Adam Rippon performs during the men's short program on day three of the 2015 ISU World Figure Skating Championships at Shanghai Oriental Sports Center on March 27, 2015 in Shanghai, China.
When he is fully awake, Adam Rippon knows he won his first senior U.S. men’s title at the 2016 U.S. Figure Skating Championships last month in Saint Paul, Minnesota. But when he’s still half asleep, he’s not always quite sure.
“I have a little PTSD hangover from nationals,” Rippon said before a performance at New York City’s Bryant Park last week. “I’ll panic, and then I’ll wake up and think, ‘Oh, it didn’t happen.’ And it did happen.”
“It feels surreal, but I think that’s good, because it keeps me hungry within my training,” he added. “I’ll celebrate in the offseason.”
Saint Paul was the 26-year-old Rippon’s eighth trip as a senior to the U.S. championships. As a youngster, success came quickly to him: The 2008 U.S. junior title was followed by world junior crowns in 2008 and 2009.
It took more time for Rippon to find his footing as a senior. Coaching changes, with accompanying tweaks in jump technique, sometimes caused inconsistency. After placing second in the United States in 2012, he faded to eighth in 2014 and missed qualifying for the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games. There were times he gave up hope of ever being U.S. champion.
“Every day, I was prepared not to win,” he said. “But ever since (2015) nationals, I realized the focus had to be my skating, not my results. My best comes when I don’t worry about winning. It’s about being satisfied with yourself, and the work you put in. I like to work hard, I like to have goals and I like to improve myself.”
Rippon has never adhered to a traditional figure skating timetable, which often has kids as young as 5 or 6 doing camel spins and waltz jumps. Growing up the eldest of six children in Scranton, Pennsylvania, he didn’t take to the ice in earnest until he received a gift of skates at age 10. Even then, he took group lessons at a hockey rink in nearby Pittstown; it wasn’t until he was 11 or 12 that he traveled to Philadelphia to take lessons from a figure skating coach.
“It’s so easy to look around at the top competitors and see Yuzuru Hanyu (age 21) and Javi Fernandez (age 24) and others,” Rippon said. “They are all younger than me. I’m not on their path. I didn’t land my first triple Axel (three-and-a-half revolution jump) until I was 18. I didn’t do a quad (four-revolution jump) in competition until I was 22.”
Quads were a big topic in Saint Paul. Sixteen-year-old Nathan Chen landed four in his free skate and two in his short program, more than any U.S. man in history. The teen placed third behind Rippon and Max Aaron, and was set to compete at the 2016 World Figure Skating Championships next month in Boston before injuring his left hip during Saint Paul’s post-event gala exhibition. (Chen underwent hip surgery on Jan. 28 and is expected to make a full recovery.)
Rippon and Chen, as well as three-time U.S. women’s champion Ashley Wagner, train in Artesia, California, under Rafael Arutunian, a former Soviet competitor who is renowned for his ability to hone skaters’ jumps. Rippon moved to California in September 2012, after stints training in New Jersey, Toronto and Detroit.
Many paint Rippon’s victory in Saint Paul as a triumph of artistry and performance over purely technical elements, but the skater himself takes issue with that view.
“I know there has been a lot of talk that I didn’t land a quad, and Nathan landed four of them,” Rippon said. “Being a technical skater is not just about jumps, and to be an artistic skater, you have to be incredibly technically proficient. You need to be powerful, so that the programs look effortless. You need to be incredibly trained, so you can carry the speed.
“I didn’t have as many quads, so I needed to spin faster, I needed to make sure my triple jumps were higher,” he continued. “That’s all part of technique as well.”
The blunt-talking Arutunian bristled when reporters in Saint Paul alluded to Rippon’s lack of a quad.
“He tried a quad, he didn’t land it,” the coach said. “He lands quads every day in practice. Of course, he will have quads at the world championships.”
Although Rippon removed the difficult quadruple Lutz jump from his short program at the U.S. championships, he tried it in his free skate to a Beatles medley. He fell on the move but has landed quads in the past and hopes to include one, or more, in his programs in Boston.
“I’ve had ratified (landed) quad toe loops before, and that’s something I would like to try,” he said. “I have these weeks before Boston and I feel like before, I’ve turned my skating around within that time period. I feel really lucky I can take my nationals form and build on it; I feel like I can make a large improvement before worlds.”
The desire to amp up his training prompted Rippon to withdraw from the 2016 Four Continents Figure Skating Championships, to be held in Taipei City on Feb. 16-21.
“Rafael thought I needed the time to rest,” Rippon said. “He knows how much I wanted to be national champion. He felt a lot of energy was put into that, and he really needed me to refocus and be at my best for the world championships in Boston.”
Rippon’s training partner and best friend, Wagner, will also sit out Four Continents. At age 24 she, too, is continually upping her technical ante; while Rippon perfects his quads, she works on nailing her triple-triple combinations, the better to compete with U.S. champion Gracie Gold, three-time world champion Mao Asada of Japan and a phalanx of Russian teenagers.
“It’s incredibly helpful to have that moral support of someone who is not competing with you but is on the same journey and has the same goals,” Rippon said of Wagner. “It lightens the load and keeps it lighter. You don’t feel so alone, which is great, because sometimes I’ve felt like I’m alone.”
Apart from hopes of a medal, Wagner and Rippon have similar goals in Boston: their performances will help determine how many skaters Team USA can send to the 2017 world championships in Helsinki, Finland. To maintain three spots, the top two U.S. men’s and women’s placements cannot total more than 13 per gender.
“I don’t feel any pressure because I am doing all the work to have great skates,” Rippon said. “And I know if I have great skates, a good placement will follow. That’s my only job, to skate my best in Boston.”
Whatever the outcome, Rippon thinks he’s on a roll. More U.S. championships, and a long-sought Olympic spot at 2018 PyeongChang Games, are on the horizon.
“I really feel like I’m coming into my stride now, and in the next few years I can be at my most dangerous,” he said. “I think age is just a number.”