Meryl Davis speaks to the figure skating Olympic bronze medallist, who went from living in a basement to celebrity status in less than a decade
Imagine going from living in your coach's basement, to winning Dancing with the Stars in less than a decade.
The figure skater's team bronze at PyeongChang 2018 made him the United States' first athlete to medal at the Winter Olympics after coming out as gay.
His profile soared, and he was invited to participate in talk shows and celebrity TV competitions.
But the popular skater never forgets his humble beginnings, and ice dance Olympic champion Meryl Davis went to California for Olympic Channel to speak with Rippon about his journey and his first book entitled 'Beautiful on the Outside'.
They chatted at Lakewood ICE, 25km south of Los Angeles, where he prepared for the 2018 Games.
Meryl Davis: We’re in the place where it happened, where you trained and prepared for the Games. What does it feel like coming back?
Adam Rippon: You know, being back here, I think everything I’ve gone through in this building, all the ups and downs, the highest of highs… I remember specifically giving interviews of getting ready for a competition and they’re like ‘How’s it going?’ and you’re like, ‘I’ve never been better in my entire life!’.
And then going into the bathroom that’s over there and then crying. So just like so many emotions in this place but, every time I come here, it feels like home.
MD: I remember being on tour with you immediately following the Games and having these young people come up to you after each show, emotional, very moved, and feeling very connected to you and your story and just it meant so much to them. How does it feel to revisit those memories?
AR: That tour was kind of a moment for me where I realised that things were different and I felt like the way I could joke around with all of my friends, I was able to do that with so many more people.
I remember feeling really low and uncomfortable in my own skin, so that when I finally shed that doubt and stopped worrying about what I feared other people would think of me, I was having the best experiences of my life.
I felt like other people saw that and kind of had the confidence to do that for themselves. I think I just let people know that it was OK if they were feeling uncomfortable. I feel like when I do have the chance to meet people now, they’ll come up to me like I do know them already - which I love - because it makes me feel like, 'Yeah, I’m being authentic' and I’m really just trying to show who I am and I really do feel like I connect so quickly with so many different people that I meet.
MD: You talk about how your approach is to treat everyone like they’re already your friend. So what lessons have you gone through that taught you and inspired you to act that way with people?
AR: I think I always felt like the outsider and growing up. I felt like maybe people were treating me differently and I hated that. I really found my confidence in entertaining my friends, and I found my confidence in making people laugh.
I found myself being the person where I was friends with everybody. I didn’t find myself being the outsider anymore and I remember thinking that I never wanted to be that person again. When you don’t go into a situation and question if people will like you, you don’t give them the opportunity or any reasoning to give you an opinion of why they might not.
MD: That’s amazing. And what do you want to do next? You have so many opportunities, but is there one thing that stands out to you or is there one direction that you’re really excited to go in?
AR: You know, I think to what I’ve always loved doing and, yes I’m an Olympian and an Olympic medallist, but I feel like I was never like a Meryl Davis...
MD: Oh, please!
AR: No, I mean it! I wasn't the best of the best or a world champion, but I found myself being really proud of what I had done and realised that success is so personal.
I was really good at what I did and I enjoyed it, and for a little bit I was embarrassed that as I was getting older, I saw phenomenal athletes like Nathan Chen and I was like, 'I’m never gonna be that good'. And it felt like, 'Well then, what’s the point?' But then on the flipside of that, I decided that I would just start to focus on myself, and when I was able to find those victories personally I felt like I was having the most success that I’d ever had.
I feel like what I want to do next, no matter what it is, is to be able to find that success personally because whenever you're able to do that you're able to walk away from whatever you do and be satisfied and be proud. And I want to make people laugh because it brings me a lot of joy and I think, like, in a world where things can feel so crazy, it's nice to be able to give people an escape.
MD: Can you talk a little bit about the fame, and the importance of using your platform for good? What has the fame taught you and what has that experience been like? Because your life is so different now, to how it was before the Games.
AR: I feel really grateful that it wasn’t until I was later in life that I gained an audience. I was able to go through a lot of uncomfortable situations pretty privately. I’ve also learned, and I think a lot of us learn as we get older, the people that we have in our lives and our close group of friends, people do come into that circle, but that circle becomes so much smaller.
I feel incredibly grateful for the friends that I have, and you’ve always been one of them, but I feel like I’ve always had really good role models too. I remember being young - oh boy, do I remember being young - but I remember looking up to you. To have so much success and you treated me, when I felt like kind of a nobody, like you would have treated anybody else. I feel prepared me for so much.
