The Adam Rippon show reached a new crescendo with his joyful waltz through the Olympic Winter Games in 2018. But, as it turned out, it was far from being the closing act for the poster boy of those Games, even though it represented the finish line of a competitive figure skating career that had spanned almost two decades.
It is likely that nobody had more fun than Adam Rippon during the two weeks at the Olympic Winter Games in PyeongChang, South Korea. His performances on the ice, and even more so those backstage when addressing the international media, introduced the world to a star that was just beginning his ascension to global fame. In the wake of it all, many new doors have opened for the 30-year-old American over the past two and a half years — both on and off the ice.
Much of what Rippon is doing now plays on an obvious, sometimes self- deprecating sense of humor that is a delight to be around. So much so that, despite all his on-ice achievements, Rippon sometimes has to remind people that he is much more than just a “funny boy” (as his Instagram profile notes). There was, after all, plenty of substance to a career that he can be proud of. It was also the catalyst that has led to many of the new opportunities and experiences he now enjoys.
“Every so often, I will post something on social media about skating and people will reply that they had no idea I could skate — which is in equal parts hilarious and infuriating. But I honestly find it very funny,” said Rippon, whose career highlights include the 2016 U.S. title, a Four Continents crown in 2010, and a pair of World Junior titles in 2008 and 2009. “Skating used to be what I ate, slept and breathed … it was everything that I did. I always loved skating because it was an outlet for me.
“I was never a World or an Olympic champion, but it was always a place where I felt like I sort of belonged. Skating can be that for everyone. It takes the Yuzuru Hanyus and the Nathan Chens to make us believe we can do more, and that the sky is the limit. But for the 99.9 percent of the rest of us, we need to find that internal joy for why we do this. For everyone, really, it’s about finding that internal joy and when I do things in skating, I always try to share that.”
Rippon’s celebrity status has allowed him to widen that scope of sharing. It is on full display in “Break The Ice,” a YouTube series filmed at a rink in California that features Rippon in conversation with guests as they glide around the frozen surface. While one episode in Season 2 of the series featured 2014 Olympic ice dance champion Meryl Davis, the majority of guests are recreational skaters at best, some of whom are shown clinging tightly to Rippon to avoid tumbling to the ice.
“It was a fun concept, a fun idea,” said Rippon, who now resides in Pasadena, California, where he recently bought a house. “After the Olympics, for the first time, I was meeting so many people who weren’t skaters. One of the things everyone always said was ‘Oh, my God, I really want to go skating with you.’ It was sort of one of those airy, empty things that people sometimes say. I asked myself how I could actually get people to go skating with me, and I was like, everyone would do it if it was a scheduled thing. It would be fun, and we would have a video to remember the day. That is really how it came about. I brought in a lot of the people I had met and we had a blast, it was so much fun.”
There is also room for that light-hearted attitude when Rippon works with competitive skaters that are part of Rafael Arutyunyan’s group at the Great Park Ice & FivePoint Arena in Irvine, California. Arutyunyan coached Rippon during the final years of his competitive career, and had always encouraged his protégé to consider sharing his wealth of knowledge with younger skaters.
“I always saw myself being involved with some of the other skaters. I’m really lucky and grateful that Rafael encouraged me to get more involved,” said Rippon, 30. “There are so many things that I don’t know as a coach, but I went through so many different scenarios in my career that I’m prepared to be a good coach. I had to work really, really hard to not always get as far as everyone else, but I’m grateful that I did because I learned a lot about training, I learned a lot about the mindset and it really helped me to have my best experiences as a skater.”
It is probably no surprise that someone like Rippon, who has a very creative mind, also gravitated toward the choreographic side of the sport. Most notably, he crafted short programs the past two seasons for Mariah Bell, the bronze medalist at the 2020 U.S. Championships. For this season, he worked on new programs for Bell and others with Molly Oberstar, a choreographer based in St. Paul, Minnesota, who some may remember from the “Ice Castles” movie franchise (she had a starring role in the 2010 version).
