The Bittersweet Beauty Of U.S. Figure Skater Adam Rippon

Originally published on February 16, 2018 8:00 am
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Adam Rippon is skating again on Olympic ice tonight in the men's short program. He made his Olympic debut over the weekend, helping the U.S. win bronze in team figure skating. Rippon is 28 and the first openly gay skater to make the U.S. team. He is owning it.


ADAM RIPPON: A few years ago, I made the decision to come out publicly as gay - spoiler alert.

KELLY: That's Rippon in a U.S. figure skating video last year. And this moment, Rippon gliding across Olympic ice, is one that Vanity Fair film critic Richard Lawson says he has been waiting for his whole life. Lawson watched Rippon skate Sunday night. And afterwards, he wrote a piece that went viral. Lawson told us about what was going through his mind as he typed.

RICHARD LAWSON: In 1992, during the Albertville Olympic Games, I got my first glimpse of figure skating, and that was the year of Nancy Kerrigan and Kristi Yamaguchi.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: And now the introduction of the gold medalist.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Gold Olympic champion.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Kristi Yamaguchi.


LAWSON: And there was something about it to my 8-year-old self who was obsessed with "The Little Mermaid" and a lot of kind of, I guess, you could say girly things that just really drew me in. I couldn't stop thinking about them and trying to emulate them. And I had a friend who was my same age and we had gone to preschool together who was equally interested - another boy. And I would go to his house a lot, and we would in our stocking feet just kind of glide around on his living room floor.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Nancy Kerrigan of the United States, last year's...

LAWSON: Nancy Kerrigan had a particular spin that she did, and we were trying to do that or, you know, pretend that we were doing triple axels.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: She opens with a gorgeous triple flip.

LAWSON: And it was this really sweet, pure kind of passion that we had as little boys. And that friend and I had drifted apart and I - which I thought was a kind of natural progression that, you know, we didn't go to the same school. We didn't live in the same town. And I kind of let it be. And we reconnected once a few years ago, but that was it. And then just last summer, I spoke to my mom about him for some reason. I don't remember how he came up. And she told me that, in fact, all those years ago when we were maybe 9 years old, my friend's father had said that we weren't allowed to see each other anymore because he thought that I was having an influence over him.

He thought I was gay, which, of course, he was right. But his son, it turns out, was gay, too. And that information just colored the whole memory of my friend and particularly these joyful moments we spent in the winter of 1992 pretending to be Kristi Yamaguchi. And so when I sat down on Sunday night to watch this first out gay figure skater skate at the Olympics, I knew it was going to be an event. But I didn't quite know that it would be so emotional for me personally.


LAWSON: Me imagining what - how I would've responded to that as an 8-year-old, as a 10-year-old, as a teenager is that his effeminate qualities, his girlishness, his gayness, frankly, was so present and celebrated, and he got so much applause. And all of that just bundled together, I just think as a kid that would have been a really vital moment of validation.


LAWSON: You can be entirely yourself, and people will love you not despite it but partly because of it. I thought a lot about how I would've felt if there was Adam Rippon when I was 8 years old or 10 or a teenager. And something I wrote in this piece was that seeing him as a kid would have destroyed me. And I don't mean that in a negative way. I mean, it would've sort of just torn me down to the studs and then maybe rebuilt me, you know, just a little bit more confident or a little bit more seen.


LAWSON: We have to address systems and institutions. We have to make bigger, broader changes. But once in a while, seeing this one individual thing, this one moment can instill so much hope. And I'm so glad that hopefully so many people saw that on Sunday night when Adam skated and will see it again.


KELLY: That's Vanity Fair film critic Richard Lawson. His piece is titled "The Bittersweet Beauty Of Adam Rippon." Lawson's new book is "All We Can Do Is Wait."

(SOUNDBITE OF VULFPACK'S "CHRISTMAS IN L.A.") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.