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With 'flair for the dramatic,' Adam Rippon is ready for Olympic spotlight

Image: 2018 Prudential U.S. Figure Skating Championships - Day 5
Adam Rippon skates in the 2018 U.S. Figure Skating Championships on Jan. 7, 2018, in San Jose, California. Copyright Matthew Stockman Getty Images
Copyright Matthew Stockman Getty Images
By John Paul Brammer with NBC News
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Out of the closet and outspoken, figure skater Adam Rippon is ready to make history at the Winter Olympics.

Adam Rippon threw his phone across the room the moment he read the text he'd been waiting for. Or so he said. By his own admission, he makes threats to his phone on a regular basis. "Empty threats," he added.

In any case, it was good news. After his performance in the figure skating nationals earlier this month, Rippon was notified he'd been selected to represent Team USA at the 2018 PyeongChang Games in South Korea, making him the first openly gay U.S. athlete to ever qualify for the Winter Olympics.

Image: 2018 Prudential U.S. Figure Skating Championships - Day 4
Adam Rippon competes during the 2018 Prudential U.S. Figure Skating Championships on January 6, 2018 in San Jose, California. Matthew StockmanGetty Images

He said he hugged his family and friends who had gathered to be with him, including his mom, Kelly, a former skater herself who had gotten him into the sport. "I've been waiting to go for so long," Rippon told NBC News. "It won't actually sink in until I'm on the plane."

The 28-year-old, who's become something of a gay pop culture phenom thanks to his acerbic wit and a public clash with Vice President Mike Pence, wasn't exaggerating. He has, indeed, been waiting a long time for this.

It could be argued Rippon's journey to the Olympics began just last year, when he broke his foot while gearing up to compete in the national championships. As his foot ballooned to the size of his thigh, he told himself it would not be the end, and that the following year would be his "comeback story."

But it would be more accurate to say the journey began in his mom's car when Rippon was in the fourth grade. Ten years old is young by most people's standards, but in the world of figure skating, it's a late start.

Still, his mother regularly drove him three hours from Scranton, Pennsylvania, where Rippon grew up, to his training site in New Jersey.

"I can't believe she managed that," Rippon said, adding that his mom is his role model in life. "She was a single mother of five kids."

Image: 2018 Prudential U.S. Figure Skating Championships - Day 5
Adam Rippon skates in the 2018 U.S. Figure Skating Championships on Jan. 7, 2018, in San Jose, California. Matthew StockmanGetty Images

It was his mom, Rippon said, who gave him his sense of humor and his headstrong determination. "She can see past the stuff going on around her, and can see the end goal where she needs to go," he said.

That will prove to be a handy quality for Rippon, who now finds himself in the position of having to compete on behalf of Team USA amidst a spat with the vice president, who will lead the United States' official delegation in South Korea.

"Yikes," Rippon said when asked about the tiff. The feud began when, in an interview with USA Today, Rippon made it clear he didn't agree with Pence being selected to represent the U.S. in the delegation at the Olympics.

"You mean Mike Pence, the same Mike Pence that funded gay conversion therapy?" Rippon said during the interview. "I'm not buying it."

A spokesperson for Pence shot back at Rippon's conversion therapy claims in a statement sent to NBC News, calling the accusation "totally false with no basis in fact."

But Rippon isn't one to stay silent. He took to Twitter to respond to Pence with "#TheReceipts," posting a screenshot of a statement on Pence's 2000 congressional campaign website that has been widely interpreted as supportive of conversion therapy.

"I will let the VP's words speak for themselves," Rippon tweeted.

"I know his past track record on LGBT rights," Rippon said of Pence. "I think it's so important for somebody like me to stand up for the things I believe in and speak up on things I don't think are right."

Rippon has never been quiet about things that matter to him. When asked how long he has been speaking his mind, he replied, "Since November 11, 1989," the day he was born.

"It's important right now, in this moment, that you aren't complacent or complicit," he said. "I've been given this amazing platform as an Olympic athlete, and there are so many people out there who don't feel like their voice is being heard. I feel it's my responsibility to speak out on issues that are important."

Among those issues, Rippon said, are transgender rights and LGBTQ representation in the world of sports and beyond.

"I know what it feels like to walk into a room and feel like you aren't welcome, but at the same time, as a gay guy, I feel like it's easy to walk into a room and pretend you're less gay," he said.

"I think that's a horrible mentality and, on the flip side of that, as a trans person you often can't be less trans, and all you want to do is go to the bathroom," he continued. "It bothers me so much that people have gone out of their way to make trans people feel less than."

At the moment, Rippon certainly isn't pretending to be less gay. He's embraced the mantle of representing the LGBTQ community at the Olympics and said he hopes he inspires others. After all, coming out, he said, has helped him to become a better athlete.

"I was always a good skater, but people were like, 'Oh, Adam is a bit of a head case, he isn't consistent,'" Rippon said of his performance while he was in the closet. "But how can you be consistent and go out and show the judges who you are when you don't know who you are?"

Rippon publicly came out in October 2015 at the age of 25, a moment he described as when his true career began. He came out to his family before that in individual conversations, an arduous task considering he has five siblings.

"I came out seven times in one weekend," he said. "I have a flair for the dramatic."

Now Rippon, out of the closet and outspoken, is gearing up to head to South Korea, preparing mentally and physically. He hopes his siblings, two of whom recently got a passport for the occasion, can join him. A YouCaring page has been set up to fund their journey.

He will also be joined by Gus Kenworthy, an openly gay freestyle skier who will share in the distinction of being the first openly gay men from the U.S. to compete in the Winter Olympics.

But no matter who joins him, Rippon is aware that, at some point, all eyes — including his family's, the LGBTQ community's and the world's — will be on him. He hopes to make the most of that opportunity, while also setting out to achieve the personal goal he set for himself a long time ago when he was a kid.

"When it's all said and done, I want to have made a difference in people's lives from sharing my story, and more than that, I want to skate really, really well," he said.

"I want to have those performances I can look back on and be like, 'She did that,'" he said, referring to himself with a laugh.


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