“Molly is one of my very best friends. She was a Team USA skater,” said Rippon.“We always used to get our choreography done by David Wilson and Sébastien Britten, so we kind of grew up in the same school of choreography. I had her come to California and she did Mariah’s short program with me, and we did a few other local L.A. skaters together. I’m not on the ice all the time, so it was really helpful to have another set of eyes. And the bigger someone’s team is, the better — because there are always different people you can go to for different things, and that’s a great asset.”
Rippon’s role with Bell developed even more last season. In addition to crafting her short program to Britney Spears music — Rippon is a huge fan of the singer — he joined her coaching team at the suggestion of Arutyunyan. It is a connection that goes back to when they trained together at another rink in California.
“When I was training, it was always Ashley (Wagner) and myself. Then Mariah came in at the end,” Rippon said. “I always really liked her — I thought she was a super nice girl. Then when I started coming to the rink as a skater who wasn’t training for competitions anymore, she began asking me more questions, and I started to help her and give her a little bit of advice when I could. From there, she asked me to do a program for her and we did a short program together … then it transferred into more of a coaching role.
“Last summer she called me and asked if I could come and help her. She told me Rafael had said that if I had time, to come and work with her, train her and help her get in shape. And so, I said of course. I really like Mariah and I wanted to help her. She’s a really hard worker and a really, really nice person. So I went in and started working with her. I would go in once a week or sometimes a few days in a row. I would just pop in more like a fairy godmother than anything else. But I think having the pressure of somebody coming in that you don’t see every day was really good and helped her get ready for all her events.”
Rippon stood proudly by the boards on a Friday night last January in North Carolina, as Bell blew the roof off the Greensboro Coliseum with the long program skate of her life at U.S. nationals. It was a hugely fulfilling moment for him as a coach he said. “It was unreal. It almost felt more satisfying than something that you did yourself because it was so powerful.
“Skaters have to go out and do it on their own, but as a coach you try to navigate that path in advance so that they visualize themselves doing it, and then go and do it. When you see somebody actualize a plan they executed in practice, and do everything they were hoping and planning to do in a competition … it’s a little overwhelming and it’s such a beautiful thing. Just to see her be so proud of herself — as a friend, a coach and choreographer, it’s everything you could dream of for a student.
“I’ve watched skating my entire life and I have only seen a few in-person huge ovations like the one Mariah got — there is something special about the U.S. Championships. It was really amazing. I’m American; I can’t help it. It was one of those competitions I dreamed of being at and I had imagined so many times. Just being there was special in itself.”
IN THE SKATING ZONE
Last season ended earlier than planned for Bell and many other skaters with the cancellation of the 2020 World Championships. But a bow of sorts was later placed on the season when one of the events that was scheduled to be part of the Championships — the ISU Skating Awards — was held virtually on July 11. While it was not the glitzy affair that had been planned for Montréal, it is a concept that has a fan in Rippon.
“It was so cool to see Yuzuru get the Most Valuable Skater award and to see Shae- Lynn (Bourne) win Choreographer of the Year. I think the awards are such a great idea,” he said. “It’s another fun thing … it does bring different accolades and attention. I think most valuable and best newcomer and things like that are a little subjective. But honestly, if there are other awards Yuzu could win, he deserves them because he’s such a dominant force. Nathan too. If they just want to keep making trophies for the two of them, that is totally fine.”
The awards also offered a touch of normalcy in a time that has been seriously lacking in such things. When Rippon is on the ice now to coach or do choreography, he does so wearing a mask. While the Great Park rink had been open for a while when Rippon spoke with IFS in July, a spike in coronavirus cases in California had him wondering if the doors would soon shut again. “I think the rink will stay open, but I don’t know for how long,” he said.
While a cloud remains over international competitions in particular — and if or when they might happen — Rippon finds optimism in the determination he believes skaters will continue to show through a difficult and unprecedented time. He also suggests now, perhaps more than ever, is when some outside the box thinking will be required.
