All Adam Rippon wanted to do when growing up was learn to figure skate. He’d ask every year for his birthday, which is in November, to go out on the ice.
Once, while playing rec baseball, he asked his mother what people looked like when they fainted. He wanted to pretend to faint so he could get out of playing.
Finally, his mom had enough. She signed him up for skating lessons for his 11th birthday. He told NBC Olympics the story of his first day in the sport:
“I remember right before I got on the ice, I tied my skates and I said, ‘Oh, my God. I can’t believe that I’m gonna go skating today.’ I imagined myself in my fleece jacket and in my jeans and I was just gonna have the best time of my life.
“I stepped on the ice. I put my hand on the wall. I put my other foot on and then I feel right over and I whacked my face on the ice. And I said, ‘I’m done.’ That was my introductory to skating. So thank God, I’ve gotten a little better since then.”
His dedication to skating didn’t waver. As the oldest of six children, Rippon took it upon himself to make sure he could be taken to practices before school.
“I always wanted to get to the rink early so that I could practice before school,” he said. “So I remember every morning I would wake up all my younger siblings, and I’d wake them up at 6:00 in the morning.
“I would make sure everybody was showered, dressed, the girls had their hair done, everybody’s lunches were made. So I would wake my mom up, and she’d be, like, ‘Oh, I need to wake up the kids.’ And I’m, like, ‘No, they’re all ready to go. We can go right to the rink.’”
Rippon is the only man to win back-to-back world junior championship titles, doing so in 2008 and 2009. He was seen as an outside contender to make the 2010 team but didn’t. Then in 2014, he thought his time had come. Instead, he finished eighth at nationals and questioned if he wanted to continue to skate at all. He spent time coaching and creating choreography for other skaters and discovered his passion again.
He got himself back into training, and in 2016, Rippon won his first U.S. national title. A year later, when he was getting ready to defend his gold, he broke his foot. His training mate, Nathan Chen, won the title in 2017. He spent 12 weeks recovering off the ice and knew that his comeback would become a critical part of his Olympic story.
In a recent media teleconference, Rippon called training with Chen under shared coach Rafael Arutunian his “secret weapon.”
“I’m really grateful to be skating with somebody like Nathan,” he said. “We’ve been training together for the last six years. I’ve really seen him come up. I’ve seen the hard work he puts in and it motivates me every day to do the same. We have a very healthy relationship. I’m the oldest of six kids, and Nathan is the youngest of five kids. In a way, we get along really well and we mesh together. I think we both fall into those roles that we were. I feel like the big brother, and I feel like he’s my little brother.”
Rippon finished fourth at 2018 nationals and was named to the team for his strong international resume over the past two seasons. Now that he’s on the Olympic team, he’s been showing up to the rink in a different Olympic-themed t-shirt every day. The shirts were buried in his closet, hidden from the times he missed out on prior Games. Wearing them now has confused his coaches, Rippon said, but he explained he couldn’t wear the t-shirts before: They might’ve been jinxed.
Rippon said that training for the Olympics was a dream of his since he began skating.
“That I’m actually training for the Olympics is kind of surreal and completely crazy,” he said. “But I’m treating it like a normal competition. Except, you know when you’re in practice, you wanna push yourself a little bit more, and you’re like, ‘you know what? I can calm down. It’s not the Olympics.’ Well, now it is the Olympics! So I’m trying to push myself even more so I feel as prepared as possible.”
Olympics or not, he said, every time he competes, he has to remind himself that the nerves are normal.
“I’ll run to the bathroom, splash a little water on my face,” Rippon said of his pre-competition routine. “I’ll look at myself in the mirror and I’ll say, ‘Why am I doing this? I feel like I’m gonna throw up.’ I remind myself that, when I’m in practice, I live for these moments. It’s just nerves, it’s normal. If I focus, I can channel this, and use it in energy. I can use my adrenaline to help me zero in.”
Rippon may have to go through that ritual a few times in PyeongChang. The men’s short program is Thursday, Feb. 15 in Primetime on NBC and NBCOlympics.com and the free skate is Friday, Feb. 16 in Primetime on NBC and NBCOlympics.com. But he may first make his debut in the team event.
He wasn’t able to say on the media call one way or the other if he’d get to take part in the team event, but “if I knew the answer, I would scream that from the mountaintops.”
“If I were to be put on the team [event] it would be… I put out really strong performances – with the exception of one – all season,” he said. “I have a lot of experience. I think I could be a useful asset to the team. Given the opportunity I would obviously take it, jump at it, and I would skate my little butt off.”