IN CONVERSATION WITH ADAM RIPPON
Interview by Jana Letonja
Figure skater Adam Rippon won the hearts of America and the world at the 2018 Winter Olympics with his dramatic flair on the ice and his refreshing candor and wit both on and off the ice. His rise to fame on the global stage provided him a platform to speak out in support of LGBTQ+ rights and the freedom to be oneself.
Currently, he can be heard on podcasts ‘Normalize This’, a weekly lifestyle and culture podcast produced by LeBron James’ Springhill company which he hosts with Danielle Young, and ‘The Runthrough’, a podcast he hosts with longtime friend and fellow Olympian, Ashley Wagner, where they cover all the competitions, news and drama of the figure skating season in their signature fun and lighthearted style. Recently he also appeared on FOX’s prime time ‘Stars on Mars’, where he competed with 12 other ‘celebranauts’ to become the brightest star in the galaxy, and won.
Adam, you began figure skating when you were 10 years old. What drew you to this sport? How hard were your trainings?
I played a little bit of all sports when I was growing up and I really liked being active, but I didn’t really connect to any of these other sports that I tried. And they were all team sports. When I was in school, I remember that somebody in my class had a birthday party at the rink and I could see the skaters on this public session. I could see them in the middle doing spins and I remember thinking that is the coolest thing I’ve ever seen in my whole life. From then, it was the only thing I could think about and I kept asking my mom if I could go back to the rink. There was just something about it that I thought was so beautiful and so cool. And I knew it was something that my whole family was always excited to watch when the Olympics would come around.
I was really annoying, so finally my parents kind of gave in a little bit and they kept bringing me back to the rink. It was the first time I had done an individual sport and I could focus on myself. I really liked that my success was all in my own hands, that if I worked really hard, I could do really well.
How hard is it actually to step on oce and do all these ice skating figures and stunts?
When you first get started, it feels like it’s impossible and like it’s never going to happen. I think the best athletes in whatever sport, they make it look easy, but it takes years and years of practice. Looking back, it was just so normal for me to say I started really late. I was 10, which is still incredibly young, but in these sports, getting started at 10 is a late start. I really believe in that 10.000 hour rule where it takes you 10.000 hours to become excellent at something and I kind of believe that that’s why I had more success later in my career, because I started a little bit later.
Watching figure skating is completely mesmerizing. What does it mean in your life? How would you describe your feelings when skating?
Skating for me, it’s this thing where I can always go out on the ice and I always feel at home. No matter where I’ve ever lived or wherever I’ve traveled to, you can usually find a rink somewhere and no matter what, I always feel like I can belong there. I feel like no matter where I am, I can always make friends and create a community around myself. And I think that’s my favorite part about skating, especially now being outside of the competitive part about it.
Like you said, it is mesmerizing and when you do it every day and you’re competing, you don’t really realize how magical it is. Now that I don’t do it every day and I watch it with different friends of mine, I really appreciate how beautiful and magical it is. And I also really appreciate all the friends that I have from it. Some of the best friends I have, I’ve known for like 20 years and they’re all from skating. It’s just this community that can really bring people together, the shared interest, and I think that’s what it really does mean to me.
At 28, you were named to the 2018 Olympic Team, where you became the first openly gay athlete to win a medal for the US at Winter Olympics. What did this special accomplishment mean to you and what does it still mean?
In the moment, while it’s happening, you’re so not focused on the greater impact of what it might mean. I had been out for two or three years at that point already, so that wasn’t something that felt new to me. Obviously with the Olympics, it just brings so much more attention and there’s so many more people watching and are involved in what’s happening, so the gravity of it is so much larger. But when you’re competing at the Olympics, you’re still competing against all the same people that you’ve competed with for your entire life, all of the judges are the same judges that are at all of your other competitions, all the coaches are still the same coaches that have coached you and your competitors, so everything feels familiar. And a lot of times you’re competing in an arena that you’ve already been to,so there is a sense of familiarity to it. There’s only these little things that are different.
