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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

2019 USA Track and Field Outdoor Championships TV schedule

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NBC, NBCSN and NBC Sports Gold combine to air live daily coverage of the USA Track and Field Outdoor Championships, starting Thursday in Des Moines, Iowa.

The top three per individual event are in line to qualify for the world championships in Doha in late September and early October, should they have the world standard time or mark.

Sprint trio Christian Coleman (100m and 200m), Noah Lyles (200m) and Michael Norman (400m) headline the event. Each is 23 or younger and fastest in the world this year in his primary event.

Allyson Felix and Justin Gatlin represent the veterans. Felix, a 33-year-old with 17 combined Olympic and world titles, is entered in her first meet since having daughter Camryn via emergency C-section at 32 weeks on Nov. 28.

Gatlin, 37, has a bye into worlds as the defending 100m champion. He could be Coleman’s biggest threat in the 100m after breaking 9.9 seconds for the first time since the Rio Olympics.

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Day Time (ET) Network Key Events
Thursday 3:45-11 p.m. NBC Sports Gold 100m first round, 10,000m finals
Friday 1:30-9 p.m. NBC Sports Gold 100m finals, 400m semifinals
7-9 p.m. NBCSN
Saturday 2-6 p.m. NBC Sports Gold Finals: 400m, women’s 1500m, 100m hurdles
4-6 p.m. NBC
Sunday 4-9 p.m. NBC Sports Gold Finals: 200m, men’s 1500m, 110m hurdles
7-8 p.m. NBCSN
8-9 p.m. NBC

Beachvolley Vikings, sport’s top team, inspired by Kerri Walsh Jennings

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HAMBURG, Germany — Kerri Walsh Jennings smiled at the decade-old picture of her posing with a young Anders Mol.

Since Walsh Jennings met Mol, the now-22-year-old and his 23-year-old Norwegian partner Christian Sorum have become the top-ranked team in the world.

“Those boys inspire me a lot,” she said. “That’s how I want Brooke [Sweat] and I to play, really.”

Walsh Jennings met Mol in his native country at the 2009 FIVB Beach Volleyball World Championships in Stavanger. Mol attended with his father, Kare, who was coaching the Norwegian teams, as well as his brother Hendrik and cousin Mathias Berntsen.

Walsh Jennings noticed the young Norwegians, who are now nicknamed the “Beachvolley Vikings,” eagerly doing the pepper drill on the sand between matches from 6 a.m. until well after dark.   

“She walked by and told us, ‘Hey, you guys are so good that if you guys keep practicing, you’re going to be playing on this stage one day,’” Mol recalled.

Mol’s passion for the sport only increased as he hit puberty.

As a teenager, he derailed his family’s vacation plans in San Diego by making them battle traffic up to Los Angeles to hear Walsh Jennings give a speech.

Childhood photo of Mol and Walsh Jennings. Courtesy of Anders Mol.

At 13 or 14, Mol and his brother beat their parents for the first time. Impressive, considering Mol’s father was a former national indoor team player and his mother, Merita Mol (née Berntsen), competed in beach volleyball at the 1996 Olympics.

At 16, he enrolled in ToppVolley Norway, a beach and indoor volleyball school that is a two-hour boat ride north from Stavanger. For three years, the boys would attend classes, lift weights and train for a minimum of 20 hours per week. Free time often meant pick-up soccer matches, which occasionally proves useful on the sand.

“It doesn’t look like Hogwarts,” Mol said, “but it sounds like Hogwarts because everybody is like a big family in this school.”

When Mol graduated, he played a year of professional indoor volleyball in Belgium. But he quickly realized that he preferred the freedom of beach volleyball, where players book their own travel, hire their own coaches and schedule their own practices.

In 2017, Mol was named the international tour’s top rookie. By the end of the 2018 season, Mol and Sorum had firmly established themselves as the world’s top team, winning their final three international tournaments including the FIVB World Tour Finals.

They have not slowed down in 2019, winning three tournaments on three different continents over three weeks in May. They have won 36 of their last 38 matches.

“The best blocker right now is Anders, and the best defender is Christian,” said three-time U.S. Olympian Jake Gibb. “It’s not really fair.”

The only two teams who have defeated the Norwegians since April 28 — Germany’s Julius Thole/Clemens Wickler and Brazil’s Bruno Schmidt/Evandro Goncalves — did not offer any clues on how to do it.

Wickler admitted that “in no other stadium would we have won this game” after the Hamburg world championships semifinal played July 6 in front of more than 12,000 hometown fans, the largest crowd either team had ever experienced. Mol and Sorum rebounded to claim the bronze medal the next day over Americans Tri Bourne and Trevor Crabb.

Bruno rebuffed multiple teams who approached him looking for the secret to beating Norway.

“I’ve never seen a player like Anders who is so powerful and so skilled at the same time,” said Bruno, the 2016 Olympic champion with former partner Alison. “Players like that raise the level of this sport.”

Much of their success can be attributed to their defensive scheme. Most teams play a “zone defense,” with each player defending half of the court. The Norwegians play a “read defense” that gives each player the freedom to react and move to where they think the attacking player will hit the ball.

NBC Sports analyst Kevin Wong compared the Norwegians to “free safeties” in football.

“They are the most innovative defensive team we’ve seen in a long time,” he said.

The pair is relatively unknown outside Norway — neither has a Wikipedia page in English — and even in Norway they claim they are nowhere near as famous as the Alpine skiers nicknamed the “Attacking Vikings.”

But that will change.

At worlds, the pair hired a videographer to capture content for their YouTube and Instagram channels. They launched a Beachvolley Vikings clothing line that includes a “Sleeping Christian” shirt. They patiently fulfilled each and every request for pictures and autographs after matches.

“They are like rock stars,” said American Taylor Crabb, talking extra loud to be heard over a crowd of teenage girls hoping to take a selfie with the tall, blonde Norwegians. “Fans can relate to them because they see guys around their age becoming the No. 1 team the world.”

It is not just fans who are lining up to see the Norwegians.

“I love to watch them play,” said 2016 Brazilian Olympian Pedro Solberg, who made his international debut when Mol was just 8. “Every chance I get to watch them I do, because I learn a lot from them.”

Whether Mol and Sorum struggle with anything is up for debate. When asked, Kare boasted about beating them at the card game “President and the bum.”

“They are really smart in beach volleyball,” he said, “but they are really stupid in card playing.”

But both players disputed their coach’s claim.

“It’s not true at all,” Sorum said. “He loses even when he has the best cards.”

The Beachvolley Vikings are just getting started. 2008 Olympic champion Phil Dalhausser pointed out that beach volleyball players typically do not peak until their late 20s or early 30s.

“In my book, they are already among the top teams to ever play,” he said. “There are no holes in their game. I don’t see why they can’t keep this going.”

OlympicTalk editor Nick Zaccardi contributed to this report.

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