'Let the record show Adam Rippon is an Olympian': Figure skater's reach extends beyond gay community

GANGHEUNG, South Korea – One of Adam Rippon’s go-to jokes, meant to disarm and empower at the same time, is that being a gay athlete isn’t much different than being a straight athlete.

“Lots of hard work, but usually done with better eyebrows.”

Rippon, who delivered a brilliant performance Monday to help the United States win bronze in the team ice skating competition, joins freestyle skier Gus Kenworthy as the first Americans to compete at the Winter Olympics while openly gay.

It’s an honor he takes seriously. He’s open and outspoken about his sexuality, the challenges of his community and the importance of serving as a role model for kids who are like him. He criticized the presence here of Vice President Mike Pence and says he wouldn’t accept an invitation from President Donald Trump if there’s a ceremony for Olympians.

“I have no desire to go to the White House,” Rippon said.

Yet perhaps in a sign of how quickly society has moved on this issue, Rippon is in some ways already over it too, even if the Games are just a few days old. While he proudly notes he’s gay, like every other human he isn’t solely defined by who he chooses to love.

He wants to be a role model for lots of people. He doesn’t want to be marginalized.

“I go out there, it’s not, oh, ‘I was a young gay kid,'” Rippon said. “I think everyone can relate to being different or feeling like they are not good enough or they’ll never make it because they are from a small town. I had those doubts too. I can go out there and show those young kids anything is possible. It doesn’t matter where you are from or what other people say about you, you can put that all behind you, you can go out there and show the world what you have to offer.”

Adam Rippon reacts after his performance that helped the United States win bronze in the team skate event. (AP)
Adam Rippon reacts after his performance that helped the United States win bronze in the team skate event. (AP)

This is a trailblazer seeking to blaze a lot of trails all at once.

He points to being raised in Scranton, Pennsylvannia, the oldest of six, far from the hotbeds of skating. He’s also, at age 28, the oldest first-time American skating Olympian since 1936. That is a testament to never giving up despite setbacks — he was an alternate in 2010 and failed to make the team in 2014. He says he watched much of those Olympics while eating hamburgers from In-N-Out.

This is a sport for young prodigies, not grinders. Yet grinding is how they do it in Scranton.

It’s all part of the story. His story.

“I think sometimes people say, ‘Ah, I’m too old. I can’t do [something],'” Rippon said. “I want to show, [expletive] it, it doesn’t matter. You can do whatever.”

Rippon connects with audiences like few others — both live and through television. He isn’t much of a contender to medal in the men’s individual competition, which begins Friday. He’s impossible to miss and ignore, though. His skates are full of life, the entertainment overwhelming whatever technical deficiencies there are. No one has more fun.

He spends a lot of time and a lot of money on his fashionable, flamboyant costumes.

“Take a look at his costume and mine, his is a little more elaborate,” American Mirai Nagusa said with a laugh. “Figure skating has come a long way.”

The focus on appearance extends to everything. Rippon admits he’s been bleaching his teeth for the Games.

“I just want them to match the ice,” he said, laughing and making fun of himself.

For hours after his performance Monday, he was the No. 1 trending topic on Twitter — notable because he finished fourth in his event and skating is popular in a lot of countries that have terrible records on gay rights.

Fear of reprisal from judges kept male figure skaters in the closet for far too long. Johnny Weir refused to discuss or disclose his sexuality when competing in 2010, which was certainly his right but, considering his openness now, a shame.

It’s not just about sexual preference, either. In 2014, ice dancer Charlie White kept his relationship with fellow skater Tanith Belbin quiet, because it was believed that judges wanted to see romantic skates with his partner, Meryl Davis, as real.

It’s that kind of a sport. Or it was.

The more Rippon talks, the more he delivers riveting performances that stir the world and the more he is seen as the multifaceted person he is, the quicker everything changes.

“I think coming to the Olympics has been a really wonderful opportunity to share what I think, to share my viewpoints,” Rippon said.

“But, you know, my mom always taught me to stand up for people who might not have a voice. And everything is not about you. It’s about getting out there and sharing your story. It’s given my skating a greater purpose.”

Whatever is holding someone back — fear, age, a lack of acceptance, confidence or opportunity — there’s a solution.

“Work hard,” Rippon said. “Set goals. I’ve had the best skates of my career because I’ve let go of those doubts. I’ve finally gotten out of my own way, and I am here at the Olympics.

“I am actually an Olympian. They have footage. They can pull it up. Let the record show Adam Rippon is an Olympian.”

He’s made it. And yet he has so much more to do.

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