“I’m optimistic that the skaters will persevere and be completely fine once we see our way to whatever the end of this is. But right now, I think it’s really, really risky,” he said. “I can see there being international competitions in Europe and I can see more domestic level events happening. I don’t think we (in North America) are going to see international events. It is going to be a really interesting Olympic qualifying season and seeing how that goes down. It would be really interesting to see a virtual event happening, sort of less on the scale of Grand Prix importance and more on the scale of the Japan Open. It would be fun and an opportunity for skaters to get their programs out there. I am optimistic because people will be innovative and the skaters will want to show what they have been working on. I think people are genius when pushed against the wall.”
TAKING A STAND
While the coronavirus pandemic has dominated headlines since first breaking out across the U.S. in March, it has also been accompanied by a social justice movement that exploded in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, a black man who died under the knee of a white police officer in Minneapolis in May. Rippon has watched the unrest with particular interest and said the reckoning “is much needed, and in so many respects, it’s long overdue.”
It is his belief that there is work to do in the U.S. to make the sport more inclusive. “Right now, when we look at skating in America we ask ourselves why there are not more black and brown skaters … I think that many people of color have never thought about skating as a place where they belonged,” he explained. “If we want to see more of those black and brown skaters we need to, at the grassroots level, make it more accessible and make them feel like skating can also be their home.
“If you look at the French team, they have one of the most diverse groups in the world and that has a lot to do with the success of someone like Surya Bonaly. A lot of black kids in France and internationally saw him or her self in this powerful and beautiful person, and they were inspired to get out there as well. It’s going to take federations reaching out to those communities and letting them know they are also welcome in the skating family.”
As Rippon’s celebrity status has crossed over to the entertainment world, it has also afforded him a wider platform to be a role model for the LGBTQ+ community — a position he is most happy to embrace. His message is simple and universal, especially to people who meet him, are already in his life, or those in the world of skating he knows so well.
“I just want them to know that the most important thing is to treat people the way you want to be treated,” said Rippon, who became the first openly gay athlete to represent the U.S. at the Olympics. “Don’t let other people’s expectations of what they think you should be affect how you present yourself in your life. And that really, if you work hard, you will be judged on that hard work and nothing else because really, nothing else truly matters.”
In July, Rippon was involved in an episode of an ABC show called “What Would You Do?” He watched off camera as two actors played out a scene in a restaurant in which an athlete revealed to his coach that he was gay. While the coach’s response was not positive, a woman sitting at a nearby table, who was not an actor, offered supportive words to the athlete. Listening to her response brought tears to Rippon’s eyes.
“It was so kind. She didn’t say anything profound, but with just a few sentences, it was very simple and very reassuring to that kid. It was incredible and I was grateful,” he said. “I’m from a small town in Pennsylvania and growing up I heard a lot of ‘gay people are disgusting’ and ‘I just don’t get it.’ It was casual stuff that was all over the place. Being able to do the ‘What Would You Do?’show was really powerful because in the moment where the athlete was telling his coach he was gay, I had a pit in my stomach reliving those moments I had in my own life.
“Just to see that in real life people stepped forward and said something to the athlete and said something to the coach … it changed the way that I perceive the world. I know the world is changing but when you see it with your own eyes, it’s a completely different experience. I knew I was going to cry watching that scene. It was beautiful.”
However, Rippon experienced an ugly side of the issue in June, after he made a $1,000 donation to The Okra Project, which benefits black transgender people. Thousands of miles away in Russia, 2002 Olympic champion Alexei Yagudin caught wind of Rippon’s gesture and called it “awful and disgusting.” In a social media post that has since been deleted, he wrote “Adam! When will you die? Earth’s mistake!”
While Rippon brushed off the personal attack — “Why should I even care if Alexei Yagudin wants me dead or alive? I’m never going to see him. Our paths are never going to cross”—Rippon’s concerns shifted more to LGTBQ+ people in Russia who might hear such sentiments from a former skater still considered an icon in the country.
