On a sunny Saturday morning at his home training rink just outside Los Angeles, Adam Rippon laces up his skates for the first time since the Olympics in South Korea and lands a simple jump to applause from the parents waiting for their kids’ hockey scrimmage. A teenage girl stops to watch him talk to a video crew, silently crying and flapping her hands in excitement on the other side of the glass. At lunch he’s interrupted for a selfie, and once he starts engaging a flurry of other requests follow. It’s suddenly not clear whether he can go into Starbucks undefended.
In January, Rippon became the first openly gay athlete to make a U.S. Winter Olympic team; at PyeongChang in February, his perfect, clean skate to Coldplay’s “O” helped the American figure skating team take bronze, making him the first openly gay U.S. athlete to win a Winter Olympics medal. Being out is still a rarity for an active athlete, even in a sequined sport. But Rippon was something else: out, loud, proud and endlessly funny.
“I’m a glamazon bitch ready for the runway,” he told haters on Twitter. And in the kind of post-skate interview where most Olympic athletes mouth platitudes, Rippon joked about his nerves: “I want to throw up, I want to go over to the judges and say, ‘Can I just have a Xanax and a quick drink?’”
The nerves were in part from the pressure of having to prove that he was as good a skater as he was a shit-talker, after he took issue with Vice President Pence leading the U.S. delegation to the Olympics opening ceremony. (“You mean Mike Pence, the same Mike Pence that funded gay conversion therapy?” he told USA Today. “I’m not buying it.”) “I needed to backup everything that I had said, and I knew the world would be watching,” he says, gleefully plowing his way through a cheeseburger and onion rings he’s ordered with only the most token of protests. “It was incredibly important that I wasn’t good, but that I was perfect. It was a moment that I had been waiting for my entire life.”
It was also a moment he knew he wouldn’t have again. Rippon was 10 years older than his training partner, Nathan Chen; at 28, he’d reached retirement age for most skaters. He’d failed to make the Olympics twice before, then mounted a series of unlikely comebacks. After coming out casually mid-way through a 2015 Skating magazine profile, he won his first U.S. national championship in January 2016. (For the record, he rates himself a 4.5 on the Kinsey scale, and growing up he dated girls who assumed he was just too good a person to try to sleep with them. “I wasn’t grossed out, and I think that was what was so confusing for me,” he says. “Then the first time I ever had sex with a boy I was like, ‘Oh no, I’m not a good person. I’m actually exactly who I thought I was.’”)
His post-Olympics charm offensive has seen him make Ellen DeGeneres laugh, Stephen Colbert swoon and Reese Witherspoon quote back his own tweets to him. He’s shameless about his own celebrity crushes – Shawn Mendes, Harry Styles – and graceful at being on the receiving end, like when Sally Field tried to fix him up with her son. This spring he’ll tour with Stars on Ice, and he’s weighing a Dancing With the Stars slot – though he’s already declared his readiness to serve as a judge on RuPaul’s Drag Race. He recognizes the platform that media attention has given him, and uses it both push buttons and make statements. It’s no accident he wore a leather harness under his tux jacket to strut down the red carpet at the Oscars – forcing both nervous allies and haters alike into considering what, exactly, he does in bed with other men – and then donned an understated suit, no tie, to accept an award from the Human Rights Campaign.
“I have a passion for politics,” he says. “A lot of it is strategy, and it’s competitive, and as somebody who’s in performance and is an entertainer, I look at it and see that it’s a show. It’s drama.” He listens to NPR at the gym, watches CNN and MSNBC regularly and spends the occasional afternoon curled up with Fox News. “I don’t want to be that person that doesn’t know what everyone’s thinking,” he says.
Since 13, he’s spent his life in training, facing down challenges. Competition is over for him, though not the challenges. “Right now,” he says, “the hardest thing is to not make short-sighted decisions.” He pauses dramatically. “But, like…this onion ring is a short-sighted decision.”
Taking on political bullies, though, is not a decision he regrets. “As an athlete, you’re threatened that if you do anything to bring shame to your country, you’ll be kicked off the team and you won’t be allowed back at an international event. I see somebody like Donald Trump taunting immigrants, taunting a handicapped reporter, the things that he’s said about women—and I’m like, if he were me, he’d be kicked off the team, and I’d never hear from him again.”
If there’s one thing Adam Rippon knows how to do, it’s keep a dream alive.