The other thing when you’re at the Olympics, they have these giant arenas that you compete in and, at least for figure skating, one half of the arena looks almost empty because where maybe four or five seats would be, there’s a desk and that’s where all of the media is. One half of the arena feels empty even though it’s completely full, so it’s very odd. The Olympics are so interesting in that way that there’s so much international attention, but when you’re in the middle of it, you don’t really feel that. In the years since I’ve started to put into perspective what I’ve been able to accomplish at the Olympics with my team, I have a greater appreciation for it. And I also have this greater awareness that being an Olympic athlete is so crazy. I would never recommend it to anybody, but I am so grateful that I did it and it did absolutely seem less crazy when I was doing it.
photography MATT MONATH
You made the decision to come out publicly in 2015, before winning the 2016 US National Championship. Why did you decide to come out at exactly at that time and how hard was it to come out as a professional athlete?
I came out privately when I was 22 and this was maybe two or three years later when I was trying to qualify for the Olympics in 2014. About a few months before the Olympics, Russia came out with this anti-gay propaganda law and I remember that I felt very weird about it, to feel like just because of who I am I could get arrested. Also the US Olympic Committee came out with a big email they sent to everybody who potentially could be on the Olympic team, that theysupport all of their athletes and they’ll stand behind them if they ever want to say anything about this, but when we’re in Russia, they can’t control what a Russian government might do. It felt very scary and I ended up not qualifying for that team.
I remember thinking that it felt really important to me to say that I’m an out athlete. And after I didn’t qualify for that team, it also kind of felt like I’m already on the older side in my sport at 24. If I was going to try to make an Olympic team, I needed to only do it because I wanted to do it because to think that you would make a team for the first time at 28 is not very realistic. And so I remember thinking that if I’m going to skate for these next four years, what are things that I wish I could fix. One of the most important things to me was that if I could go back, I would be an out athlete before trying to qualify for the 2014 games.
The decision making was super easy at that point, once I had kind of made up my mind. And it was 2015, so different than it is even now, which is amazing. I had started seeing more coming out videos on YouTube and I had seen more things around and on the internet, and it felt like it was the right time. I felt really inspired by those people that I had seen on YouTube. This was something that I really wanted to do and it was really important to me. I remember I called US figure skating because they were going to do an interview with me anyway and I said I wanted to talk about this in the interview. Everybody was very supportive and that made me feel so important and it made me feel so happy. I felt very supported in this decision to talk about who I was and I’m very lucky for that.
You’ve been honored with the Human Rights Campaign’s Visibility Award for your work and advocacy withinthe LGBTQ+ community. Why is advocacy for the LGBTQ+ community so important not only to you personally, but in the whole society in general?
It’s so important because I think that visibility really can make other people feel less alone and that’s exactly why I felt less alone. I’m from a really small town in Pennsylvania and growing up I really believed that I’m never going to tell anyone I’m gay, which is crazy. I didn’t see anybody like me, I felt very isolated and I felt very alone. I always had friends, but I didn’t have gay friends, I didn’t have people in a community. Honestly, the only interaction I ever had with a gay person was watching ‘Will & Grace’ on TV. And it really wasn’t until I started seeing these coming out videos on YouTube where I started to feel this is exactly what I’m feeling and these are the same fears that I have.
I know what visibility meant to me and how it changed my perspective, and that’s so important because I know that there’s so many people out there who might feel isolated or alone. All it takes is for a few people to share their stories where you start to feel connected. And I think the greater scale of not only connecting with these people who might see a little bit of themselves in these different people or who might be scared of gay people, of trans people, of people in the LGBTQ community, is getting to put a real face to and meeting these people, which makes it become less scary. And I think the more visibility there is, the more normal it becomes.
How challenging has it been since you retired from figure skating and how have you succeeded since then until now?
Even while I was at the Olympics, I was so lucky and grateful to have a lot of different opportunities in the entertainment industry. I’ve always loved entertaining people and I think for a really long time I used my skating to entertain people. I’ve always loved making people laugh and joking around and entertaining people. I’ve always felt the most comfortable doing stuff like that. And at the Olympics, I had a lot of these opportunities come up where I could do more of that.
I’ve watched those documentaries, like where Michael Phelps talks about the depression he had after retiring and I was like “I don’t think that’s going to happen to me because I’m busy right away”. I couldn’t have been more wrong, but it didn’t hit me until later. I think that as an athlete, you really don’t realize how unreal your world is. I was living a really regimented life, but I didn’t realize as much freedom as I felt like I had, how little freedom I actually had. And when I retired, that was truly freedom. I didn’t need to be accountable for a schedule, I didn’t need to be in the gym for four hours a day, I didn’t need to be at a rink for another four hours a day. All of a sudden, I had all of this free time. My whole life, getting to the Olympics was the main big thing. And then aI was questioning what’s the next big thing. I was really lucky that I kept working, but personally I felt very lost.
