GANGNEUNG, South Korea — He wound up sprawled out on his back, sprawled out on the ice, pumping his fists in equal parts satisfaction and exhaustion.
“It was a little chilly,” Adam Rippon, 28, said with a laugh after delivering a clean, crisp performance here in the men’s short program. “Everyone else in the competition is like 18. So I just need one minute to catch my breath. The rest of the kids will be fine. I just needed a second.”
Rippon isn’t going to medal here, he is in seventh place after the short program. That is neither a surprise nor the point. Rippon is old for the field and when he began as a competitive skater you could win the Olympics with two triple jumps.
“Now the name of the game is as many quads as possible and I don’t have any,” Rippon said.
Guys like Yuzuru Hanyu and Shoma Uno of Japan do. They performed a couple quads just in their short program. That’s why they finished first and third, respectively, on Friday. Fellow American Vincent Zhou, 17, skated very well and finished in 12th place. Nathan Chen, however, struggled, falling twice and abandoning the second half of a combination to wind up in a disappointing 17th place.
For Rippon, the quad is about old dogs and new tricks, so he’ll never score enough to medal. He’s fine with it. His performances are about fun and flash and flair, about entertaining and about proving something not just to himself, but to his growing legion of fans.
“I have definitely been getting a lot of attention over the last week and a half so I want to show all those people who showed me love, you know, they have their hands full,” Rippon said.
Rippon, along with freestyle skier Gus Kenworthy are the first Americans to compete at the Winter Olympics while openly gay. That distinction, along with Rippon’s inclination to speak his mind on nearly all subjects, has made him a lightning rod. Many love him. Others don’t. He’s scrapped with Vice President Mike Pence, Donald Trump Jr. and others.
He wanted to skate well here not so much to show up those who are against him, but show out for those who are for him. To make the world know he isn’t just a guy who talks a lot. His chief goal at these Olympics was to help the United States win a bronze in the team skate. He accomplished that earlier this week. Now it was his time.
“I wanted to show the world what I am made of,” Rippon said. “I wanted to show the world why I feel in love with skating. I wanted to share my story and it’s important to show that I put a lot of hard work into this and that’s how I got here.”
He was raised by a single mother, the oldest of six, in lower middle-class Scranton, Pennsylvania. In a sport that requires money and resources, he somehow bootstrapped his way to the top. He did so often feeling like an outsider, not just because of his sexuality, but his background.
Once he learned to embrace himself for being himself, to stop worrying what others thought or care about what he wasn’t, his skating improved. He’s the oldest first-time American Olympic skater since 1936, better than ever even if the sport has moved on from him.
So where others would see media furors and Twitter backlash as a distraction, Rippon just laughs.
“If you knew me you’d know I am hot mess and there is nothing more distracting than me,” Rippon said.
He doesn’t care about Pence or Trump or anything else. He figures that all just lives in his iPhone, which he can always turn off. Yes, there are people who don’t like him.
“I know, it’s so hard for me to believe, too,” he joked.
He calls himself America’s Sweetheart, the new Dorothy Hamill or something.
“I think haters are just fans in denial,” Rippon said.
As such, Friday went just about perfect for him. He wanted to connect with the audience and he did. He wanted to skate strong and he did. He wanted to give his fans something to cheer for and he did.
“I am so happy and proud,” Rippon said. “So far, I am 2-for-2.”
He said he had to ask Michael Terry of USA Skating if he had qualified for Saturday’s free skate. Terry told him he did.
“Tomorrow I will make it 3-for-3,” Rippon said.
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