Hardworking, innovative, and outspoken — Adam Rippon is unapologetically authentic. It's a trait his mother says he's had from a young age.
"My kids grew up in a very open and welcoming space, and that extended to sexual orientation," Kelly Rippon, a motivational speaker for , tells GoodHousekeeping.com in an exclusive interview. "No one was treated as odd, just because something might be unusual, it wasn't considered abnormal."
The 28-year-old figure skater's signature "Rippon" lutz move (where he raises both his arms above his head while doing a triple lutz) has brought him fame, but it's his trademark self-expression and infectious personality — both on and off the ice — that has captivated us.
As Adam prepares for his Olympic debut, the attention he is getting for speaking out in with a USA Today reporter about Vice President Mike Pence and the Trump administration's policies toward LGBT Americans will follow him. But Adam has remained focused on his skating. "Mike Pence doesn't stand for anything that I really believe in," about the Vice President, who led the U.S. delegation to the Olympic opening ceremony on Friday.
But his mother says these headlines will not define him. As the oldest U.S. figure skating rookie, Adam has had a nearly two-decade journey to the Olympics, but she believes he's just getting started.
Kelly, who raised Adam and his five siblings as a single mother, says her son fell in love with skating after attending a birthday party at a rink in Pittston, Pennsylvania, near their Clarks Summit home, at the age of 10. "He learned really fast," she says. "Within an hour he was able to skate around and he looked really coordinated." She signed him up for group lessons and he entered his first competition eight weeks later.
A former dancer and a gymnastics coach, Kelly saw Adam's potential right away. "He had a very good back, he was very coordinated and his learning trajectory was so quick," she says. "He was able to reverse moves right to left and left to right without a lot of explanation. It was a very natural thing for him."
Adam's parochial school in Clarks Summit allowed him the flexibility to travel to Philadelphia (around a three-hour drive) to train a few days a week under Russian figure skater Yelena Sergeeva, who'd remain his coach for the next seven years. Kelly says the word "Olympics" was never mentioned to them.
"I think it's almost like whistling in the theater," she says, referencing a common superstition. "We didn't discuss it."
In the 2004-2005 skating season, Adam won silver at the junior novice level at the U.S. Championships. The next season, he debuted on the ISU Junior Grand Prix Circuit, traveling around the world. At the 2006 U.S. Championships he placed 11th at the junior level.
"We used to have conversations about the difference between winning and feeling like a winner," says Kelly. "Since he's been competing, I always tell him, 'Enjoy yourself and be in the moment!'"
In order to afford lessons and travel to competitions with her son, Kelly remortgaged their home, and in then last 15 years, she has only missed four of his international competitions. "I traveled with him as much as I could," she says. "It was a priority."
Adam's younger siblings (he has five) often accompanied Kelly to practices. (They've currently set up a to raise money to watch him in PyeongChang.) "I would bring them to playground or to the Chuck E. Cheese, while Adam did his thing," she says with a laugh. "We had fun! They are his biggest fans."
At the 2008 U.S. Championships, he won the junior title, and at the 2009 U.S Championships, he placed seventh in the senior level. The next year, he placed fifth overall in the U.S. Championships and was named a second alternate for the 2010 Winter Olympics. In 2012 and 2014, he won silver at the U.S. Championships.
"He worked so hard for all of those things, for all of his achievements," says Kelly. "But it's his sexuality, something he didn't practice for and dedicate time to improving, that the public is most intrigued by."
Kelly says there was no "dramatic" moment when Adam came out to her as gay eight years ago, although she says she "hadn't dismissed the possibility" when he was a child. "When he was a young boy, we'd go to McDonalds and he'd want the doll instead of the weapon, and the person at the window would say 'Do you want the girl or boy toy?'" she recalls. "I would tell them, 'Please don't say that, just say do you want the Barbie or the Transformer!'"
Adam didn't "officially" tell his mother he was gay until he was in his 20s. "We were on our way to a show and he said, 'I want to make sure that you know that I'm gay, but you probably already knew' " says Kelly. "I told him that's not something I would ever assume, and, his sexual orientation is not really my business as his mother."
Before he came out publicly in an October 2015 article at age 25, Kelly says she initially discouraged Adam from speaking out. "I thought it would be used against him, I found there to be prejudice in this sport," she says. "There are judges, competitors, and parents who have very strong views about homosexuality, period." She quickly changed her mind: "He was 24, and in total command of his life and completely responsible for his decisions, I supported him 100%."
Kelly says the response from the skating community at the time was "overwhelmingly positive," although she had several parents and judges confront her: "They'd say, 'As long as he's not throwing it in our face,'" says Kelly. "But, like, how do you throw sexuality in someone's face? When there's a married couple pair skater, are they throwing their sexuality in our face, because they're married and they're skating with each other? Like, when he lifts her is it more intimate than when two people who are not married lift each other? Isn't it a sport? Like, why are you assuming because a gay man does a layback spin, that's an effeminate move, and when a heterosexual man does it, that it's an element?
"I feel sorry for them, because they might as well be telling me to put butter on a burn. It's a primitive way of thinking."
After his performance in the figure skating nationals in January 2018, Adam was selected to represent Team USA at the Winter Games in PyeongChang, making him the first openly gay U.S. athlete to ever qualify for the Winter Olympics. (Gus Kenworthy is the first openly gay U.S. Olympian.)
In the weeks leading up to the Games, Adam , who asked him how he felt about the news that Vice President Mike Pence will attend the opening ceremony of the Olympics and lead the official U.S. delegation. "You mean Mike Pence, the same Mike Pence that funded gay conversion therapy?" he told her. "I'm not buying it."
According to USA Today, Pence requested a one-on-one chat with Adam, who turned him down. Pence's press secretary the USA Today account, and Thursday morning the Vice President tweeted:
"I think that when someone says anyone is less than, that they're broken, or that they need some sort of medical intervention because they're somehow imperfect, that's very dangerous. And it's very dangerous when that person has a lead in government," Kelly says about Pence's support of conversion therapy, the practice of trying to change a person's sexual orientation or gender identity. "I would love to speak to [Pence's] wife, just as a mother. How could she embrace such an ideology?" (Representatives for the Vice President his 2000 congressional campaign statements about conversion therapy have been taken out of context. The White House did not immediately respond to requests for comment from GoodHousekeeping.com.)
As the world watches her son this month, Kelly couldn't be prouder of how he's using his spotlight.
"He is giving a voice to people that really need a voice," she says. "People that feel less than all the time, are now able to say, wow, this young guy who's going to the Olympics for the first time actually said we matter. And maybe they're not on figure skating fans, but now they know they matter.
"And I think that has incredible value."