Adam Rippon is already America's 'gay' sweetheart at this year's Olympics. Now he's unexpectedly Team USA's best shot at winning a medal in men's figure skating in PyeongChang.
The development came after Nathan Chen, a 17-year-old American widely considered America's best shot at a gold medal in the event, tumbled in key parts of his short program and finished 17th in a field of 30 skaters. Rippon, meanwhile, delivered his second near-perfect skate of the week and enters the free skate in 7th place. While the podium may still be just out of reach for the out athlete, Rippon boasts the top score for any American at this year's games.
Gliding through a routine set to "Let Me Think About It" by Ida Corr and Fedde le Grande, Rippon opened the short by nailing a triple flip and triple toe loop. He took a deduction after extending a triple axel but skated an otherwise clean routine, ultimately securing a 44.48 technical score and an overall of 87.95, briefly placing him at the top of the leaderboard.
\u201cAdam Rippon probably dedicated this short program to Reese Witherspoon. #WinterOlympics https://t.co/fmMl0BMYXF\u201d
Rippon, who at 28 is the oldest Olympic rookie to represent the US since the 1930s, acknowledged the oddness of discovering success in a sport dominated right now by competitors in the teens and early 20s. "I can't explain witchcraft," he told NBC's Andrea Joyce. "I just feel like I'm coming into my own. I'm confident in who I am and what I'm doing."
The success comes after Rippon narrowly secured his place at the Olympics following a shaky free skate at U.S. nationals. Despite coming in fourth there, he was named to Team USA's three-person Olympic team based on a strong season up until that point.
Rippon had hoped to make Team USA for the Olympic games in 2010 and 2014, and told The Advocate before the games that he only reached the pinnacle of his career after coming out in 2015.
As he entered Men's Single Skating event on Friday, his focus was on the ice. Rippon elected not to include a quad in his short program, instead going for a clean skate. That paid off as he impressed judges and the cheering crown in Gangneung Ice Arena. In the short program, Rippon came in ahead of Mikhail Kolyada of the Olympic Athletes of Russia team, days after Kolyada outperformed Rippon in the Team Event free skate.
Rippon may not have the luxury of choosing a conservative skate in the free, now that he's the top-ranked American in the event. Every skater with a higher short program score landed quads in their routine and plan to do so again in the free skate.
Rippon's routine, which was choreographed by out former skater Jeffrey Buttle, won the adoration of NBC analyst Tara Lipinski. "He makes me jealous," said the retired gold medal-winning skater.
Ashley Wagner, a female Olympic skater who made the Olympics in 2014 but failed to secure a spot this year, flew to PyeongChang to cheer training partner Rippon on from the stands.
When speaking to NBC's Joyce after his short program, Rippon revealed he had been "nervous as hell" before his routine, then started praising the sportscaster's jewelry. When Joyce asked him about the wide attention Rippon has earned, including a Sesame Street appearance with Elmo and midnight tweets of encouragement from actress Reese Witherspoon, he tried to grade his enthusiasm surrounding his Olympic skate. "On the spectrum from Reese to Elmo, I'm excited at about, like, a Meryl Streep," Rippon joked.
NBC analyst Johnny Weir, who is also gay, was at a loss. "Adam and I speak a similar language and I didn't even understand that one," Weir said.
Rippon remains a long shot to win an individual medal, but a spectacular free skate during the Team Event helped the US secure a bronze, ensuring he leaves Korea with some hardware. Rippon skates again tonight in the final men's free skate.
He's also developed a reputation as perhaps the most politically outspoken member of the US team, criticizing a decision for homophobic vice president Mike Pence to lead the Olympic delegation in PyeongChang and turning down an invitation to meet with the politician before competing. After winning a bronze in the Figure Skating Team Event, he said he would skip out on a bash for Olympic winners at the White House to hold an event in support of gay rights instead.
Rippon wasn't the only openly skater on the ice. Belgium's Jorik Hendrickx, who came out publicly in January, put up his best Olympic performance with a technical score of 44.17 and an overall 84.74, ultimately finishing in 11th place in the short program.