This is How Adam Rippon Won the Heart of Planet Earth

Written by | Books, Entertainment

(Adam Rippon image by Craig Sjodin Courtesy ABC)

On the eve of releasing a memoir at the tender age of 29, Adam Rippon reflects on fame, Pence and his love of the limelight:

Adam Rippon is nothing if not audacious. While most young adults don’t come close to hitting their stride until they’re on the far side of 30, Rippon has already lived enough to pen a memoir a year shy of that. His autobiography, “Beautiful On the Outside” (available October 2019 from Grand Central Publishing) offers an unflinching account of his two-decade trek from sensitive schoolboy to Olympic medalist.

Adam Rippon Book Cover

(Adam Rippon “Beautiful on the Outside” book cover courtesy Grand Central Publishing)

Something Different

The eldest of six, Rippon was born with a severe hearing deficiency that was miraculously reversed by surgery when he was an infant. His mother Kelly has been his guardian angel since Day One. However, his parents were divorced when Adam was barely into his teens.

Since then, he’s been alternately broke and saved by contest prize money. He’s been written off by sports pundits as too erratic and old, then reemerged in peak condition to find himself in a media war with the Vice President of the United States. He disappointed many who hoped he’d grab gold at the Olympics, then delighted TV audiences by winning his season of Dancing With the Stars out of nowhere.

“My life-defining moments have always been the mistakes I’ve made,” the skater muses over the din of his car zipping from one California stop to another. “They’ve pushed me to be better. I realize that every missed opportunity — and I mean every situation I’ve been in that felt like a setback  — was really an opportunity to do something more or do something different.”

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May I Have Your Attention

Whether his abrupt course changes along the way made sense to anyone else has never been a primary concern for Rippon. Even at the youngest age he can recall, Rippon’s decision-making process was not based on whether something was smart or all the other kids were doing it. It was about whether it would get him noticed.

“I think the first time I ever realized that was — I think — when I wrote about it in the book,” he laughs. “I said I wanted to host a talent show on our back deck. I wanted to tap dance and I had never taken a tap dance lesson. But I wanted everybody to watch me tap in my costume. I had been a really shy kid, but there was something inside of me that was like, ‘You should definitely tap dance in front of everyone you know.’”

Inspired by the graceful skater sketched on the family cookie tin, Rippon also decided that he would absolutely look that fabulous gliding across the ice. He also had every confidence this pre-ordained moment of glory would occur the instant he donned his first pair of skates. After the tragi-comic debut that followed, the young Rippon decided skating might actually be worth working at. He quickly learned two valuable lessons. The first was that making something look easy can be very hard. The other was that as a skater, he was unusually gifted. Thus began a 20-year odyssey that saw him bounce between snatching top honors and turning in poor showings and slowly resurrecting himself again. A stream of coaches did what they could to keep him on track, with varying degrees of success. And in the middle of the whirlwind, Rippon determined he had to tell his family that he was gay.

Adam Rippon with Reese Witherspoon

(Adam Rippon with Reese Witherspoon on the set of “Colbert” – Photo by Scott Kowalchyk courtesy CBS )

Icy Reception

Coming out to his mom at 22 was difficult, he says. But once the family expressed their support, “I knew everything was going to be okay; it didn’t matter what anyone else thought.” He does recall some teasing at the rink, though: “My classmates didn’t know too much about my skating. So I don’t know if being out of school actually saved me.”

Rippon shrugged off his detractors. What required more immediate attention was the voice inside his head constantly demanding perfection. He barely missed making the USA Olympic Team in 2010 and ultimately ended up an alternate. Four years later, he faltered at nationals and came nowhere close to qualifying.

Disheartened, Rippon retreated inside himself and spent months adrift soul searching. But when he reappeared, the transformation was there for all to see. He cut and dyed his hair. He jettisoned his music program of the classics for tracks by The Beatles and Ida Corr. He became himself, and it set him free.

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Frozen in Time

In 2015, Rippon came out again — this time through a very public profile in Skating magazine, a publication of United States Figure Skating. He orchestrated the opportunity with as much precision as any routine he ever choreographed.

As he writes in his memoir,* “I told Renee Fulton, who was in charge of media relations for USFS, that I wanted to come out in the article. It was important to me that I come out through U.S. Figure Skating, so it would be a subliminal sign to young people that the organization is behind this and that they support their out athletes.

“I made my intentions clear to Renee before we had even met the journalist doing the story, and she told both the president and the director of USFS. They both got in touch with me and said that they were behind me 100 percent. It’s not like anyone in the sport didn’t know. I always had too much charisma, uniqueness, nerve and talent to ever present as straight, but now the world would know.”

The result of his decision, Rippon assesses a few lines later, was decidedly anti-climactic. “After about three weeks,” he recounts, “it finally got picked up on ESPN and in the sporting press, but the main reaction was support from everyone, along with the feigned shock that a male figure skater came out.”

