In summer 2019, figure skater Mariah Bell drove to a Dunkin’ Donuts, ordered two strawberry frosted pastries and made a career-altering decision.
She called Adam Rippon.
“She said, ‘I’m a mess,'” Rippon recalled. “And I was like, what does that mean?”
Come help me, she said. Bell was coming off a bronze medal at the previous national championships, and her best world championships finish (ninth).
But she was struggling come the 2019-20 preseason. Particularly on this day at the U.S. Figure Skating preseason Champs Camp to assess skaters.
Her coach, Rafael Arutunian, said she was disorganized. Arutunian, who doesn’t like to have to repeat himself, suggested she call Rippon, his former student who retired after reaching the Olympics in 2018.
“He could hold your hand,” Bell remembered Arutunian telling her.
They’ve been inseparable ever since.
Rippon helped choreograph Bell’s short program every season in this Olympic cycle — to music from Britney Spears, Celine Dion and Lady Gaga. “Anything that was on my Spotify most listened to list was up for grabs,” he joked.
But since that strawberry frosted epiphany, Bell also leaned on Rippon as a “secondary coach.” Or “fairy godmother,” as he says. Together, Arutunian and Rippon helped Bell reach her two primary goals: winning her first national title last month and making her first Olympic team.
At 25, she became the oldest U.S. women’s figure skating champion since 1927. Next month, she will become the oldest U.S. Olympic women’s singles skater since 1928.
“Our goal is to go there and for her to show that being 25 is amazing,” Rippon said. “That you can be 25, and you can be in the best shape of your life.”
Rippon began training under the gruff Arutunian in Southern California in 2012. Bell joined the group, which included Nathan Chen, in 2016. Bell met Rippon years earlier, getting a picture with him at a skating show. Though Rippon and Bell shared ice for a year and a half leading up to the 2018 Olympics, they only casually knew each other.
In 2018, Rippon made his first (and last) Olympic team at age 28. He became the oldest U.S. Olympic rookie singles skater since 1936.
That same year, Bell entered nationals with an outside chance at the Olympic team (“slim,” she said) and finished fifth, earning an alternate spot.
“I wasn’t heartbroken,” she said, knowing her real opportunity was coming in four years. “I remember watching the Games from home and just being like, I want to be there so bad.”
She watched as Rippon became a national celebrity with his team event bronze medal and engaging candor.
He had arguably the busiest post-Olympic whirlwind of any athlete, beating Tonya Harding to win “Dancing with the Stars” and writing a memoir titled, “Beautiful on the Outside.”
Amid the hoopla, Bell took her shot and asked Rippon if he had time for another new venture: choreographing her short program for the 2018-19 season (also at Arutunian’s suggestion).
“I wasn’t really doing a lot of things with skating,” he said. “And it was a great way for me to still be connected.”
Over the next three years, Bell experienced highs (getting engaged, then having the free skate of her life a month later at 2020 Nationals) and lows (missing the world championships team in 2021, then having that engagement broken off last summer).
She considers herself lucky for her coaching arrangement through all that. When Bell asked Rippon to help her, in that call outside a Dunkin’, it was a Friday.
“Sure I wouldn’t mind, as long as Rafael is on the same page,” Rippon remembered telling her. “So I called Rafael, and he was like, oh my god, please come in.”
By Monday Rippon was at the rink. In a typical week, he’s there two or three days (but more often in this Olympic year).
“His schedule really doesn’t allow him to work with many other people,” Bell told NBC Sports’ On Her Turf. “But he’s also like, I don’t really want to coach. I just want to help you, which I’m so fortunate for.”
Arutunian focuses on the technical work, including jumps. There are ancillary benefits.
“The reason that this works out so well is that Rafael is our guiding light. He is our team captain,” Rippon said. “He’s also coaching me on how to be a good coach.”
Rippon, known for his work ethic to make the 2018 Olympics over younger skaters, helps with her training plan and conditioning.
“I basically treated her like I was Cesar Millan, and she was a troubled dog that needed direction,” he said. “I was super tough on her and made her do a million more things than she was used to doing in practice.”
One of Rippon’s most powerful decisions was to step back. Bell began the season with a Lady Gaga short program choreographed by Rippon, then made a new one with renowned choreographer Shae-Lynn Bourne.
Bourne, a Canadian who won six world medals in ice dance, has a 32-bullet Wikipedia list of skaters whom she has choreographed for, including Chen and two-time Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu.
“If I have to sit down and really decide who’s a better choreographer, me or Shae-Lynn Bourne, obviously I’m going to go with Shae-Lynn (expletive) Bourne,” Rippon said. “So in this Olympic year, it was really important to me. I told Mariah, listen, I’m still a coach on this team. But I am imploring you that Shae-Lynn needs to do both of your programs.”
All of Bell’s decisions paid off earlier this month. Rippon, who made his Olympic team in his ninth senior U.S. Championships appearance, was rinkside in Nashville for her crowning moment in her ninth senior nationals.
“I pulled her aside, and I said, ‘This is the hardest competition you’ll ever do in your entire life. And you did it, you finished it,'” Rippon said. “‘And not only did you finish it, you were strong, and you were brave.'”
On Her Turf editor Alex Azzi contributed to this report.
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