SAN JOSE, Calif.—After the Grand Prix Final last month in Nagoya, Japan, figure skater Adam Rippon, the 2016 U.S. men’s national champion, got on Twitter and defended the authenticity of his butt, as one does.
I had seen the tweet shortly after Rippon unleashed it; as I am a serious investigative journalist, I then did a quick Twitter search with the term “Adam Rippon butt pads.” This only turned up a handful of tweets insinuating that Rippon’s ass was anything but the real deal. I had no idea what controversy or non-controversy Rippon was responding to, although—again, serious investigative journalist—I didn’t let that stop me from blogging about it. When I spoke to Rippon a week later, he explained that he was referring to comments he had seen pop up under YouTube videos of his performances in 2017.
Rippon has competed a lot this season, without much downtime between events. He used YouTube to review his performances and look for things to tweak before the next competition, which was when he first started noticing the comments about his butt. “I saw a comment on the YouTube video. It was like, ‘What a lovely performance—were the butt pads really necessary?’” he recalled. “And then somebody comments and they’re like, ‘Yeah, they must protect him from falling.’” After his next competition, Rippon noticed the same thing again under videos of that performance. “I start to, like, notice this theme that they’ve picked up: I’m wearing butt pads.”
After one of his last performances of the Grand Prix season, Rippon, once again, checked YouTube and found even more comments making the same point. “I just thought it was funny,” he said. “I just wrote this tweet to just set the record straight that I’m not wearing pads. I just have a fat ass.”
Rippon’s tweet was generally well received, but some butt truthers still believed that the skater was being dishonest. “My favorite part of this whole thing is that I’ve since gotten one or two emails from someone very angry and said, ‘Who do you think you’re kidding? You’re a liar.’ And that honestly made everything worth it.”
I, and I think Rippon as well, could have dissected the online debate over his derriere for hours; when I worried aloud that I was objectifying him with this line of questioning, Rippon responded with a flip, “I could give a shit.” When he was questioned about his butt and his tweet during a pre-nationals teleconference, “I have a great body and so I’m just rocking it and I have the good results to follow with my nice (rear),” he said.
But there are bigger considerations, here, and anyway the authenticity of his butt will have little impact on Rippon’s chances of making the U.S. Olympic team this weekend in San Jose. By virtue of their performance at last year’s world championships, the American men earned three spots for the 2018 Winter Games. Nathan Chen, Rippon’s training mate in Southern California, just won the Grand Prix Final and is one of the favorites to win the men’s Olympic title; he has been undefeated this season, can do more varieties of quad jumps than anyone else in the world. His spot is safe. But Rippon may be the second best American male skater at the moment. He has skated consistently and was one of three American men to skate in the Grand Prix Final—that’s half the field. (The U.S. women didn’t qualify any skaters to the Grand Prix Final this year.)
When I spoke to Rippon shortly before nationals, he seemed supremely confident about his prospects for making his first Olympic team at the age of 28. The team will be announced right after the competition; placing in the top three at championships is not a guarantee of being of chosen for the squad. “Our Olympic selection is based on a criteria of a bunch of competitions over the last two years,” Rippon said. “We [Chen and Rippon] have the best two criteria heading into our last competition before the Olympics, which is U.S. Championships.”
That Rippon would still be vying for his first Olympic berth at 28 is surprising, considering how auspiciously his international skating career began a decade ago, with back-to-back wins at the junior world championships in 2008 and 2009. But in the years that followed, Rippon frequently found himself hampered by injury, difficulty with hitting his jumps, and lackluster showings at the U.S. championships. In 2010, he missed an Olympic berth and was named one of the team’s two alternates. That year, he placed sixth at world championships. In 2011, Rippon ended the year with a fifth place finish at nationals and no world championships berth.
While 2012 went better for Rippon—a silver at nationals and a trip to worlds (he placed 13th)—it didn’t yet seem like he was fulfilling the potential he indicated by those junior titles. It wasn’t until 2016 that Rippon won his first—and to date only—U.S. men’s senior national title. When asked what it was like to win his first senior men’s title at 26, Rippon responded, “I’m like a witch—you can’t kill me.”
Then in 2017, Rippon was injured again. He missed his chance to defend his national title—teammate Nathan Chen took the W—and compete at the subsequent world championships. (Typically, the team for world championships is chosen off of the results of nationals. You miss one, you’ll probably miss the other.)
Which brings us up to date to the current Olympic season. Despite no 2017 world championships results to speak of—one of the competitions that is factored into the committee’s decision regarding team composition— Rippon said in a teleconference the only reason he’d be kept off the team is “if other mothers’ competitors are on the selection committee.”