In entertainment, you can be like “I want to put together this kind of show” and you’ll start working on it and it can turn into something totally different, even better than you thought. As an athlete, your tunnel vision is so narrow, there’s no other options. There’s one goal, there’s only one road to take to that goal and if it turned into something different, that means it probably didn’t work out. In entertainment, you can make anything you want, it’s art. I think that that was the hardest thing that I needed to grow from in retiring. I enjoy it now and I found more of a balance because being an athlete and being active is a huge part of my life, it always has been.
When I retired, I was like “I don’t ever want to see the inside of a gym ever again”. So I didn’t go to the gym for like two years and I felt like not myself at all. I was trying to find a balance in a new career and I just didn’t feel good, I did not feel like myself. It was in the last few years, probably more so in the last two years, that I felt like I’ve had my feet on the ground again. It was a really long process. In entertainment, you could work on something every day for a monthand then you could do nothing for five months. And that’s not at all how it would work as an athlete. You have to work every single day. There’s no days that you can take off, so it’s also finding that calmness in the inconsistency and in that schedule. The beautiful thing is that all of those tools I learned from sports, I can bring with me into anything that I do. It’s just doing them in a different way.
At the moment, we can listen to you on two podcasts, ‘Normalize This‘ and ‘The Runthrough‘. Can you share with us a bit more about what the listeners can expect from the upcoming episodes?
‘Normalize This’ I do with an amazing co-host. Her name is Danielle Young. It’s a lifestyle podcast and we talk about different things in our lives and in pop culture. And we talk about whether we should normalize them or not. We have talked about so many different really challenging topics, but Danielle’s very funny and I like to joke around a lot, so we can bring a lighthearted touch to it. We just have a lot of fun with it, so I really love putting that podcast together.
And then ‘The Runthrough’, we started doing it with a friend of mine as an excuse to stay in touch. She was a girl thatI trained with in figure skating. I stayed in California and she moved out to Boston, so we don’t see each other very often. We used to see each other every day, she was one of my best friends growing up, so we needed to do something where we have to talk once a week or once every other week so we don’t fall out of touch. And so we made this podcast together and we talk about skating and things that are going on in the skating world and all the competitions and stuff. The competition season is about to get started in figure skating and we’ve been having a lot of fun gearing up for that.
You have also appeared on FOX’s series ‘Stars on Mars’, which you’ve won. How was this experience for you? What was the most memorable moment from this experience?
‘Stars on Mars’ was a lot like ‘Big Brother’ meets ‘Survivor’, so it was very wild. But the thing that I enjoyed the most were the people that I met. That was my favorite part. Winning was great, but it’s just so nice to meet new people and make new good friends who you stay in touch with. It’s a wild experience where you meet people and then all of a sudden you live with them in a place where you cannot leave for a month, so you get to know these people really well. Also, my other favorite part was meeting William Shatner. That was incredible, he’s like TV royalty.
In addition to your work in front of the camera and on stage, in 2019 you published a memoir ‘Beautiful on the Outside‘. What inspired you to write a memoir? As it received such rave reviews, have you though of writing another book in the future?
I would definitely love to write another book in the future. When I wrote this book, it honestly felt like therapy because it was in a time where I knew that one chapter of my life was ending. I could write this book and I could process everything that I had gone through up to that point. I worked with amazing people on it and the process of it really did help me in this time where I felt very lost and everything felt very new. Writing the book was something that helped me feel very grounded. It was a beautiful way to have different conversations with myself and to really go back and visit those other, painful or bad situations that I had found myself in and to realize how much I had grown from them or how much I had learned from those situations. I am so grateful that was an outlet I had to be able to process this time in my life where everything was changing.
Adam, what can you share about your upcoming ventures? What are your ultimate goals for the future?
I’m an athlete through and through, so I obviously love trophies and awards, which is still so crazy. I’d love to win an Emmy in the next few years. In what? That’s an amazing question that I don’t even know the answer to. I’ve kept an open mind to the possibilities of whatever comes. I’ll take advantage of it, like ‘Stars on Mars’. I never thought I’d host my own podcast and I’m doing two of them. So, I keep an open mind and hope that open mind leads me to more opportunities where I get to entertain people and I can make people laugh and I can also enjoy what I’m doing.