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GANGNEUNG, South Korea – One is a 28-year-old from a blue-collar home in Scranton, Pennsylvania. The other is a 17-year-old son of Chinese immigrants, two computer scientists, who hails from California.
Adam Rippon and Vincent Zhou don’t appear to have much in common, other than being world-class figure skaters representing the United States. And that’s sort of the point. The U.S. figure skating team arrives here from nearly all corners.
There’s a brother-sister team. There’s a married couple who draws strength from their Christian faith. There’s the daughter of two sushi restaurateurs who used to work as a Colorado Avalanche Ice Girl. There’s an ’80s-rock fanatic. There’s two ice dancers who are dating. There’s an auto mechanic. There’s an openly gay athlete. Two of the skaters have matching tattoos. There are young phenoms and aging second-chancers. It goes on and on.
It’s quite a melting pot. Perhaps no place but America could possibly create it.
For this purpose, there was Rippon and Zhou, sitting together at a news conference, talking in their own purposeful ways. Rippon, loud and colorful. “I have a big voice,” he noted.
Zhou, calm and poignant.
“As Adam said, he is the father and Nathan [Chen] and I are children,” Zhou said, drawing laughs.
“I did say that,” Rippon said, laughing.
Someone noted how they couldn’t be more different. The more they spoke, though, the more the similarities exposed themselves. Perhaps because of the way Rippon can whip everything up and sweep everyone along with him. Or, perhaps the way Zhou can speak with a wisdom and worldliness far beyond his teenage years that causes even Rippon to stop and listen to each phrase.
It’s probably, though, because of mom.
Zhou’s mother, Fay Ge, immigrated to the United States with her husband, attending graduate school before settling in Silicon Valley outside the Bay Area. She worked at Oracle and was a prominent figure in developing bitmap indexes. She owns numerous software patents. She had a powerhouse career.
Then her son showed an affinity for skating and she dropped nearly everything, moved with him to Southern California for superior training and made 500-mile drives each weekend back to the rest of the family.
“She above anyone else except for myself wanted me to make the Olympic team,” Zhou said.
Rippon’s mother, Kelly, raised six children as a single mother in northeast Pennsylvania. Everything in her life was hectic, stressful and an act of juggling – money, time, priorities. When her son showed an affinity for skating, she found time to drive three hours each way for better coaching in Philadelphia. She eventually re-mortgaged the house to pay for everything. Her family is raising money to be here.
“My mom single-handily raised me,” Rippon said. “I’m at the Olympics. My brother is getting his master’s degree in bio statistics in Columbia. I have another brother in law school. We are from a lower-middle-class family from a small town in Pennsylvania.
“My mom, she dreamed very big for all of us.”
No one gets to the Olympics on their own. The road is too long. The competition too fierce. There’s family and coaches and teammates and everything else. There’s a lot of moms, though.
For Zhou, he was taught about unrelenting focus. He was inspired by parents that chased even more difficult dreams, immigrating to a country they didn’t know. He was taught about setting a plan and following it to the fullest. He learned to battle through fear when, in 2012, he almost lost his father as he and his mother were off chasing the Olympics.
“Living in apartments with no hot water and no air conditioning,” Zhou said. “Moving all over the country trying to find the best place to train. Living with my mom for so long on our own has given me a very realistic perspective on the world and given me more maturity than a lot of kids my age.”
When Zhou received word, via a late-night text, that he had been selected as part of this 14-person American team, he was overwhelmed. For what he had accomplished, sure. But what everyone had sacrificed, too. His mom was there. She’s tough. She’s stern. “Her parents gave her tough love,” Zhou said.
She, he says, is never physically affectionate with her kids.
“My mom gave me a hug,” Zhou said.
Kelly Rippon ran a home that nurtured each child’s uniqueness and encouraged each one’s disparate plan for a future. It was so open and loving that when Adam Rippon determined he was gay, he had almost no problem coming out to his family, a moment he knows haunts so many other kids like him.
“I’ve received so many messages … from so many young kids who say that they’re gay and they are afraid to share their story with their family because of the reaction, they think that they may get kicked out of their home,” Rippon said. “I was very lucky growing up with the family and the friends that I had that I never had to go through that. But I know that fear.”
Two different kids. Two different mothers. Two different challenges.
The same result. The same team. The United States of America.
Zhou said he’s learned from Rippon, mostly about how he struggled with self-confidence as he came out only to move past it by embracing his (very) full personality and not caring what others thought of him. “He’s gotten over that and that is something I can definitely take from him,” Zhou said.
Rippon said he’s learned from Zhou, mostly the unlikely sensibleness and professionalism that the teenager carries. “At 17, I wasn’t as mature as Vincent,” Rippon said. “I was seeing people who could jump better than I could or skate faster and I would be jealous. I would be jealous that I couldn’t do that. And now being older I really look at Vincent and I am in complete awe.”
It’s like that way with the whole team. This is an individual sport; they compete against each other. But across the roster there is a shared sense they are in it together. All these unlikely paths from different locations proved more alike than anyone would figure.
Maybe it’s just that every one of them is humble for the family they have.
“I think that we all realize the sacrifices our parents made to get us where we are,” Rippon said. “Our stories may be different, but we just want to be our best, and you are really able to cheer for someone and root for them when you know that’s the core of why they got started.”
Sitting to Rippon’s side, Zhou could only agree.
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