“I’ve been really consistent,” Rippon told me. “I’ve been really strong this whole season and I’m honestly enjoying myself the most I’ve ever have.”
There is a word for the training regimen Rippon described that works a lot better than fun—brutal. He said that on average, he spends around six hours a day at the rink and an additional 1-2 hours a day working out off ice at a gym near his apartment. Despite the relentlessness of his training schedule, Rippon said that he’s gotten better at listening to his body as he’s gotten older. “I’m 28 and I ain’t no spring chicken,” he said. “Everybody else is, like, a teenager and I was like, ‘Oh, I was born in the 80s.’” Chen, the U.S. men’s best hope for a medal in Pyeongchang, was born in 1999.
Figure skating is one of the most watched sports of the Winter Games, but also one that most people only experience through television. I’m one of those people—the 2018 National championships is the first time I’ve watched elite skaters perform live. A couple of weeks before I was set to leave for San Jose, I asked Rippon how the live figure skating experience compared to the televised one.
“You know the old car that like, [can] go up to 70 miles an hour or you can have a brand new Mercedes and that will also go 70 miles an hour,” he said. “They’re doing the same thing, you know. But the Mercedes is like quiet and it’s precise and you can feel all of the details and work and you don’t even feel like you’re driving. But in the 1943 Ford Focus, you think that you’re going to pass out and die. And every time, like, a little wind hits that, it wants to topple over. So you’re both going 70 miles an hour. But one is doing it with refinement and the other one isn’t. And sometimes on TV, you can’t really see the speed or the angle the skater is hitting on an edge or something.”
While I don’t believe that Ford Motor Company was producing the Focus back in 1943, the rest of Rippon’s point holds up well. While two skaters may appear on television to be doing the same jump or the same spin, there can be a stark qualitative difference between the two that gets lost when translated to television’s two dimensions.
I can attest that, when viewed in person, it’s impossible to miss how fast the best figure skaters in the U.S. skate. The speed was impressive even when they weren’t doing anything impressive, even zipping around the rink to get their legs warm at the start of the session. But it wasn’t just the speed that struck me—it was how they got it. Skaters like Rippon—the Mercedes Benzes of the figure skating world, to borrow his analogy—get going quickly and without seeming to try too hard. They make it look easy—much easier, certainly, than it actually is.
TV view of figure skating also limits the scope of what you see. Most of the time the camera is held tight on the skater, which diminishes your sense of the rink as a whole—how big it is and how well the skater is covering it.
This is not to say that figure skating is not well-suited to television broadcast; the sport owes most of of its popularity to TV airings, and it makes for a great television product.
But, as I learned this week, while you absolutely should watch figure skating on television, you will invariably miss out on some small details that might help you understand the sport better. It’s sort of like watching a play that’s been recorded for television. You can watch and enjoy the performances, to be sure, but everyone involved is concerned with the audience in the house more than those watching from their couches.
Rippon put on a show in the short program on Thursday night, but more specifically he put on a show for the crowd in the SAP Center. He had started his Olympic bid, almost a year to the day after breaking his foot and missing 2017 nationals, with a superb performance. All week long during practice, Rippon had been skating with something bordering on swagger; it was as if the confident tone of all of his pre-competition interviews had taken physical form. He acted like he simply couldn’t miss.
He didn’t. Rippon delivered arguably the best short program of his long skating career. He nailed all of his jumps, landing them with flow and speed. His spins were blindingly fast and he effortlessly showed off the flexibility necessary to contort into shapes that most of the men—and many of the women—skaters struggle to get into. Beyond the considerable technical mastery on display, there was the quality of Rippon’s performance—his engagement with the audience started from his opening pose. He stared straight at the judges, the crowd, and of course, the camera. He nailed it.
The performance continued even after Rippon struck his final pose, laying back on the ice. He skated off and into the “kiss and cry” area. Rippon was clearly absolutely thrilled with his performance, and when his scores were announced, he reacted with appropriate exuberance. And a high kick.
This attitude and the ferocity with which he approached competition is relatively new for Rippon; at the post-meet press conference with the top three finishers—Chen, Rippon, and Jason Brown—Rippon discussed a period in his career when he didn’t like competing. According to Rippon, his coach, Rafael Arutunian told him that he needed to figure out whether or not he wanted to skate and compete anymore. At first, Rippon decided he didn’t want to and started taking time off. But he always came back, and finally came to the conclusion that he should try again.
“I said, ‘You know what, I’m going to give myself this shot. I’m not going to worry about anything else.’ That was four years ago. So here I am. I gave myself a chance and I’m taking it,” he said.
Then there was a long pause and then he added, “That was good.”