Five-ring Circus

Bronze Medalist Adam Rippon Is Winning the Winter Olympics

Skater Adam Rippon clutches his head in celebration on the ice.
Adam Rippon celebrates after competing in the Figure Skating Team Event Men’s Single Free Skating on Day 3 of the Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympic Games at Gangneung Ice Arena on Monday in Gangneung, South Korea. Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

For my money, the best moment of American figure skater Adam Rippon’s Olympic debut came long after he finished his impressive on-ice performance. Speaking with NBC’s Mike Tirico from a vantage overlooking the rink, Rippon answered the announcer’s banal opening question—“What’s been the vibe for you sitting down in the box and then performing for your teammates tonight?”—with a heartfelt, utterly endearing monologue that is worth quoting in full:

You know, especially tonight, my friend Mirai [Nagasu] and I… four years ago, we got In-N-Out, we went back to her house, we climbed up to the roof of her house, and we were eating In-N-Out because we were so upset that we weren’t at the Olympic Games. And tonight, you know, the Olympics are truly magical, because we came out here tonight, and—we’re roommates here, staying at the Olympic Village—we gave each other a hug, and I said, “You know, Mirai, we’re here! We did it!” And we both went out there and we both had these great skates today. To do that for our team is just, like—it’s so amazing.

Rippon, who on Monday won a bronze medal as part of the United States’ figure skating team, has already scored the biggest upset of these Winter Olympics: He’s given TV viewers a reason to watch a post-event interview.

As good a skater as Rippon is—and, to be clear, he’s an excellent one—he’s an even better talking head. His ease on camera was evident throughout the interview, from the way he repeatedly referred to Tirico as “Mike”—“Mike. I’ve been around for a long time. This might be my first Olympics, but it’s not my first rodeo”—to his response to Tirico’s question about what was going through his mind on the ice: “Um, I want to throw up. Um, I want to go over to the judges and say, ‘Can I just have a Xanax? And a quick drink? I’ll be fine.’ But I kept it together.”

That’s how I would probably feel if I were somehow transported to South Korea and made to skate for my country! World-class figure skaters—they’re just like us!

The post-event interview is usually a dumb and banal exercise in cliché-mongering. (“Tell me what was going through your mind out there?” “Just trying to stay in the moment and give it my best out there.”) World-class athletes are trained to speak in platitudes, and they also live cloistered lives—train, compete, train, film credit card commercial, sleep—that make it difficult for them to come across as real people.

There’s no doubt, however, that the guy we saw on NBC is the real Adam Rippon, and he’s more than happy to show the world who he is and how he feels. In the lead-up to the games, he made headlines for voicing his displeasure with Vice President Mike Pence’s homophobic views and announcing his unwillingness to meet with Pence while both are in Pyeongchang. That kind of political outspokenness is rare for an American Olympian. I’m guessing some of Rippon’s teammates couldn’t even name the vice president, let alone discuss his policy stances intelligently.

Perhaps Rippon’s self-assurance is a function of his age. The American figure skater is 28 years old and just now making his Olympic debut, whereas many of his colleagues on Team USA are at once younger and more experienced. Yes, Rippon cops to feeling nervous out on the ice—“Mike,” Rippon told Tirico, “It was different. I’ve been waiting 28 years to get out there. And, let me tell you, it was worth the wait”—but the fact that he’s 28 also likely gives him the confidence to admit he was feeling nervous. Heck, his age is probably what makes Rippon feel comfortable repeatedly calling Tirico by his first name. And I bet it’s also what makes him a bit more media-savvy than a lot of the other athletes on Team USA.

Rippon hasn’t just been training his whole life to skate on the world stage. He’s also been honing his interview skills. After winning the national title in 2016, he had this to say to NBC’s Andrea Joyce: “Andrea, you and I both have been waiting a long time for this.”

NBC knows what it wants out of Adam Rippon. The network wants him to say sassy things and be America’s wacky, lovable figure skating best friend for the next two weeks (and possibly for every four years thereafter in the commentary booth). Rippon, for his part, is happy to oblige, and in the process hopefully make Reese Witherspoon proud.

I think Adam Rippon knows what he wants out of NBC, too, and I think he came to Pyeongchang with a plan for how he was going to get it. “My mom always taught me to stand up for what I believe in,” Rippon told Tirico, and one thing Rippon clearly believes in is himself. He’s telling his own inspirational story, rather than waiting for NBC to edit it together for him. I can’t wait to see where that story goes next.

Read the rest of Slate’s coverage of the Pyeongchang Olympics.

• Everything You Need to Know About the Figure Skaters at the Pyeongchang Olympics

• Evgenia Medvedeva Is the World’s Best Skater and She Loves Dancing at the Mall

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