Adam Rippon became a household name overnight as he prepared for and competed in the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang. He left not only as a bronze medalist, but also as the first openly gay man to make a U.S. Winter Olympic team, and the first to win a medal at the Winter Games.
Since coming out, the fact that he’s gay seems to accompany his name in virtually every story written about him. He hopes that one day he and other “gay Olympians” will just be referred to as “Olympians,” like all the other athletes around them. But that jumps ahead to a day when that group is larger. For now, he’s the first and one of only two openly gay men to represent the U.S. at the Winter Olympics, along with skier Gus Kenworthy.
So while Rippon looks forward to a future in which an athlete’s sexual orientation isn’t constantly referenced, he realizes the significance of what he’s done and speaks passionately about the good he wishes will come out of it.
“What I think it does is it’s going to empower a lot of kids to embrace who they are,” he says, speaking to a group of reporters on the phone. And “when you are who you are, you almost gain this superpower where you know you can do anything.”
He’s quick to acknowledge those in the past who’ve helped pave the way, and believes that in some ways “being the first is just the luck of the draw,” he says. “There’ve obviously been other gay athletes before. But I don’t think they’ve ever been comfortable to come out and compete at the same time,” he adds. “Those other athletes who’ve come out after gave everybody the confidence to be successful and be who you are,” but it’s also important for the public to see an athlete who’s out while still competing.
Rippon’s the oldest in a family of six children from Scranton, PA. He started skating at age 10 and went on to win the Junior Grand Prix Final in 2007 and the World Junior Championships in 2008 and 2009. He didn’t make it onto the US team for the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver—though he was chosen as the alternate—and missed his chance to go to the next games in Sochi after a poor performance led to an eighth place finish at the 2014 national championships.
He almost quit skating but came back to win that same competition two years later. He broke his foot in 2017, and very nearly missed his last chance with a fall at the 2018 championships. By the time the Pyeongchang games came around, Rippon was the oldest American figure skater to make an Olympic debut since 1936.
Growing up, it was hard to ignore the stereotypes and assumptions people made about male skaters. At the same time, Rippon told The New York Times that being gay in the sport felt like a taboo. “When I was younger I tried to be everything but gay,” he said. “Everyone calls you gay when you’re young: ‘Oh you skate, you’re gay.’ You’re like, ‘No I’m not!’ But inside you’re like, yes you are, you’re very gay.”
He came out in 2015 in a way that reflects his hopes for the future: quietly and casually. He spoke about it briefly in the middle of a long interview with SKATING magazine, which featured him and his best friend, fellow skater Ashley Wagner, on the cover of its October issue.
“When athletes come out and say that they’re gay, it makes it a little more normal and less of a big deal—especially in the athletic community,” he told the magazine. “Being gay is not something that defines me. What defines me is what my mom always taught me: to treat everyone with respect, to always be a hard worker and to be kind.”
The interview didn’t start or end there; they touched on it and moved on. Still, he says, “it’s incredible, I can’t even tell you what a big difference it was for me pre-coming out and post-coming out.” He gained the confidence to make the artistic choices he wanted and be his full self on and off the ice.
It was his continued honesty and outspokenness, along with his personality and humor, that turned him from a relative unknown into an icon ahead of his first and last Olympic appearance.
Since returning to the states, he’s been interviewed by a slew of publications, appeared on The Ellen DeGeneres Show, attended the Oscars, co-hosted the Trevor Project gala, received the Human Rights Campaign’s Visibility Award, been honored at the National Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce’s Best of the Best gala, supported the GLAAD Campus Ambassadors Program with an online fundraiser, been named to the TIME 100 List of Most Influential People and posed for ESPN’s Body Issue.
His experience and the platform he’s recently gained make him want to pay it forward. “Sometimes it can be scary to be the first,” he says, and that’s true whether it’s a national first or a family first. For Rippon it was scary to be the first openly gay American athlete heading to the Winter Olympics, but it was scarier to be the first in his family to go to the games.
“What I want to do next is empower other people who want to be the first to do other things,” Rippon says. There are “so many people who gave me a voice. I want to be able to do the same for others.”