No Shame in His Game

With the weight of coming out lifted and his head clear, Rippon started to soar. “For a big chunk of my athletic career, It felt like pressure,” he says now. “I think I saw every time I didn’t feel like I lived up to expectations as failure. Nobody else around me saw that as failure. They saw it as growing and a chance to learn. But I didn’t see it that way. I felt like I let them down, like I was letting myself down. I felt like I was wasting people’s time. But then I realized that if I didn’t learn from those situations and I was just embarrassed by them, I didn’t grow and I didn’t get better.”

That, he freely admits, “took me a hot minute to figure out. But when I did, even when I did have a rough skate or rough competition, it didn’t hold me back. And it wasn’t something like, ‘Oh I can’t ever watch myself do that performance,’ or ‘I don’t want to talk about it.’ I was open and willing to talk about it,. I almost wanted to talk about it right away so that I could process it immediately and learn from it — and I was over it and felt good about it almost instantly — because I just learned that there was nothing to be ashamed of. There’s no shame in making a mistake.”

In 2016, he won the US championship, and quipped, “I’m like a witch. You can’t kill me.” Two years later, he qualified for the Olympics and became the oldest first-time Olympian among figure skaters since 1936.

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Haters Gonna Hate

And then it happened: USA Today reporter Christine Brennan asked the skater how he felt about the U.S. delegation being represented by Vice President Mike Pence. Rippon shot back, “You mean Mike Pence, the same Mike Pence that funded gay conversion therapy? I’m not buying it.”

The result was a media frenzy that followed Rippon halfway around the world to the Winter Games in Pyongyang, South Korea. Throughout the subsequent conversation, he remained quick-witted and poised, never retreating, but never letting Pence prevent the skater from putting his A Game before the judges.

Rippon also befriended another out American athlete at the Games, Gus Kenworthy. And together they went on to show a global television audience that gay athletes take a back seat to no one. “Gus and I are still good friends,” Rippon chirps. “I think we’ll always be close because of our Olympic experience. I also think the moment of the Games that stands out for me most was when I went to compete in my first event. I remember never being more nervous and more ready in my life.”

Adam Rippon with Gus Kenworthy

(Adam Rippon with Gus Kenworthy; credit Ashley Osborn)

By the time that Rippon arrived in the Olympic Village, he was ready to overcome any adversity — real or imagined — to deliver a career-defining performance. “It could have been the Vice President; it could have been anybody. It could have been anything and I would have been able to skate a clean program. I remember thinking that before the Games and before I ever said anything about Mike Pence; that if the lights go off, if there’s a fire burning in the arena when I’m competing, I will finish.”

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The Red Carpet

In the end, Rippon brought home a bronze medal as part of the figure skating team event. Nevertheless, he interpreted his experience there as a different kind of victory. He’s satisfied that competing as an out athlete, particularly in the current political climate, sent a message.

“Where we are right now is a really pivotal moment,” says Rippon. “There have been so many really awful things to come from the Trump administration. You look around at what’s happening in the news currently today or a few days ago. And I think what this moment in time has done is, it’s really inspired a lot of people to speak out. Even watching Megan Rapinoe at the World Cup, it’s really inspiring like when people have these platforms for them to use it.”

And, if there was any doubt that 2018 was Rippon’s year, he made a splash after his return to America at the Academy Awards rocking a Moschino harness tuxedo. He followed suit with a guest appearance on Will & Grace, and then glided to victory on Dancing With the Stars side-by-side with professional dancer Jenna Johnson.

Now he says, “that part of my life is over. There were so many things that I learned about myself that I wanted to share, so it felt like a good time to write this book. Maybe I’ll have collections of memoirs when I’m like, older, and this is the first installment.”

Booking It

Sifting through rocky times as well as personal victories presented challenges of their own,  he’ll say now. “It can be really emotional, because you go back to the moments of where you didn’t feel so great about yourself or when you didn’t really like yourself much. So it was really a process to go through, but it was something that I’m glad I did.”

What did all that self-examination yield? “For a really long time, especially as an athlete, you hear people talk about ‘enjoying the journey,’ and the journey is like what everything is all about,” Rippon says. “They’ll say, ‘Don’t forget to enjoy where you are right now in the process’. And as an athlete, you’re like, ‘Please shut the fuck up and never talk to me about ‘the journey’ ever again.’

“But then you get into the thick of it and realize that those moments are a celebration of all those things that you went through on the journey — what you learned about yourself, those ups and downs, the chaotic nature of your life is the journey,” Rippon reflects And when you celebrate those and learn not to push them away? That’s really what it’s all about.”        

*Excerpted from the book BEAUTIFUL ON THE OUTSIDE: A MEMOIR by Adam Rippon. Copyright © 2019 by Adam Rippon. Reprinted with permission of Grand Central Publishing. All rights reserved. 

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Last modified: September 17, 2019