GANGNEUNG, South Korea — The Olympic identification badge that hangs from his neck contains, like everyone else’s here, a name, a title and a country. Amidst all the laughs, all the comments, all the hoopla, the most basic information should never be forgotten.
Adam Rippon. Athlete. United States of America.
Rippon became a breakout star here because he won’t stop cracking jokes, because he, along with freestyle skier Gus Kenworthy, are the first openly gay American men to compete in the Winter Games and because he wasn’t afraid of a dust-up with Vice President Mike Pence or anyone else.
At the beginning, though, he was a figure skater. At the end, too, it turns out.
Rippon completed his Olympics Saturday with a stirring and fun skate that left him 10th in the standings. He previously was part of the United States bronze medal in the team skate. A top-10 finish was about as good as he could ever do.
The 28-year-old found himself a generation too old to compete with the young guns who are ripping off quad jumps in their sleep. The men’s competition here is the Xtreme Sports version of figure skating. Rippon can’t do any quads. He came up in the sport when it was as much about art as athleticism. As recently as 2010, the medal contenders attempted one quad … combined. On Saturday American Nathan Chen tried six in his routine alone.
“These kids, oh my god,” Rippon said before laughing. “They are all crazy, first of all. They are out of control.”
So, 10th place? Satisfying. Three clean programs in three attempts? Perfect. That bronze he helped win? Forever.
He came here to be himself, all of himself. And a major part of himself is as a competitor, someone who could rise up out of Scranton, Pennsylvania, the oldest of six children raised by a single mom. Someone who wouldn’t quit no matter how many times the Olympics went on without him, refusing to give up on his dream.
“I came here as an athlete,” Rippon said. “I came here to show why I am at these Olympic Games, why I was chosen for the team, why I needed to be in that team event. That’s been so important to me.”
Rippon was an ideal trailblazer. At his age he’s a grownup, so comfortable in his own self that nothing caused him fear or shame or pause. He was, realistically, never going to medal in the individual event, so he wasn’t scared of distractions or controversies, especially after helping win the team medal, which he repeatedly said was his chief job here.
“After that, this was for me,” he said.
That it took this long for figure skating to have an openly gay athlete is a tragedy. And if the vision and words of Rippon helped inspire or provide comfort to gay kids (or adults) in the United States, where he sadly still inspires fear and loathing from some, imagine the power of him being broadcast into homes globally that are generations behind America when it comes to acceptance.
“I think I’ve shown the world I am a fierce competitor but I think I also showed them I am a fierce human being,” Rippon said.
Rippon took time after his skate to point up at Kenworthy, who was in the stands, with his boyfriend, waving a rainbow flag. Rippon said he would watch Kenworthy compete Sunday.
“I don’t think I did anything brave or crazy,” he said. “I just came here and said I want to have the best Olympic experience I can. I have an opportunity to speak up for people who don’t have a voice. … I’ve gotten a lot of attention, I think just for being myself.”
Rippon understands his impact with gay kids, particularly, he notes, the ones struggling to come out or find acceptance within their families or communities. He’s repeatedly gone beyond that, though, talking about kids who are from lower middle-class upbringings like he was, or come from small towns, like he did, or anyone who thinks they are too old or will never be good enough, like he needed to overcome.
“It’s not just for some group of people,” he said. “It’s for everybody.”
If some can’t see past the sexuality to embrace his message of hard work and self-empowerment, that’s their loss. Their children and grandchildren probably get it.
“I am representing my country whether they like me or not.”
He’s famous now. He’s respected now. He has a big voice and a big platform now. What comes next is anyone’s guess. He just wants people to listen, to not box him into something because he’s never been a single-faceted person.
“I am not a gay icon or America’s gay sweetheart,” Rippon said. “I am just America’s sweetheart. And I am just an icon.”
With that, he laughed. Competition was over. The pressure was off. The goal was achieved.
“I’m probably going to have a stiff drink.”
Adam Rippon, athlete, United States of America, was onto the rest of his life.
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