has his medal, already has his national championship, already has this growing platform, this brightening spotlight to inspire the kids who need inspiration, no matter the adults who want to whine and complain and obsess about him.
They don’t matter. The rest of the millions who will watch his performance around the world do.
“This is a moment I have been waiting for my entire life,” Rippon said.
The biggest day of your life?
“Every day is the biggest day of my life,” Rippon said. “Tomorrow I am just skating at the Olympics.”
Bring it on. All of it.
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• Japanese star suffers brutal crash at Olympics
• More heartbreak for British speed skater: ‘It was taken away from me’
• Shaun White violates Flag Code after gold medal win