Part Two: One-on-one with out skater Adam Rippon

Today is the first day of Senior Competition at the U.S. National Figure Skating Championships, the final qualifying competition before USFS names its nominations to the Olympic Team to be held in February in Pyeongchang, South Korea. It was also the first official press conference, and with my media credentials, I planned to gain as much access into the behind-the-scenes tea of a sport with which I have become, admittedly, fanatically obsessed for most of my life.

I make my way to the media room where USFS president Samuel Auxier and executive director David Raith were to brief the outlets including representatives from USA Today (Christine Brennan!), the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, San Jose Mercury News, Phil Hersh (former Olympic specialist for the Chicago Tribune), ESPN, the Associated Press and Dallas Voice. Umm… that would be me.

Auxier and Raith  gave their spiel and were then promptly grilled by the reporters on topics ranging from a possible American boycott of the Olympic Games to the USFS’ responsibility to keep female athletes healthy and not oppressed by unreasonable  expectations of body image. There was even a point made about why USFS would delay announcing the Ladies Olympic squad until Saturday morning (hours after the competition would conclude the previous evening). All fascinating topics. But I only had one thing on my mind: USFS media director Michael Terry had granted my request to interview Adam Rippon, the 2016 U.S. National Men’s Champion and an out-and-proud gay athlete.

For me, Rippon, 28, is the stuff of legends. A prodigy, early in his career he won the 2008 and 2009 World Junior Championships, the 2007–08 Junior Grand Prix Final, and the 2008 U.S. Junior National title. Following the often usual growing pains, he fought his way back to the top and won the 2016 Nationals. With the 2018 Olympics approaching, Rippon was poised to not only defend his title in 2017 but was also in prime position to land on the Pyeongchang team. But shit happens. On Jan. 6, 2017, just days away from Nationals, Rippon broke his foot during routine practice at his home rink in Lakewood, Calif. Was it a bitter disappointment? Assuredly. Were his dreams diminished? Maybe. Was his career over? Not a chance.

I had a multitude of questions for Rippon, but finally I simply asked how his status as an out athlete affected his career. Charming, handsome, smart and funny as hell, Rippon told me, “For me, it’s owning who I am and it’s a part of who I am, but it’s not what defines me. When I go out there on the ice, I think if you don’t know who you are as a performer you can’t create a different character. How can you portray someone else if you don’t know who you are? As soon as I was able to own who I was and share my story, that’s when my career took off. Now, later in life, I’m the only person competing at Nationals born in the ’80s and I kind of wear that with pride. I didn’t win my first National title until I was 26 and I used to think ‘it’s not going to happen for me.'”

If you don’t have a dream, it can’t come true. For Rippon, happen it did. And it can happen again. Prior to speaking with him, I watched the official practice of his long program set to “Arrival of the Birds” by The Cinematic Orchestra and “O” by Coldplay. In it, he portrays a wounded bird gaining strength and learning to spread his wings and fly again. He was solid in the technical elements (triple axel, quad Lutz, stunning spins), but what really took my breath away was the vulnerable strength that inhabits every pulse of this piece. Maybe the answer is that Rippon has found his own peace. And it’s a joy to behold.

Watch Rippon compete his short program tonight on NSNBC, along with the Team Texas men Jimmy Ma, Timothy Dolensky and Alexei  Krasnozhon. The long program will air in primetime Saturday on NBC.

Also today, Team Texas standouts and U.S. Pairs Bronze Medalists Ashley Cain and Timothy DeLuc begin the battle for the lone Olympic berth with the pairs short program (airing live on NBCSN). Fellas, don’t mess with Texas!

— Coy Covington