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In his new whirlwind life, Adam Rippon keeps lessons from skating close

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NEW YORK – As Adam Rippon strolls into a conference room on the ninth floor of Rockefeller Plaza on Tuesday afternoon, the Olympian-turned-household name has a coy smile on his face.

“I’m back, everybody,” he said to the NBC team gathered, most of which was with him in PyeongChang in February. “Did you miss me?”

The opening line of course gets a laugh, but Rippon was never really gone, was he? Since February, his life has been a whirlwind of video shoots, photo ops, magazine interviews, TV filmings, sponsor obligations and much, much more.

Everywhere you look, there’s Adam Rippon.

“I’ve never worked this much in my life,” he told NBCSports.com.

But how much Rippon’s life has really changed in the past year is apparent: On this same week in 2017 he was on his way to the Grand Prix Final in Japan, and a few weeks later he’d qualify (albeit controversially) for the Olympic team at the U.S. Championships in San Jose, realizing a lifelong dream.

“It’s crazy to think about where I was a year ago,” Rippon said, clad in a black Givenchy shirt he’s donning for a holiday-themed NBC video he’s filming in the room. “I was in Lakewood, California, outside of the Long Beach airport, busting my balls every day on the ice. It feels surreal in a way, but one thing I’ve done to not lose focus on the bigger picture is not telling myself, ‘I can’t believe this is happening to me!’ and instead having a more a positive mantra of, ‘Of course I can.’ It can feel overwhelming and completely strange, but I think having a positive attitude about it makes it all worth it.”

Rippon spent the evening prior at opening night of the new Broadway show, The Cher Show, and – in true fashion of what his life has become – he was whisked backstage for a meeting with Cher herself once the curtain fell.

Rippon appeared earlier in the year on the TIME 100 list – an achievement he later says in our interview that is the most treasured of his career – and Cher penned the essay on him, writing, in part: Adam shows people that if you put blood, sweat and tears into what you’re doing, you can achieve something that’s special. You can be special. And I think that’s very brave. 

Rippon relayed the story of finally meeting Cher backstage, saying she told him, “For people like us” it was important to be different.

“People like us?” he said, breaking into a smile. “I’m an ‘us’ with Cher now? Cher?! OK.”

Rippon shrugs. He’s being sarcastic, a side of Adam we’ve all come to know well, but also he takes some joy in telling the tale.

That, of course, is part of his new life, but he’s never far from the old one he led for some 20 years, which reached a crescendo with his team bronze medal at the Winter Olympics in February. He was a national champion, too, in 2016, while also winning seven medals on the Grand Prix and placing 10th as an individual in PyeongChang. He finished as high as sixth at Worlds in 2010 and 2016.

“There was nothing more that I wanted to do within competitive figure skating,” Rippon said bluntly of his official retirement. “I have an Olympic medal. I’m a national champion. When I look back on my career, the one thing I can take away from it is that the whole point of sports is to push yourself to better who you are as an athlete and as a person every day. It took me a long time to realize that… and to realize that it wasn’t about winning or losing. It’s about putting yourself out there and put it all on the line and you can be OK with whatever that result is.”

The Olympics – or actually, Rippon’s entire Olympic season – was a microcosm of that. He went to South Korea knowing that he didn’t have a shot at an individual medal in the men’s event, but did everything in his power (including taking out a quadruple Lutz from his free skate) to be selected for the team event and then – with the spotlight shone brightly on him – he delivered.

Both on and off the ice.

Rippon got to do what every professional athlete dreams about, but few of them actually get to realize: Go out at the top of their game.

By the end of February, the 28-year-old had an Olympic medal in his hand and was arguably the most well-known American athlete from the Games – or at least the biggest breakout story that the three weeks had produced.

“I totally feel incredibly lucky to finish the way that I did,” Rippon said of his career arc. “But I also think that was because I had gotten to that point that I was talking about earlier, knowing what sports is all about. That happened for me three years earlier. I actually feel like even if I hadn’t gone to the Olympics, I would walk away from my skating career feeling the same thing.”

He continued: “Yes, I’m lucky to be living the life I am right now, but it’s a repercussion of the attitude I’ve lived by and the mission statement that I’ve had these past few years.”

This week is a busy one for Rippon, but most of them mirror it in one way or another. Monday he filmed with comedian Samantha Bee, teaching her how to skate. Tuesday he stopped by Rockefeller Plaza between interviews with GQ and The Players’ Tribune. Wednesday morning he’ll appear on The TODAY Show for a special announcement tied into more to come on Thursday.

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There’s no flight to Vancouver for the Grand Prix Final, obviously, though Rippon does continue to skate when he’s back in Los Angeles as much as he can, and says he’s watched the Grand Prix Series this season with great interest.

“What Nathan Chen has done this season is incredible,” with going to Yale and competing, Rippon said. “He seems to have this new challenge but is able to balance it so well. As a skater and as a teenager, right now this is developmentally where he should be. Sure, we all want him to keep winning, but he’s stepping out on his own and that will benefit him as he heads towards Beijing 2022.”

