The morning after Adam Rippon had climbed a small but significant step to reach the podium and accept the bronze medal he had earned in the Olympic team figure skating event, he remembered a much sadder climb he and teammate Mirai Nagasu had made during the 2014 Games.
Rippon missed a spot on the U.S. team for the Sochi Olympics by a lot. Nagasu had finished third in the U.S. championships but was passed over in favor of Ashley Wagner, a highly controversial decision made by U.S. figure skating officials who thought Wagner had better credentials. Despondent and wondering if they'd ever get another shot at the Olympics, Rippon and Nagasu — longtime friends who both skated in Southern California — tried to console each other.
"Four years ago, we were eating In-N-Out on the roof of her house in Arcadia, California, and we were crying that we weren't at the Olympics," he said, "and four years later, we're sharing an Olympic podium together."
Nagasu contributed to the U.S. team's success here by becoming the first American woman to land a clean triple axel in the Olympics and only the third ever to cleanly land the jump in competition when she confidently completed the 3½-revolution jump in her long program. Rippon, who trains at The Rinks-Lakewood Ice, contributed an alluring free-skate performance that pushed his Sochi disappointment well back into the past.
"I felt like I was putting a lot of pressure on myself to skate well. Not only for myself, but a medal was on the line for my teammates and to go out here and deliver and put out an Olympic free skate, it felt amazing," Rippon said at a news conference Tuesday. "And more than that, I felt like I was doing it for my friends and for my teammates."
Figure skating is an individual sport. Rivalries can be fierce amid the glittery sequins and yards of mesh. But these skaters learned to put their differences aside to support each other, giving each other strength to excel on a stage that can be intimidating. Their similarities became more important than the differences in their style or age or dress.
Rippon, 28, shared the news conference stage on Tuesday with 17-year-old Vincent Zhou, who trains in Riverside. The third member of the U.S. men's delegation, two-time national champion Nathan Chen, missed the session because of a change in his training schedule in advance of the men's singles event, which starts here on Friday with the short program.
No conversation with Rippon is ever dull, and in this one he and Zhou joked with each other about their respective ages and styles. Rippon is an artist, Zhou a remarkable jumper who plans to do five quadruple jumps in his long program.
Rippon, who has come out as gay, is vocal, funny, introspective. He has become a social media sensation and he loves every minute of the attention, but the 28-year-old Pennsylvania native has an introspective side, too. His voice wavered and he was visibly moved when he spoke of receiving letters from youngsters who felt they didn't fit in with their families or friends and looked to him for advice because he had been the outsider, the puny kid who got bullied, once upon a time.
"I've always sort of been unabashedly myself and always spoken my mind and from the heart. And you know what, I think America's just catching on," he said. "The other day I was joking to one of my friends. He was like, 'You're everywhere right now.' I was like, 'I know, I'm like America's sweetheart.' And he just laughed in my face because what you think of as sort of the American people embracing, I don't really think I, on paper, really embody much of any of that sort of perceived persona. And I think maybe that's what people are kind of latching onto, that my story's different. That I'm different, and I think on some level we all feel sort of different and when we are embraced for who we are and speaking our minds it's awesome.
"I know what it's like to be a young kid and feel out of place, to want to share your ideas and feel like people might not like them. And I spent a lot of time worrying what people thought of me, and as soon as I was able to let go of those doubts, that's when I was able to find my voice. And I hope that in the process of me sharing who I am with everyone that they can find their voice, too. Honestly it's really fun to be yourself. It's really fun to be me."
Being him means being outspoken. If that means people turn against him or say they hope he will fall — and some have told him exactly that — that's their problem, not his.
"Skating sort of saved my life. It was my outlet that if I didn't feel comfortable sharing my feelings and thoughts, I was able to go out on the ice and express them," Rippon said. "When I was able to marry everything together, that's when everything fell into place."
Zhou is quiet but articulate and thoughtful. The most memorable aspect of being told he had made the Olympic team was that it elicited an embrace from his mother, who gave up her job with Oracle to guide his figure skating career even though that meant leaving his father behind in the Bay Area. They lived in apartments without hot water and air conditioning so they could afford to pay for his skating lessons.
"My mom sat up and gave me a hug. She never gives me a hug. Her parenting is kind of tough love," Zhou said. "It was kind of overwhelming because my mom has sacrificed the most for me and she, above everyone else except myself, wanted me to make the Olympic team."