Chances are, a year ago today you had barely heard of Adam Rippon.
To be sure, there was good reason to know his name. He had been one of the best figure skaters in America for much of the last decade, finishing second in the U.S. Championships twice and winning a national title in 2016. He was ranked top-10 in the world each of the last three seasons. And In 2015 he came out publicly as gay — a rare out professional athlete in America — and transformed his appearance from boy to man.
Yet if you weren’t paying attention to figure skating or the occasional article on Outsports or Towleroad, Rippon’s name may have eluded you. Forget about being a household name, “Adam Rippon” wasn’t on the lips of even most HRC diners or GLAAD Award winners in 2017.
Oh how times have changed.
Today Rippon is charting a course virtually unheard of in the sports world. He has used his unabashed wit, handsome smile, and unending determination to forge a path for himself that is shaping up to be unlike anything we’ve seen from a former athlete.
For his incredible year both on and off the ice, Rippon is Outsports’ 2018 Person of the Year.
In addition to wowing America with his medal-winning free skate in the team competition at the Winter Olympics, this year Rippon won Dancing With The Stars, stirred political conversation around LGBTQ rights and the White House, worked the red carpet at the Oscars, acted in an episode of Will & Grace, was a guest on seemingly countless news and talk shows, and most recently returned to the ice for a Christmas TV special. He’s been on numerous “best-of” lists recapping the year. Oh, and did we mention he danced with Elmo and sang his own rendition of a Rihanna hit before skating to it?
Yet it’s not what Rippon did in 2018 that won him our adoration and this honor, it’s how he did it.
I’ll never forget a message from an editor at SB Nation during the Olympics. It was from a straight guy who had been watching Rippon over that first week in South Korea and, like so many Americans, was “meeting” him for the first time.
“I think I love Adam Rippon,” he wrote. Even this straight guy couldn’t get enough of Rippon’s flash and flair, his willingness to pour his fabulous self into his skating and every word that came out of his mouth, and to say and do what he felt was the right thing to do, regardless of repercussions, all the time.
As I wrote earlier this year, Rippon allowed America to fall in love with a “really gay” athlete. And, despite some jerks along the way, we did.
Earlier this week Rippon told me that he feels a sense of pride about what he’s accomplished this year. But when he talks about that pride and those accomplishments, it’s not his long list of 2018 IMDB credits, or even his performance in Pyeongchang, that are top of mind. For Rippon, it’s what’s inside that has counted the most.
“Winning is a huge part of sports, and medaling is incredible, it’s amazing,” he said via phone from New York where he’s spending much of the week before Christmas with his boyfriend. “But the point of sports is to go into the gym or onto the ice every day and better yourself. That’s the whole point of life. I’m able to look at my sports career and be proud of it, because I got the real point of it all.”
Those life lessons will now need to serve him well. As he ventures into a mainstream-non-sports-media career the likes of which we’ve rarely seen from an athlete (Michael Strahan may be the closest), he said he is filled with both fear and excitement about what’s around the corner.
“I’ve spent 20 of my 29 hears focused on one thing,” Rippon said. “[This year] I’ve had moments of uncertainty because I’m leaping into the unknown. I’ve had the chance to try so many different things, and I’ve never done this stuff before, so it’s been a little scary.”
What Rippon will rely on, in addition to the work ethic he sharpened on the ice, are his natural wit and sense of humor. You can’t be in Rippon’s presence for long without cracking a smile, feeling the warm embrace of his personality wrap its arms around you. It’s all part of Rippon’s plan to make the lives of people around him better with his presence.
“I’ll always be an athlete at heart, but I’ve also always felt I was an entertainer. I love making people laugh. So being able to do something that’s always been a dream of mine, I feel like that’s my true calling.”
A few times this year he has been reminded of the impact of following his passion and living out his true life for all the world to see.
Lingering with him as the new year approaches is a recent chance encounter with a young girl and her mother.
He was finishing up an appearance and the girl, maybe 12 or 13 and proudly sporting a rainbow pin, came running up to him. She had seen him skate in the Olympics and wanted a picture with her hero. Rippon was glad to get in a couple shots with her, then he chatted with the girl for a couple minutes before she headed off.
A minute later a woman, tears welling in her eyes, approached Rippon and introduced herself as the girl’s mother. She said her daughter had always been a quiet girl with very few friends at school. When the girl recently came out to her mother, she told her mom that watching Rippon skate in the Olympics was the first time she saw herself in someone else, and it completely changed her world.
”I get emotional talking about it now,” Rippon said, “because I can’t believe something I feel like I did for myself was able to help somebody else so much.”
Just being himself, he has helped more people — LGBTQ and otherwise — than he will ever know.
Rippon will spend the final week of 2018 in Los Angeles, where he lives. While he’s currently writing a book and working on other projects, his Christmas wish after a busy year is pretty simple:
“Just a nap. And maybe to lose 5 pounds.”
Previous Outsports Person Of The Year winners: