The Bittersweet Beauty of Adam Rippon –
I fell in love with the Olympics, particularly with figure skating, when I was eight years old. It was 1992, and from faraway Albertville, France, I was introduced to Kristi Yamaguchi and Nancy Kerrigan, two American ice princesses who both medaled that year, capturing the hearts of millions and burrowing into my consciousness like perhaps nothing but The Little Mermaid had up to that point.
My 10-year-old sister was into it too, but not quite in the same ardent way. Luckily, I had a friend, a best friend, really—I’ll call him Ryan—who understood what it all meant to me, because it meant as much to him. We spent what I remember being a whole winter deciding which skater was our favorite (only the women, never the men; even at that age, there was something perhaps too intriguing about them) and gliding around on his hardwood living-room floor in our socks—pretending to do triple axels and salchows, awkwardly mimicking Kerrigan’s beguiling spins—two silly little boys with an appreciation for the graceful things in this rough world.
By the time the Lillehammer games in 1994 arrived (how spoiled we were to have them only two years apart!), with all their Tonya Harding drama, Ryan and I had drifted apart, as is the natural downward arc of a friendship when you don’t go to the same school or live in the same town. Ours, I always supposed, had just been a friendship of convenience, until it wasn’t. What remained was my love of Olympic figure skating, and I watched rapt every four years. My freshman year of college, my new friends (all girls) thought I was insane—but also maybe a little fun—when I cried bitter tears at Michelle Kwan’s gorgeous “Fields of Gold” exhibition skate, after she’d finished a disappointing third. Over the years, Olympic ice skating offered me an outlet for big feelings, in the way other sports might do for other men, I suppose.
Anyway, I got older. Time passed. I came out, had a few fumbling romances with guys, and I began my adult life. I would sometimes, usually around Olympics time, wax maudlin to other friends about Ryan and our skating obsession that winter long ago. Perhaps spurred on by one of those reveries, a few years ago I tracked Ryan down on Facebook. I saw that he lived in Los Angeles, and, like me, was a writer. And I saw that, quite unlike me, he was devastatingly handsome—a college soccer jock-turned-weekend outdoorsman, with the rippled frame and chiseled features to match.
With some combination of curiosity and jealousness, I reached out—told him I’d be in town for a work thing in a couple months, and would he maybe like to get a drink. He agreed and we met—even more handsome in person, but still the fox-faced boy I remember at eight years old—and over the course of a couple of drinks, I learned that he is gay too. I was surprised, and told him as much. He replied, “Surprised? Richard, we used to do figure-skating routines in my living room.” So he remembered too!
Last summer I took some friends up to my parents’ house in Rhode Island, and on the first night, my mother and I were upstairs, making up the fold-out couch for one of the guests. I can’t remember how we got on the topic, but somehow Ryan came up. She asked if he was married and I said—as if this was an answer to her question—that, no, he was gay. My mom stopped tending to the bedsheets and looked up at me. “You’re kidding,” she said. “He’s gay? And to think his father said you two couldn’t see each other anymore because he thought you were gay.”
I was shocked, and asked my mom a few questions about it—was the thinking that I, at eight years old, was turning Ryan gay? Had I asked why I suddenly didn’t see my best friend anymore?—but then just kind of brushed it off and headed back into the weekend with my friends, into a life where I try to not fret too much over stuff that did or didn’t happen a quarter century ago. But over time, that little casual reveal—that Ryan and I had not naturally drifted apart, as I’d long thought—began to wear at me. In the months since, it’s made me so sad for little me and little him—gay boys who were unaware of the mechanisms looming over them, who did not know they’d been spoken about, had been considered for their difference already.
I thought of Ryan on Sunday night, when figure skater Adam Rippon made his grand Olympic debut—old, at 28 (ugh), for a first-time Olympian, but in so many other ways brand new. He’s the first openly gay American athlete to qualify for the Winter Olympics (out gay skier Gus Kenworthy competed in his first Olympics while still in the closet), and has been playfully unabashed about his sexuality, on and off the ice. I’d been aware of Rippon, perhaps painfully so, for a couple of years, but had not really grappled with what he might mean until his skate in the team event on Sunday, a Twitter-trending righteous moment that felt like a high achievement before the scores even came in. (The Americans eventually earned a bronze medal.)
Perhaps the timing was just right for Rippon, with America mired in dispiriting political disaster and roiling social animus. Prior to the games, Rippon voiced disapproval of Vice President Mike Pence—who would be attending the opening ceremonies and planned to meet with the U.S. team—turning Rippon into something of a political hero. (Of course, Rippon enjoys a certain level of protection that politically outspoken athletes of color, like Colin Kaepernick, do not.) And then he went and did his routine, a soft-spoken, elegant program set to Coldplay music (yup!), more fluid and delicate and, yes, effeminate, than the boy skaters are supposed to be. Here was a man being himself, at the peak of his abilities, on an international stage, hailed as a hero. And everyone knew he was gay!
Everyone knew Johnny Weir was gay back in 2006 and 2010, when his loud costumes and queeny insouciance were the focus of much Olympic chatter. But he didn’t say it until later; there was always a guardedness about him, a tease. Weir was a commentator last night during Rippon’s skate, and I thought I heard a little catch in his voice, some note of regret. Maybe that was me projecting, but I’d have to imagine that someone like Rippon—so similar except in one crucial way—might give Weir pause, make him think about his own Olympic past, and wonder what if.
I suspect that Rippon has that effect on lots of people—that mix of excitement and melancholy. He certainly does on me. Have I mentioned yet that Adam Rippon is beautiful? Like, chiseled by an ancient (and definitely gay) Greek sculptor with a loving hand, mesmerizingly symmetrical with eyes that glow like jewels. He’s absurd, really. It hurts to look at Adam Rippon, but in the douleur exquise way, the good kind of hurt—the kind that aches to be with him, that aches to be him.
That’s a feeling perhaps uniquely particular to the gay experience, the muddied confusion over whether you want to be someone’s companion or if you want to step inside their skin, to inhabit the world as they do. Watching Rippon have his triumphant, beautiful moment on Sunday night—and give a funny, frank interview afterward—I felt the kind of yearning for a celebrity that I haven’t felt since I was 17, half my life ago. How strange to experience that while watching sports, an area of culture I’m usually pretty alienated from unless it’s Olympics time. Sure there have been plenty of swimmers and gymnasts and whomever else to l**t after in Olympics past, but Rippon is something else—a sassy beacon of hope, a gay angel sent to delight and, sure, sadden us a little with all his distant beauty and poise.
I felt this as a 34-year-old, and then realized how much more acutely the Adam Rippon of it all must sweetly sting for a wide-eyed kid. The effusive reaction to Rippon shows how very important representation can be, just as Black Panther will when it arrives in movie theaters this week. It matters to a child—and to an adult—to, yes, see some reflection of themselves. But also to have the faraway heroes, the almost impossible ideals. Maybe those unreachable gods somehow help clarify things here on Earth.
If I, at eight, or 10, or 14 (oh g*d, 14), had seen Adam Rippon in all his swanning, proud splendor, and everyone applauding him for it, it would have destroyed me—but also remade me. It would have said something to me that I rarely ever heard said. How much time young queer people spend yearning for that kind of connection, forever sifting through culture to find the gay stuff. When you find it, it can speak to you in almost holy tones. On Sunday night, there was gay stuff, and swishy gay stuff to boot, right there on national TV, for anyone who wanted it: powerful and accomplished and beautiful.
Watching Rippon’s program, and all the subsequent fervor, I let myself drift back to my socked-foot skating days. I wondered if Ryan watched the broadcast, and what he might have thought about it. I entertained a bittersweet fantasy, wishing that we were kids now, watching Rippon’s big skate together, maybe not aware of what exactly we were seeing, but possessed of that internal knowing, that recognition of same, that comes to inform so much of gay life. The new sadness that bloomed in me last summer, when I learned the true history of me and Ryan, was compounded, but in a strange way also healed, on Sunday night. How often, in ways petty and profound, the world tries to tamp down what Adam Rippon so wondrously, confidently exuded on that ice. And how terrific that so many kids may have seen it and loved it and then gone skating around their own living rooms, maybe feeling a little freer than before.