NEW YORK -- Great acclaim came a bit late to Adam Rippon, and he’s grateful for it.
The still-youthful Rippon, now 28, had early success, winning world junior crowns in 2008 and 2009. But when he won his U.S. men’s figure skating title in 2016, it was on his eighth try. And when he qualified for the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018, he was the oldest U.S. Olympic singles skating rookie since 1936.
On Friday, when New York City Speaker Corey Johnson celebrated LGBTQ Pride Month by presenting the openly gay Olympian with a proclamation recognizing both his athletic accomplishments and LGBTQ advocacy, Rippon spoke of how his competitive ups-and-downs helped him maximize his experience in PyeongChang and the platform it offered.
“I am so grateful I didn’t make the team twice before, because it prepared me for that moment when I had the chance to introduce myself to the world,” Rippon told scores of fans and city officials, as well as members of LGBTQ advocacy groups including GLAAD, GMHC, the Trevor Project and others.
Standing on the steps of New York City Hall, Rippon added, “I knew who I was and I knew what I was representing. And as an athlete, if you can represent yourself to the best of your ability, that’s representing your country to the best of your ability.”
In PyeongChang, Rippon’s technically clean and emotionally stirring outing of his tender and wistful free skate to a medley featuring Coldplay’s “O (Fly On)” and “Arrival of the Birds” helped secure a team bronze medal for the U.S. skaters. He went on to produce two clean performances in the individual men’s event, relying on his maturity and artistry, rather than quadruple jumps, to place a solid 10th.
Since then, he’s headlined a 22-city Stars on Ice U.S. tour, won the coveted mirror ball trophy in a special athletes-only edition of “Dancing with the Stars” and appeared on just about every talk show in the U.S., from NBC’s “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” to CBS’ “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” to Bravo’s “Watch What Happens Live.”
Rippon’s time in the spotlight as a gay athlete began with a low-key interview in the October, 2015 issue of SKATING magazine, U.S. Figure Skating’s member publication.
“It was important to me to come out in SKATING magazine, because I wanted to show how you can be an out athlete, and your federation would support you as long as you were skating well and working hard,” Rippon said, adding, “I wanted to explain how coming out in my personal life helped me as an athlete. Being gay is a small part of my story. It’s a large part of who I am, but on the spectrum of the things I’ve been able to do, it’s been small. That it meant a lot to so many people is amazing and a little bit unexpected.”
To help spread his philosophy, Rippon has launched a fundraising campaign for GLAAD’s LGBTQ youth programs, gaining $40,000 so far. Leah Juliett, a GLAAD campus ambassador from Western Connecticut State University, said the organization is active on more than 130 colleges and universities nationwide, with the goal of accelerating LGBTQ acceptance on campuses and in communities.
“The only Olympic sport I watch is figure skating, so it was incredibly cool to see an openly gay skater be proud as an athlete and as a person — that’s incredibly empowering,” Juliett said. “To have (Adam) stand on the national stage and represent not only our country, but the entire LBGTQ community as a whole, shows we can be successful and we can represent the U.S. in a positive and socially acceptable way.”
“I think back to being a young gay kid in a small town (Clarks Summit) in Pennsylvania, and I feel if I had had (a GLAAD ambassador) in my community, growing up would have been a lot different,” Rippon said. “I try to be that role model I wish I had, when I was younger.”
While Rippon’s on-ice abilities are unquestioned, his off-ice quips — at the Olympics, he reeled off joke after joke in the mixed zone and during press conferences — have cemented his celebrity.
“I've always sort of been unabashedly myself,” Rippon said in PyeongChang. “I've always spoken my mind and from the heart. You know what? I think America's just catching on."
Johnson, the New York City Speaker, counts himself among Rippon’s fans. The openly gay politician, who came out in 2000 as a high school football player in a small town in Massachusetts, said he was inspired by Rippon’s Olympic performances.
“It extends far beyond the LGBTQ community, living your best life, living with authenticity,” Johnson said. “(Adam has) captured the imagination and hearts of straight people and gay people, and shown us that with bravery, hard work and grace, we can all become the best of ourselves.”
There are a lot more opportunities coming Rippon’s way, most of which he can’t talk about yet. He would love to host “Saturday Night Live;” other projects are in the offing for later this summer and fall. Competitive figure skating is most likely off of the table, although he’s not ready to slam the door shut just yet.
“I’m going to be a huge cheerleader for all of my friends competing next year,” Rippon said. “My experience at the Olympics was so incredible, and I think everything I ever wanted it to be. The time is right for me to step aside from all of that. I’m not saying full retirement yet but probably will shortly. I want to think about it, I haven’t even seen (coach) Rafael (Arutunian) but maybe once or twice. I have a lot to think about and it’s all incredible and all awesome.”