Team USA hero Adam Rippon embraces role of a lifetime

Tony Paul
The Detroit News
American figure skater Adam Rippon, who won a bronze medal as part of the figure skating team event at the 2018 Winter Olympics, performs for the crowd during "Stars On Ice" on Saturday at Little Caesars Arena.

Detroit — Adam Rippon is running late for this interview. His "Stars on Ice" flight from Pittsburgh to Detroit was delayed so long, the company scrambled to hastily book a charter bus, which got the cast to Little Caesars Arena around 4:30 p.m. Saturday, just three hours before the show.

Most of the skaters  mostly Olympic heroes, past and present  were able to run through warmups, but Rippon has other obligations, as he bounces, bleary-eyed, back and forth between his "Stars on Ice" schedule and his obligations as a cast member for the latest season of ABC's "Dancing with the Stars."

"I'm a tragic mess today," Rippon says after skating across the Little Caesars Arena ice to apologize for the delay  and then, bashfully, asks if he can put off the chat just a little bit longer so he can film an upcoming segment for "Nightline" alongside his new BFF, fellow Olympic star Gus Kenworthy.

This is Rippon's world these days. Hectic as ever, but exhilarating all the same.

Rippon came out as gay in 2015, when he was a known name in the figure-skating community, but not much beyond that. Today, he's a national phenomenon and an Olympic hero, having helped the United States team earn a bronze medal in February in Pyeongchang, South Korea.

And, all of a sudden, he's found himself a role model to thousands, if not more.

"When I came out, I hoped that one day I would be a role model," Rippon says, sitting rinkside at LCA, less than two hours before Saturday night's show. "I'm the oldest of six kids in my family, so I am sort of like an older brother  not sort of, I literally am.

"I really like being an older brother and I like sticking up for people, and the Olympics are an incredible platform where you can really speak up and speak your mind and have a lot of people listen.

"When I was at the Olympics, I took full advantage of that opportunity."

And since he's returned stateside, he's kept the ball rolling.

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'Give myself a chance'

Rippon, 28, isn't the first out athlete, but he's one of a small number to come out while they're still competing  and he made history in South Korea as the first openly gay United States Olympian to medal at the Winter Games. His good friend, Kenworthy, won silver in 2014 in Sochi, Russia, before the freestyle skier came out in 2015.

What makes Rippon stand out  besides the obvious accomplishments  is his give-no-bleep attitude. He swears. He can be off-color. He isn't shy about his past Tinder travails. He wears a harness to the stuffy Oscars. He's confident as, well, in his words, bleep.

Truth is, he wasn't always that way. Before he came out, he was down, and contemplated telling skating  a grueling sport that requires exhaustive training and a strict diet that denies him his beloved burgers and pizza, all day, every day, for, in most cases, years  to shove it.

"I think I got that confidence from, basically, building my way up from the ground up," he says. "I think for a long time, I didn't trust myself, and I finally got to this rock-bottom place where I needed to trust myself or just not continue. And I finally said, 'OK, I'll give myself a chance,' and just by giving myself a chance, I really, like, opened up my whole world."

And part of that process including coming out.

The reaction, so often, to coming-out stories  at least if you read the story comments (PSA: don't ever read the story comments)  is, "Who cares?"

That's cool, Rippon says.

"When people say, 'Who cares,' or, 'What does it matter, I think that's great,'" he says. "It shouldn't matter, and nobody should care.

"But there are a lot of people who do care and it bothers them, and I think that's why it's important to share your stories. As a young kid just hearing about somebody that might be like you or come from the same place that you came from, or you relate to on some level, can give a young kid a lot of confidence or strength that they didn't know they had by just having that little bit of a role model."

After making his way to rinkside to lace up his skates Saturday, a kid from the warmup crowd screams, "I love you, Adam!" He turns, waves and says the feeling is mutual. As he makes his way onto the ice, a group of young figure skaters is getting some face-time from another member of the cast. Rippon sees one girl, in red sequins, struggling with her laces. He stops to chat, then skates off  and as he does, the girl, all of 13 or 14, says to nobody in particular, "He said, 'How's it going!?!'" and fans herself.

He's a hit, with gestures small and big.

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Source of inspiration

Rippon counts many role models among those who impacted him growing up in smalltown Pennsylvania, but none more than his mother, Kelly, who raised six children as a single parent.  She made sure a young Adam had what he needed to pursue his passion, even though figure skating isn't cheap.

Michelle, a two-time Olympic medalist, also was a role model, and remains one today.

Being a role model to so many, well, that hits Adam, and hits him hard  especially the heart-tugging interactions he's had, especially since he burst onto the international stage in South Korea.

"What's been crazy, I wasn't expecting so many people to share their stories of still struggling to be themselves," says Rippon, whose career arc included a 15-month stint, from June 2011 through September 2012, living and training in Metro Detroit. "I don't think I was expecting the response from so many young kids and people my age and older than me, to tell me what it meant to them to have somebody go to the Olympics and really be themselves."

Rippon hopes he can inspire others to be themselves, on their own time frame.

It paid off big-time for him, as the best years of his figure-skating career followed his coming-out  and he insist that's no coincidence.

Now, he's a media darling, having just been named to the TIME 100: Most Influential People of 2018  which he calls his first, "Holy-bleep" moment after the Olympics. "Stars on Ice" runs through May 20, including a Friday night stop at Van Andel Arena in Grand Rapids. "Dancing with the Stars" premieres Monday at 8 p.m., and he's open to other TV opportunities ("Whatever pays the most," he says). Beyond that, who knows. TV commentating seems like a fit. Public speaking is right up his alley. He's also taken a liking to mixing it up in politics.

His Olympics days are done, though. He has zero plans of skating in Beijing in 2022. And it's not an age issue.

"Baby, it's over. I'm done," Rippon says, with a trademark head tilt and smirk.

"I did everything I wanted to do at the Olympics Games."

There's much more to do, of course  and odds are, the impact will be far longer-lasting than his out-and-proud podium moment.