At 28, Olympian Adam Rippon pursues an old dream

Pyeongchang Olympics Figure Skating Team Event
Adam Rippon of the United States reacting after his performance in the men’s single free skating Monday.

Usually, the journeys and dreams don’t endure as long as Adam Rippon’s.

Typically, when professional figure-skaters near 30, most abandon their Olympic hopes and either retire or retreat to the ice-show circuit.

But last week, 15 years after he began training seriously at Philadelphia’s Wissahickon Skating Club, four years after he failed for a second time to qualify, the 28-year-old Rippon became the oldest figure-skater to make his Olympic debut since 1936, helping the U.S. clinch a bronze medal in the team competition at Pyeongchang.

Now, at 8 p.m.  Thursday, Philadelphia time, when he and his ballyhooed American teammate Nathan Chen begin to compete in the men’s individual event, Rippon will again get a chance to show that all the years of training and dreaming, of hunger and poverty, of success and failure were worthwhile.

“He is an extremely determined young man,” said Yelena Sergeeva, who for three-plus years coached Rippon at Wissahickon – and also housed him in her Elkins Park residence. “But sometimes determination and talent aren’t enough to get you to the Olympics. Sometimes it’s luck and the circumstances of life.”

A native of Clarks Summit, Pa., near Scranton, Rippon went to Wissahickon and Sergeeva in 2003, when he was 14.

“He was smart enough not to be intimidated by my thick Russian accent,” she recalled Thursday. “He learned very fast and it was clear very early that he was an exceptional talent.”

While at Wissahickon, Rippon won a novice silver medal at the 2006 U.S. Championships, then began competing on the International Skating Union’s Junior Grand Prix circuit. But not long after finishing 11th in the 2006 national championships as a junior, he departed to train in Hackensack, N.J.

He became the world junior champion in 2008 and 2009 and was a dark horse to qualify the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver. But he came away with only an alternate’s spot.

It was then, Rippon said, that he committed himself more completely to his Olympic dream, moving to Los Angeles and living in the basement of his new coach, Rafael Arutyunyan.

“I had no money,” Rippon said last week after the team event. “I would steal all the apples [from the gym where he worked out] because I had no money for groceries.”

Then in 2014, he failed to qualify for the Sochi Olympics. Despondent in the failure’s aftermath, Rippon and Mirai Nagasu, the American skater who also missed out on Sochi, consoled themselves by tearfully consuming fast-food hamburgers on her apartment building’s rooftop.

“I keep telling Mirai, ‘Can you believe we’re at the Olympics and we’re roommates?,” Rippon said earlier this week. “After where we were four years ago?’ It’s too weird, but it’s so cool. So, so cool.”

Rather than quit following 2014’s disappointment, Rippon intensified his training. Not big or strong enough to make quadruple jumps a significant part of his program, the 5-7, 145-pound skater instead honed his technical and artistic skills.

By 2016 he was the U.S. champion, and that same year he had his best ever finish at the World Championships (sixth).

That somewhat belated success also followed his decision to come out publicly as gay, making him the first U.S. Olympic skater do so. He did it, Rippon said, for those who might not yet be strong enough to follow his example.

“I know what it’s like to be a young kid and feel out of place,” he said. “To want to share your ideas and feel like people might not like them. I spent a lot of time worrying what people thought of me, and soon as I was able to let go of those doubts, that’s when I was able to find my voice. I hope that in the process of me sharing who I am with everyone, that they can find their voice too.”

With his sexuality a matter of public record and his Olympic spot finally secured, a relaxed Rippon has been one of the most outspoken and entertaining American athletes in the long lead-up to Pyeongchang.

He made headlines before arriving in South Korea by announcing that he wouldn’t meet with Vice President Pence, the top-ranking U.S. official to visit the Games who has long been critical of gays.

“I have no problem talking about what I’ve said, because I stand by it,” he said. “But I think right now the Olympics are about Olympic competition and the athletes involved. … I don’t want to distract from their Olympic experience and I don’t want my Olympic experience to be about Mike Pence.

“I want it to be about my amazing skating and being America’s sweetheart.”

Rippon said he has always used his sense of humor as a coping tool.

And given the grace and newfound confidence with which he skated in the team event, a spot on the men’s medal stand isn’t as far-fetched as it might have seemed a few months ago.

“Honestly, it’s really fun to be yourself,” he said. “It’s really fun to be me.”