“I know he has a high profile in Russia. Figure skating is a super popular sport there and he is an Olympic champion and also a television commentator,” said Rippon, who learned of Yagudin’s comments through messages he received from some Russian fans. “I started thinking, this is who young people who might be part of the LGBTQ+ community in Russia have to look up to, and that’s truly so unfair. If they are questioning their identity in any way, that is the example they are given and that is so not right. But the alarming thing is that this hate was truly generated by me donating to a charity.
“I just thought it was completely ridiculous. It says way more about him than anything else. To get so set off that I wanted to help and send money to a black trans charity that he would hope that I was dead and people like me were dead — which is insinuating that he wished that all gay people were dead — is absolutely crazy and insane. It’s not right.”
Rippon responded as only Rippon could — by making a second donation to The Okra Project, this time in Yagudin’s name, accompanied by a social media post as proof of his actions. But this was not about publicly shaming the Russian, whose eventual apology to Rippon for his remarks was rejected.
“What’s the point in clapping back and saying anything? There’s no point, so turn it into something good,” said Rippon. “You know what, if I want to be a role model, I have to take a situation like that and turn it into something positive. I felt really good about making that donation in the first place, so I said I am going to make another one in Alexei’s name. I don’t hate Alexei and I don’t hope he dies. I hope he learns and grows. I hope the best for him.That’s what we should all do.”
SHOW BUSINESS CALLS
This was a story that resonated far beyond the skating world — a testament to the fact that, much as Rippon remains involved in the sport, his audience has expanded to the entertainment realm as well. And that is the area in which Rippon sees his long-term goals coming to full fruition.
“I do like to do skating things as an outlet and a way to give back to other skaters, and to stay involved in the sport because it has afforded me so many other opportunities. But in my professional life, my goals are in entertainment. I feel like it’s where I’ve always belonged.”
There is no doubt that the biggest sporting event of his life — the 2018 Olympic Winter Games — was the springboard that opened the door to all the new possibilities now before him. He could think of no better way to round out his skating career, performing on the biggest stage he had spent so many years and invested so much energy to reach.
But, rarely has a 10th-place finisher at an Olympic Games found himself the center of attention in the international spotlight. But Rippon — a member of the bronze-medal winning U.S. crew in the Team Event — soaked it up for all it was worth, dubbing himself “America’s Sweetheart.” And Americans back home loved him for it.
“I was just so ready for those Olympics. In my heart, I knew it was the end,” Rippon said when recalling his emotions on the night of the men’s long program. “I did try my best not to think about that before skating the program because you don’t want to make one moment too dramatic. I thought, whatever happens tonight happens. You’ve done everything you came to do at the Olympics and you only have to go out and enjoy this moment.’ I remember looking up at the rings, and as I skated around in the warm-up I saw a bunch of faces that I had seen for years and years.
“Then I just focused and skated my program … I skated my heart out. When I was finished, Rafael was so proud, so excited and so happy for me. When I thought about it a few days later, I just reflected on the moment I had. What a gift I had to end the way I wanted to, and to be able to say the Olympics was my last competition. I still get chills thinking that I was able to do that.”
Rippon took a pass on the ensuing World Championships, but his time in the spotlight was only just beginning. Shortly after he returned home from the Games, Ellen DeGeneres invited him onto her show, which set off a chain of other celebrity invitations. He appeared in a video series “Adam Rippon Riffs On” produced by Cosmopolitan, hosted interviews with movie stars and walked red carpets. Three months after the Games, Rippon took center stage on “Dancing With The Stars: Athletes,” winning the Mirrorball Trophy with professional dancer Jenna Johnson. And the doors kept opening. He worked as a correspondent for ABC on both “Good Morning America” and “Nightline” and made a guest appearance on the remake of the NBC comedy “Will and Grace.”
“It was my first acting thing,”said Rippon. “I made sure that I went to every rehearsal that I could go to, just so I could see the lay of the land and see how everything would work. I was super grateful to everyone there. It was a great learning experience.”