But while Rippon watches from afar to see what Chen can create moving forward, it might surprise you at what he says is his singular favorite skating moment from his own career when looking back: It’s his 2015 free skate at the U.S. Championships, where he finished in second place to Jason Brown.

It was a program in which Rippon, in fifth after the short, landed his opening quad Lutz and then delivered a spell-binding, clean-as-they-come performance to Franz Liszt’s “Piano Concerto No. 1.” He finished the skate to a standing ovation in Greensboro, and roared on the ice with excitement before placing his head in his hands in disbelief.

“Brilliant, Adam!” Johnny Weir declared on the NBC broadcast. Rippon remembers every second.

“It was a life-changing moment,” Rippon explained. “I try to go back to that moment because there are so many life lessons in that moment.”

Rippon recalls spending the Thanksgiving before that Nationals with the family of former U.S. pairs skater Bianca Butler, having come off a Grand Prix season that was “really awful” (he finished 5th and 10th at his two assignments, respectively) and got a dose of reality from Butler’s mother.

“She looked at me and said, ‘You’re really skating bad,” Rippon recalled. “She said, ‘You know what Adam? You have to do it really well or you shouldn’t do it at all.’ And she was right. I had seven weeks. I don’t think I’ve ever trained harder in my life and I had nothing to lose. I went out there and skated well in the short and I was in fifth and I was like, ‘Wait, really?’ But then I realized it didn’t matter – I felt good about how I was skating.”

“I had this amazing long program,” he continued. “It was one of those moments where all the stars were aligning, and I thought, ‘I’m gonna win!’ But then Jason comes out and has this amazing skate and he wins. In that moment, I felt like I had put it all on the line and I didn’t win. I was pretty crushed.

“And then I stopped myself and thought, ‘I’m happy for Jason, first,’ and then I asked myself, ‘Does your silver feel like gold?’ And it did. That’s the whole point. It didn’t matter who the winner was; I still felt like a champion. Those are two different things: Being a champion is something completely different from winning and in that moment, I was a champion. That whole experience changed my life.”

It’s essentially the same thread that Rippon produced at the Olympics, only this time the whole world was watching – and took notice.

It’s an unexpected life lesson from the person whose life has taken the most unexpected of paths in 2018. It only begs the question: What will 2019 bring? Some sort of Rippon-as-a-champion performance, we hope.

As a reminder, you can watch the ISU Grand Prix Series live and on-demand with the ‘Figure Skating Pass’ on NBC Sports Gold. Go to NBCsports.com/gold/figure-skating to sign up for access to every ISU Grand Prix and championship event, as well as domestic U.S. Figure Skating events throughout the season. NBC Sports Gold gives subscribers an unprecedented level of access on more platforms and devices than ever before.

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MORE: Nathan Chen may need to ante up at Grand Prix Final

Roger Federer saves 7 match points; next: Novak Djokovic in Australian Open semifinals

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MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) — Roger Federer was not going to go gently, of course, no matter how daunting the number of match points — his opponent accumulated seven! — no matter how achy his 38-year-old legs, no matter how slow his serves, no matter how off-target his groundstrokes.

Federer still plays for the love of these stages and circumstances. Still yearns for more trophies, too. Down to his very last gasp, time and again, against someone a decade younger, 100th-ranked Tennys Sandgren of the United States, Federer somehow pulled off a memorable comeback to reach the Australian Open semifinals for the 15th time.

Despite all sorts of signs he was not quite himself for much of the match, Federer beat the biceps-baring, hard-hitting, court-covering Sandgren 6-3, 2-6, 2-6, 7-6 (8), 6-3 on Tuesday in a rollicking quarterfinal that appeared to be over long before it truly was.

“For the most time there, I thought that was it. Of course, there’s little sparkles where maybe not. Then you’re like, ‘No, it IS over,’” said Federer, who only once before had won after facing as many as seven match points, equaling his personal best from all the way back in 2003. “Only maybe when I won that fourth set did I really think that, maybe, this whole thing could turn around.”

He said afterward that it had been his groin muscle that was the problem and he couldn’t be certain whether he would be fully recovered for his next match. That will come against defending champion Novak Djokovic, who overwhelmed No. 32 Milos Raonic 6-4, 6-3, 7-6 (1) to improve to 10-0 against the 2016 Wimbledon runner-up.

“He was just too good,” Raonic said.

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It’ll be the 50th meeting between No. 3 Federer, who has won 20 Grand Slam titles, and No. 2 Djokovic, who owns 16.

Djokovic leads their head-to-head series 26-23, including their past five matches at majors.

“Roger is Roger. You know that he’s always going to play on such a high level, regardless of the surface,” Djokovic said. “He loves to play these kind of matches, big rivalries, semis, finals of Grand Slams.”

About the only thing that slowed Djokovic’s progression to a 37th career Grand Slam semifinal — Federer earned his 46th — was the medical timeout the Serb asked for at 4-all in the third set so he could put in new contact lenses.

“It was just something I had to do,” Djokovic said, “because those few games, I really couldn’t see much.”

The last two men’s quarterfinals are Wednesday: Rafael Nadal vs. Dominic Thiem, and Alexander Zverev vs. Stan Wawrinka.