MD: That means so much, thank you. Not everything has always been easy, of course. And I think that’s the case for every Olympian. If you were to look back on moments where money was tight, or balancing all the difficulties of making your dreams a reality, do you have any advice you would give Adam a la 2017, 2016?
AR: I think back to when things were really challenging a lot, when I was living in my coach’s basement. I had to choose between getting ice time or getting groceries, but I was very grateful for the people that were able to help me when I needed help.
The only thing I would say to myself then is, 'Don’t forget this feeling', because those are the moments where I had my biggest breakthroughs.
I felt like I had nothing, so I had nothing to lose. I just unabashedly went for whatever I wanted and I worked towards whatever I wanted, because what was the worst thing that was going to happen? I would still have nothing.
Those were the moments where I was my most fearless. And so I try not to ever forget those things and if there was anything I could say to that person I’d be like, ‘Sorry, you’ll have more money later but just like, focus!’
MD: Outside of your mom, who I know you have a great relationship with, what’s the best advice you’ve been given in and out of the skating world?
AR: I think the best advice I’ve ever gotten was to stay true to who I was and also don’t be afraid to say no, or to have an idea. I think to anybody who’s trying to do anything different, you walk in and you feel like such a novice. But don’t ever not trust your own opinion or your own judgement.
I’ve learned that if you think you have good taste, use it! Don’t be afraid to voice your opinion and be confident in your own voice. Because I can even relate back to my skating career when I didn’t feel like I was making the right choice. I’d ask a million people if they liked my program, and you'd get a million different opinions of, 'Keep it. Change it. Do this. Do that. Go back to last year. Go back to the year before. You should quit. Lose 10 pounds.'
I’m trying to do all of that. At the end of the day you have to really be confident and love what you’re doing. So always do that.
MD: On top of skating at PyeongChang 2018 and being an athlete for Team USA, you were the first Out athlete for Team USA. What did that experience mean to you and did you feel any sense of responsibility?
AR: Being one of the first openly gay athletes in the Winter Games - I got to share this honour with Gus Kenworthy - I think back to different skaters who have been out. Like Rudy Galindo, who really is the first Out figure skater competing. He was Out and won a national title and a world medal. Rudy is the OG.
And I think back to somebody like Johnny Weir who is so unabashedly himself. So comfortable in his own skin, outrageous. And I felt like they were successful because they worked so hard. And they were successful because they were really good at what they had done. And I felt like with those two athletes in particular, I saw myself watching them and in their experiences, and I thought, 'You know what? I feel like we’re three very different people', but I really was inspired by their courage.
No matter what kind of person you are, it takes courage to really be yourself. And it doesn’t matter if you’re queer or not. Sometimes we’re just afraid that people might not like us.
It's like you can smell the blood in the water when someone’s not being authentic. So the best advice you can give anybody is be truly yourself. And when I took that advice, that’s when I felt like I would be the best representative to my country and hopefully a good role model within the LGBTQ+ community.
Gus and I were there and we were getting to walk in, and we kind of looked at each other and he turned to me and he said, ‘Do you want to walk in together?’ And, in that moment, it just felt so much bigger than me. It felt like something I would have never thought was possible 10 or 15 years earlier than that. And it felt like it was a really… it was such a powerful moment for me, that I couldn’t imagine seeing two Out athletes walking together representing the United States in an Opening Ceremonies, that I felt really grateful to be a part of that.
MD: Now that you have experienced all of these incredible things, whether it’s going to the Oscars, talk shows, or getting to have this platform to share things you believe in and talking to very influential people, do you ever pinch yourself and think, ‘I can’t believe this is my life now?’
AR: Erm…no. Because I can believe it. And I can believe it because I feel like no matter the people in the room, no matter how different they are, no matter how it might be conceived we wouldn’t get along, I’ve always felt like it was my superpower to walk into a room and become friends with somebody. Whether that is somebody who’s been a famous actor or a famous singer or just a hockey player here at the rink, we’re all just people.
When we just treat people the way we want to be treated, it doesn’t matter who they are, that we’ll get along. I’m incredibly grateful to have met so many people who are influential, and I think it’s helped me and inspired me to kind of take the same path as people like them.
Adam Rippon's book 'Beautiful on the Outside' is available now.