Adam Rippon attends the 2019 Time 100 Gala. (Charles Sykes/Invision/AP)

How losing made Olympic medalist Adam Rippon a winner

Salon talks to the former ice skating champ about competition, comedy and rock-bottom embarrassment


Mary Elizabeth Williams
October 22, 2019 8:00PM (UTC)

The road to becoming America's sweetheart begins with a popcorn tin. As he tells it in his breezy, candid new memoir "Beautiful on the Outside," what first got figure skating star Adam Rippon on the ice was a longing to recreate a nostalgic scene from a holiday drum of snacks, fur muff and all. It did not go as planned.

In fact, not much else did either on the long road to becoming a proud medalist and the first openly gay winter Olympian. Instead, as Rippon fearlessly chronicles with his trademark blend of self-deprecating humor and Lizzo-level swagger, it took a lot of falls and failures, along with a few feuds with the vice president and bouts of intestinal distress to make it to the top.

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Salon caught up with the now retired athlete via phone from his current book tour to discuss how he defines success now, and what he checks the news for every day.

You wrote a book that begins and ends with scenes of diarrhea. I don't remember that in Michelle Obama's memoir.  

It was in there. It was just in the acknowledgements.

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Aside from the fact that diarrhea, always hilarious, I want to know, seriously, why did you do that? Why was it important to you to put yourself out there in as exposed a way as possible?

Obviously I consider it a comedy, but I wanted it to be filled with a lot of moments where I felt I wasn't at my best or had failures or had these embarrassing moments. I wanted to highlight and share a lot of those because, in those moments, we realize we're all human. We all go through the same embarrassing moments. In my career disappointments, it was in those moments that I felt like I was rock bottom. I had to push my way through and I felt like I didn't have anything. But when you didn't have anything to lose, it was so much easier to just be really unafraid.

That is one of the things that is so important in this book, especially for people who know you from the Olympics or "Dancing with the Stars," who see you as flawless. And you are flawless.

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They're getting the right impression, is what you're saying.

Absolutely. But also in this book you start out immediately with a tale of disappointment, of failure, of having your expectations not met with reality. You go from being this kid who is devastated at getting a 99 on a science test, to being a person who goes on quite eloquently about being really OK with not being a gold medalist. That was not what someone reading the first chapter would have expected.

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There are so many things that we measure our success by that we sometimes forget that, at the end of the day, the one person who has to really live with the consequences of what we've done is ourselves. You have to look at what you've done and be proud of it. If you're not proud of it, learn from it. Opportunities to go to different competitions like the Olympics, not everybody gets to have that experience. They’re based on timing and luck and a lot of hard work. But if you don't have those experiences, it doesn't make you any less. For a really long time, I knew that, but I didn't believe that. It wasn't until I had success that I realized that it was me who needed to be the one who gave myself that metaphorical gold medal. If I felt like a winner, maybe I wasn't the champion, but I was still a winner.

You talk about 2014 and how that really changed you as a person and an athlete. You’re ostensibly at what would be a figure skater's peak, and have these reversals and disappointments and to learn how to roll with them. It’s interesting that you say that what really changed you wasn't the disappointment but the successes. What was different about that?

I wasn't waiting for those fleeting moments of validation any more. I had felt validated myself, as a person. I think I craved so much those moments of being the champion and winning things. Those moments come and go so quickly, but it's that real residual of knowing and being confident and liking yourself that truly sticks with you and matters. There were a lot of times where I was waiting for those moments and that's all I wanted. I didn't realize that what I really, truly craved was that whole process and the feelings of accomplishment afterward, knowing that you worked so hard and knowing that, no matter what happened, that you had done your best. When I was reminded of those things and when I finally learned those lessons, that's when I actually had the success that I had been wanting.

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Do you feel that getting to that place of being OK with yourself and being OK with the measure of success that you had achieved as an athlete was what enabled you to then leave that part of your life behind?

Totally. A moment that changed my whole perspective was not making the Olympic team in 2014, and then coming back and having these incredible performances at Nationals and not winning. When I didn't win, I was mad for a second, but I remembered everything I had been through up to that point and I [realized that] honestly, winning wouldn't change the way that I feel in this moment. Winning was important, but it was unimportant at the same time. Winning was a feeling. It wasn't a medal. I think that when I was able to get to that place, it prepared me for the success that I was going to have later because I was able to focus more on the process and more on the moments that I was making, more so than trying to make moments happen. I think that's why, when I went to the Olympics, I was able to just really live in those moments and perform well, but also really show authentically who I was as a person.