One women’s semifinal was set Tuesday: No. 1 Ash Barty, trying to become the first Australian Open singles champion from the host country since the 1970s, against No. 14 Sofia Kenin, a 21-year-old American never before this far at any major tournament.

Wednesday’s quarterfinals are Simona Halep vs. Anett Kontaveit, and Garbiñe Muguruza vs. Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova.

There was a lot to live up to after the drama of Federer vs. Sandgren.

“You can’t give a good player — let alone maybe the best player ever — that many chances to come back,” said Sandgren, his voice low, his eyes looking down. “They’re going to find their game and start playing well. That seemed to me what happened.”

In truth, so much had happened.

Federer got into a dispute with a line judge and the chair umpire over cursing. He left the court for a medical timeout early in the third set, then was visited by a trainer later for a right leg massage.

Sandgren was run into by a ballkid during a changeover in the tiebreaker; was distracted by a courtside broadcast commentator.

The 28-year-old from Tennessee has never been a major semifinalist and was trying to become the lowest-ranked man in the Australian Open’s final four since Patrick McEnroe — John’s younger brother — was No. 114 in 1991.

Imagine, then, the heartbreak for Sandgren, who toiled for years on lower-level tours and was so thrilled just to share the stage with Federer.

“Maybe,” Sandgren said, “I’ll get another look, another shot.”

After rolling through the second and third sets as Federer’s serve dropped from an average of 112 mph to 105 mph — “Wasn’t popping like it does normally,” Sandgren observed — and Federer’s unforced errors totaled 30, the underdog led 5-4 in the fourth set.

That’s when Sandgren earned his first trio of opportunities to complete a career-defining victory. But he missed a shot each time. There were four more match points in the tiebreaker at 6-3, 6-4, 6-5 and 7-6.

“Honestly, when they told me seven, I was like, ‘What?!’ I thought it was three,” Federer said. “It’s such a blur.”

Djokovic’s take on Federer’s comeback: “Amazing.”

Raonic’s: “Impressive.”

When Sandgren sent an overhead smash long to give Federer the fourth set. Federer quickly controlled the fifth and ended the victory with a service winner at 119 mph, a little more than an hour after first staring down defeat.

“Just seemed like his level picked up when his back was right up against the wall,” said Sandgren, who only got the chance to serve on one of those seven pivotal points. “He just wouldn’t give me anything.”

That’s how Djokovic makes foes feel.

The key moment for him Tuesday came rather early: Raonic went into the quarterfinals having won all 59 of his service games in the tournament. But that streak ended at 5-4 against Djokovic. On Djokovic’s ninth break point of the match, Raonic missed a forehand to cap a 19-shot exchange, handing over the opening set.

Djokovic yelled and threw an uppercut. Two Raonic service games later, he broke yet again, all he would need to own the second set, too. Soon enough, he was two wins from a record-extending eighth championship at the Australian Open.

Federer has won six titles at Melbourne Park and never lost there to anyone ranked worse than 54th. But Sandgren, whose career tour-level record is under .500, played superbly. He won more points, 161-160, and produced edges of 27-5 in aces, 73-44 in total winners.

“I mean, he never gives up,” Djokovic said about Federer. “When it matters the most, he’s focused and he plays his best tennis.”

Federer knows exactly the sort of pain Sandgren experienced.

Last July, Federer failed to convert a pair of championship points in the fifth set of the Wimbledon final before losing to Djokovic.

“These ones just sting, and they hurt,” Federer said. “But … I was incredibly lucky today.”

MORE: Top U.S. tennis player leaning toward skipping Olympics

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World champion wins doping case citing bodily fluids from boyfriend

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LAUSANNE, Switzerland (AP) — A world champion canoeist won a doping case Monday after persuading a tribunal that her positive test was caused by bodily fluid contamination from her boyfriend.

The International Canoe Federation (ICF) ended its investigation into 11-time world champion Laurence Vincent Lapointe, who tested positive for a steroid-like substance in July. She faced a four-year ban and could have missed her event’s Olympic debut at the Tokyo Games.

The Canadian canoe sprint racer and her lawyer detailed in a news program that laboratory analysis of hair from her then-boyfriend showed he was likely responsible for a tiny presence of ligandrol in her doping sample.

“The ICF has accepted Ms. Vincent Lapointe’s evidence which supports that she was the victim of third-party contamination,” the governing body said in a statement, clearing her to return to competition.

The legal debate is similar to tennis player Richard Gasquet’s 2009 acquittal in the “cocaine kiss” case. The Court of Arbitration for Sport accepted Gasquet’s defense that kissing a woman who had taken cocaine in a Miami nightclub, after he had withdrawn injured from a tournament, caused his positive test.

The 27-year-old Vincent Lapointe was provisionally suspended for almost six months and missed the 2019 World Championships, which was a key qualifying event for the Tokyo Olympics. American 17-year-old Nevin Harrison won the 200m world title in her absence.

She can still qualify for the Olympic debut of women’s canoe sprint events with victory at a World Cup event in May in Germany.

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