'It's so scary, but you feel so powerful': Olympian Adam Rippon tells his coming out story

LGBTQ+ athletes on the rewarding aspects of being out (1:36)

Out athletes from a variety of sports share their stories on the most unexpected benefits of coming out. (1:36)

Former USA figure skater Adam Rippon [he/him], 31, is a Winter Olympic medalist, winning bronze in the team event in PyeongChang in 2018. He came out as gay in 2015, and went on to win the 2016 US Championships.

What was the 'coming out to myself' process like for you?

The first time that I ever had this 'uh-oh' moment, I was, like, in fifth grade and there was this boy in my class. In retrospect, I had a huge crush on him, but I was just like, 'I just think that he's great and maybe he's cute and maybe I just want to spend a lot of time with him,' and I just wasn't putting the pieces together. It wasn't until I was in my 20s that I had the experience of somebody flirting with me and I was flirting back. Before that, it was really easy for me to say, 'I'm focusing on my skating; I'm focusing on my sport and I will get to this later.' The first time I was talking to a guy for real, all of the pieces kind of came together. So I told my friends and then I started to tell my family. Everybody was super supportive, but it took a while. I was 22 when I finally did come out to everyone. I could have had way more fun if I was just relaxed about it.

Did you have a specific reason for coming out to the media/public, rather than keeping your private life private?

[Before] the Olympics in Sochi [in 2014], Russia came out with this new anti-gay propaganda law. I felt for the first time, which is a huge sign of privilege, that there was this law that directed me specifically for something that I couldn't control. I felt that I should say something, but [advice] from the US Olympic Committee was that we could say something, but once we got to Russia, there wasn't really anything they could do if something happened. I never made that Olympic team and when I took a step away, I just felt like, 'Oh my god, I wish I would have said something.' In the period after the 2014 games, I was just like, 'You know what, I'm going to do everything I've wanted to do in my career and I'm not going to care, and I'm just going to say the things that are important to me.' So I decided to talk to US Figure Skating, who is our governing body, to do an interview with them. They'd always been supportive so I felt very comfortable to do that. The article came out maybe a month later. I got a lot of nice messages. It was very under the radar. This was before I had won my US National title and before I had ever qualified for an Olympic Games, so I was not very high-profile in the sports world. It was just something that was very personal to me.

READ: 17 LGBTQ+ athletes share their coming out journeys

Has coming out impacted your career and opportunities at all?

When I came out, there was this fear that it would affect the way that I was scored. But I realised that if this was going to affect the way that I was marked, it didn't matter to me because it was way more important for me to represent who I am. When you go out there all by yourself, you only have a few minutes to show all the work that you've done for years. If you can't show that authentically, as yourself, I didn't think that I could do my best work, so I would say that coming out was one of the best things I ever did for my career. I let go of so much doubt and worry, and I let go of what other people thought of me, because I was more focused on what I thought of myself. When you let go of that, it's this huge weight lifted off your shoulders. I could focus on things that really empowered me.

How has your sport changed with regard to the LGBTQ+ community during your career?

I would say that it's changed drastically, at least on the outside. Really, I think when I was such a loudmouth at the Olympics, it was the first time that some people could see somebody who is like me be in the centre of it all. I wasn't a sidekick or a side character. I was a main character -- I was the main character, at least, in my own space. As for US Figure Skating, they did a whole series on Instagram this past Pride where they interviewed different queer athletes in the whole sport. That's something that I never, ever thought I would see. It comes with hate, obviously, but it does come with a lot of support. They owe it to, and I owe it to, so many people who have come before us, where it really did affect their career. I always think of someone like Billie Jean King, where her coming out was forced upon her and she lost almost everything from it. If it weren't for someone like her, or in my sport, Rudy Galindo or Brian Boitano, to share their experiences, I don't know if I even would have thought it was an option.

What is the most rewarding, and perhaps unexpected, part of being out?

It's to hear from other people about how my story or my experience changed their life or their world in some way, whether it be very small or something that feels very big. Heading into the Olympics, I wasn't a gold medal favourite, and there wasn't a lot of attention on me going in, and I was just focused on having the best experience I could have. In sports, it can be so black and white, where there's only one winner. Everyone who's not the winner is sometimes perceived to be the loser and that's absolutely not the case. When you go out there and you leave nothing on the table, you might not be the champion of the event, but you are a winner. I was so focused on just having the best experience I could have, and that was really relatable for a lot of people.

What would your advice be to folks who are struggling with their identity?

My advice is: Nobody cares. I know that feels crazy, but nobody really cares that much. That shouldn't make you feel sad -- it should make you feel liberated, because the only person that really cares about the way that you feel and the way you interact with the whole world is you, so focus on what you like and not how to appease other people. Just ask yourself really simple questions: What do I like? Do I like this? Do I want to wear this? Do I want to talk to this person? Am I attracted to this person? Just ask yourself the bare bones questions and don't make it any more complicated than it has to be. When you're on your journey coming out, you need to make sure you're in a space that feels safe and there are people around you that will support you. That's incredibly important. But when you're trying to ask yourself those questions, make them really simple and don't overcomplicate it.

When debating coming out in your mind, what were your worst - and best - case scenarios? And did either come to pass?

The worst case scenario was that I would get pushed aside -- that people would be nice to my face and then they would talk behind my back and that I would get judged differently. My results would suffer and my success would suffer. I realised that the best case scenario was that I just wouldn't have to worry about what other people were thinking anymore because I just didn't care anymore. I made a bold decision, where I was like, 'This is more important to me than any success I could have -- to be brave in this moment and to have this coming out to friends and family.' I think a coming out experience is one of the most liberating and powerful experiences anyone can have in their life. It's just so scary and there are so many things that come with it, but you feel so powerful. To feel that weight come off your shoulders, it's like the skies part and you can move mountains. Because of that experience, I felt like I was powerful and I was brave.

Did you ever feel any pressure, either internally or from speculating fans, to be a role model or an ambassador for the queer community? And is that something you embrace now?

I've never felt pressure to be a role model because I don't think that I am, but if I can do things that empower people, that's great. I think the reason I got here is just because I learned to focus on things that felt really authentic to me. If there was something that I wanted to talk about, I would talk about it. If there was something that I felt wasn't right, I would say that I didn't think it was right. If I really liked something someone did, I would go out of my way to make sure that they knew it. I would just try to empower people in that way. Throughout my sporting life and athletic career, I hope that's something that people got from me. I hope, in a way, that it's inspired them, but I don't truly know if I'm a role model. Life is short, so if you don't do things that make you feel happy and good, what's the point? Have people around you that make you feel good, empower you, and make you laugh, because this is your one experience here on earth.