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.
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Still unreal to be one of those named to @time 💯 and give a toast honoring my mom for being the person who has inspired me the most. Also, during my toast, it was a great opportunity for me to let everyone know that @nicolekidman told me smell @keithurban and he smelled great.
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.
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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