That must be very hard to do as an athlete in a culture where it really is all about winning.

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There are moments where you feel like, "Do I just not have that killer instinct?" I had to come to terms with that. For me, I've always felt like a performer more so than a competitor. When I would get ready for competitions, I'd always say, "It's a performance. Just focus on the performance. Just focus on putting together something really entertaining for the audience." When I would do that, I would have my best competitions. When I focused on the competitors and beating my competitors, I just felt in over my head. I had to realize that my winning strategy was not focusing on the results. It now makes a lot of sense to me because that's what I do for a living now. I entertain people. I perform in front of people. It's where I get my joy. It's where I'm motivated.

It's still a relatively new identity for you. You have gone from a life where one thing was your everything from the moment you woke up in the morning to being in a place where you chose to forge a new identity. If I asked you now, ”Who are you? What are you?" how would you describe yourself? What would you say?

Especially in the last two years, it's been a hard one to answer because I haven't really known. I think we just create those moments where we can identify where we are and who we are as people. For 20 years, I was Adam Rippon the athlete. All of a sudden, I don't consider myself an athlete any more. I don't do anything that's in the athletic world as a profession or a job. I felt almost embarrassed to say, "I'm an entertainer. I'm a comedian."

It felt like it wasn't part of my identity before, but it didn't mean that I didn't always feel that way. When there'd be a party or people would get together for dinner, I'd always be the person who somehow was telling some story or performing some bit and making everybody laugh. Now I have this opportunity to do it as a job. I felt uncomfortable to say that at first, but I realized that if you want something, you've got to own it. I have to not be afraid of what others might think of that title because it's my story and it's my journey.

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Do you think the field of competition for athletes is changing in just the last few years, in terms of being able to be a person in the world? Being able to be more than the sport you play?

When everybody was using Instagram and all of these things, it really pushed this picture-perfect sort of life. We've seen, recently, a lot of people who gain attention and who are now getting a big following, promote this sense of authenticity. The pictures that they post are unfiltered, or wearing a funny outfit or right in the morning. Those are the things that are really appealing to younger people now.

I think that translates through to being an athlete and being a person in this world. It's not like it used to be, you'd watch the Olympics and you'd hear of these people and then they just sort of disappeared. Now, if you find someone and you like them, you can follow them and know what they're up to, know what they stand for, know what they believe in, know the kind of person they are right away. We're in this moment where authenticity is really looked for, and honesty and being raw. We're fostering this new generation of people across all spectrums of athletes and kids in school or performers or entertainers, where people really want to genuinely know who you are. That that's been the biggest change, especially in the last few years.

One of the things you articulated so well in your coming out story was the low-key, “Just don't make a scene, just don't make it about that, try and keep it quiet” homophobia that is so pervasive. That is really about, "It's OK to be out, but don't be too out.” That is something that is so much harder to identify and so much harder to talk about. I'm curious what the response to that has been now that you're out there on the road, talking to audiences and meeting people and hearing their own experiences.

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Being in some sort of minority, everybody has their own personal experience with it. I wanted to share mine because there were times in my life where everyone would say, "Oh my God, we love you. You do this and do that and it's great,” and then someone would pull me aside and be like, "Tone it down. You don't want to be too over the top." I wasn't doing anything for attention and I wasn't doing anything to be over the top. I was just being myself the best way I knew how. I knew that I wasn't doing anything to hurt other people. I knew that I was treating people the way I wanted to be treated. I was doing things that I thought were still qualities of a good person and that's what I focused on. It was not just one person. It was people over the course of my life, and they thought they were doing this in my best interest.

It still happens. I think that's important to address those and realize that that's the underlying concrete base of what homophobia is. It’s these little things. I think that within our LGBTQ+ community, it's important that, if we have a bigger platform or a larger voice, we use it to uplift other people in the community so that we can get rid of these different stigmas and we can raise each other up, so that when we have these interactions in the world, we aren't judged for different qualities that we have no control over.

Absolutely. I'm a mom of two teenagers and that's the world I want them to be participating in and making better. That’s what most of us who aren’t lunatics want. We just live in kind of lunatic times.

Doing this book thing, every time I have a break I check my phone, and I just keep seeing if anyone's gone to prison yet. So yes, we do live in crazy times. If you told me in 2016 Felicity Huffman would go to jail before Donald Trump, I wouldn't believe you, but here we are.

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Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a staff writer for Salon and the author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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