There have also been some other, shall we say, surreal moments. A year down the road, Rippon still wonders how he wound up in the middle of a Taylor Swift music video. When asked how that opportunity came about, “Your guess is as good as mine,” Rippon responded with a laugh. He told a story of meeting and chatting with Swift’s publicist, Tree Paine, at a function in New York. The superstar singer later saw him and recognized Rippon immediately as “the skater.”
“A few days later, her team reached out to mine and I was asked to be in the music video, which was incredible,” he recalled. “I’ve always been such a huge Taylor Swift fan and getting to spend time with her was so great. Whatever you think she is going to be, she’s 10 times more. She is so famous and powerful, but when we had lunch in this tent with the makeup artists and costume people,Taylor sat with us and was joking around with everyone. And that spoke volumes to me. For as big a fan as I was, I’m an even bigger one now.”
In the “You Need To Calm Down” video, which was released in June 2019, Rippon handed out sno-cones and poured drinks. However, he said that if he were pouring drinks for himself, it would be a Sauvignon blanc wine. “Add soda water as a spritzer and I’m good to go.”
By now, you have probably figured out that Rippon has a thing for celebrity concepts. That made him the perfect host for “Useless Celebrity History,”a mini-series that runs on Quibi — a mobile-specific platform that launched earlier this year. It is filled with opportunities for Rippon to make use of his unique brand of humor. “I actually started working with Hearst, which owns Cosmopolitan, and had done a lot of stuff for them after the Olympics,” Rippon explained. “They had this concept called ‘Useless Celebrity History,’ and we just did our first season. It was so great because it was my first opportunity to work and not have it be anything to do with being a skater. It was liberating and it was very cool. I loved getting to do that.”
Rippon has also discovered the joy of comedy writing, something he did a lot of while at home during quarantine. “It was really easy and really great for me to do at home. I also love performing, in the sense of doing comedy things or acting,” he explained. “The best and biggest joke I could tell right now would be me trying to fit into one of my old costumes. It would be true comedy, if I tried to do a show or anything.”
His comedic talents have now found an outlet, with NBC recently hiring Rippon to create and produce a comedy series for the network. The storyline of the “Untitled Figure Skating Comedy” revolves around one woman’s oversized ambitions, underwhelming talent and boundless heart to realize her dreams against the odds in her fight against family, failing knees and every other skater on the ice.
But, perhaps the biggest challenge Rippon faced in the last year was summing up his life in a book. While his primary goal with “Beautiful On The Outside” (an autobiography released in late 2019), was to do what he does best — make people laugh — it turned out to be so much more than that. “When I was writing my book, I really enjoyed it. I knew I could write something funny. I like to be funny and that was my main focus, that it would just be something that you laughed with,” he said. “I wanted people to learn from the mistakes I made because if you can learn from my mistakes, you wouldn’t have to make any of your own.
“The hardest thing was revisiting a lot of moments where I didn’t feel very good about myself. So, going back to them made me remember those moments of not really liking the person in the mirror or not really even knowing who that person was. I just needed to look at it and remember that I’ve grown a lot and I’ve become a different person since then.”
Ask Rippon what he wants readers to take from his book, and his response perhaps sums up his skating career in a way: It was not always the easiest road. “I hope what people get out of it is that I had some success when I was young but when I got older, all of that — the joy and the success that I felt — was the best I had in my skating career when I was true to myself,” he said. “I worked hard and I wasn’t afraid to ask for help, and I asked for help so many times. “When I moved to California, I tried to take it on all on my own because I needed to feel that responsibility. It was really scary and I had to ask a lot of people for their help. It was scary and it was humbling. I would love for people to read my story, and if they end up in a position where they have to do the same, that they are not embarrassed by having to ask for help.
“There is no shame in not knowing what to do next. There is no shame in asking for help. There is no shame in not knowing all the answers. And I think for a lot of us, we feel a point of shame that we didn’t know or that we should have known. I think that’s why there are other people on this Earth that … we can look to them for help and we can share our experiences. That’s what it’s all about.”
Ed. Note: The Berkeley Forum at UC Berkeley is hosting a Fireside Chat with Adam Rippon on Thu., Feb, 18, at 8 p.m. ET.