Adam Rippon is just 27, but he speaks with a level of wisdom and insight far beyond his years.
Perhaps it’s innate, or perhaps it’s the result of denying one’s true self only to come out on the other side embracing the person once kept hidden. No matter how or why, Rippon now movingly and enthusiastically shares his journey to becoming an openly gay man and athlete, hoping that his story will help others.
“Being gay isn’t what defines me, but it’s a big part of who I am and I like to talk about my coming out because that’s when I started to own who I was as a person,” said Rippon, who spoke to TeamUSA.org on the topic in honor of June’s LGBTQ Pride Month. “That’s what’s important, not the being gay part but at some point — gay or straight — you need to own who you are. You can’t be afraid of who you are or else you’re afraid of your own potential, and if you don’t own who you are then you can’t grow.
“When I came out was when I was able to breathe. When everyone knew, I didn’t feel like I was hiding anything. I didn’t feel like I was putting on a show. I was being me and it was easy. It was a lot easier to be me than to be who I thought I was supposed to be.”
For years, Rippon didn’t want to believe that he was gay. He was male, and he was a figure skater, so people sometimes assumed he was gay, but the fact that it was assumed made him want to deny it even more.
“A lot of times it’s taboo, especially with boys, like, ‘You skate, you’re gay,’” he said. “That’s not always the case, but that being said, you feel a little shame. Being gay and a skater, you don’t want it to be true.”
The truth was often easy to ignore because of his schedule. For athletes competing at such a high level, there’s not much time for a social life. Parties and dating and hanging out take a backseat to training and practice and competition, so Rippon wasn’t often forced to confront what he was feeling.
That all changed with one event.
“For as many years as I was like, ‘No, I’m not gay,’” he said. “The first time I kissed a boy, I’m like, ‘I definitely am gay.’”
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Rippon came out to his friends and family in his early 20s and was met with so much support that coming out to the world at large in October 2015 felt comfortable. He revealed his sexuality in public for the first time in a story for SKATING magazine that featured him and best friend and training partner Ashley Wagner. The reaction was overwhelmingly positive. The few rude or negative comments, he said, were flushed away by all the people offering encouragement and love.
The fact that so many people still liked him and wanted to be around him after he came out gave him confidence that spilled over into his career as a skater. If people still liked him knowing who he truly was, he reasoned, then they might like his ideas as well. He found the courage to take risks he wouldn’t have dreamed of before, and the evidence showed up in everything from his choices of hair color and musical selections to where he wanted to compete.
“I went out and I felt like I was performing as myself and not a character,” he said. “That’s really what helped push me to win my first national title.”
Rippon won the U.S. championships title in 2016, skating to “Who Wants to Live Forever” by Queen for his short program and a Beatles medley for his free skate. He was unable to defend his title this year, however, after breaking his foot during training not long before nationals.
He is now healed enough that he’s back to training at nearly 100 percent, though he watches out for repetition of certain elements that might stress his foot too much. Even with that stipulation, he doesn’t feel as if he’s being held back in his preparation for what will be his most important season yet.
“There’s so much to practice all the time that I can always find something to work on and improve,” said Rippon, who hopes to make the 2018 Olympic team.
If he does, he will add his name to the list of openly gay Olympic athletes that is steadily growing. Outsports magazine estimated that at least 47 publicly gay athletes competed in Rio in 2016, the most ever for an Olympic Games. Last summer also saw the first-ever same-sex married couple compete in the Olympics (British field hockey players Helen and Kate Richardson-Walsh) and the first Olympics to accept transgender athletes, although none competed. And after Russia passed anti-gay legislation prior to hosting the Games in 2014, the International Olympic Committee added language to its host city contracts prohibiting discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation.
Rippon hopes that one day an athlete coming out won’t be a story, but until that happens he willingly shares his own. Reading about celebrities and athletes coming out helped his own situation feel more normal, he said, and gave him the courage to do the same. Whenever someone tells him that his story was an inspiration, it brings everything full circle and reinforces the responsibility he happily accepts to support and encourage others in their journeys.
“(Pride) is a moment of celebration to see how far we have come, but it’s also a reminder that we have so much farther to go,” Rippon said. “I think as we get older we owe it to the people who look up to us to stand up for them and say something to make the path easier. We owe it to ourselves and the people around us to continue to pave that road forward.”
Karen Price is a reporter from Pittsburgh who has covered Olympic sports for various publications. She is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.