Behind Adam Rippon's charm is a man on a skating mission

PYEONGCHANG, South Korea -- On the afternoon before the biggest competition of his life, Adam Rippon seemed relaxed. "Every day's the biggest day of my life," he joked ahead of the men's short program on Friday. "Tomorrow I'm just skating at the Olympics."

Rippon has become one of the biggest stars of the Pyeongchang Games, charming the world with his authenticity, openness about his sexuality and quips about his perfect eyebrows. (Being the first openly gay U.S. Olympian and clashing with Vice President Mike Pence hasn't dimmed the spotlight, either.) To talk to him is to be wowed by his confidence, candor and sense of humor. At practice on Thursday, he was loose, at one point mouthing the words to the warm-up music while shimmying his shoulders.

Making his Olympic debut at 28, he's more than a decade older than his teammates Nathan Chen, 18, and Vincent Zhou, 17, a fact of which he's well aware. He claims to be America's "oldest first-time figure skating Olympian since 1936." (He is, by the way. We checked.) But for all of his magnetic off-ice traits, it wasn't Rippon's charm that got him to the Olympics. He clawed his way here with a fierce competitive drive and a single-minded pursuit of his goal.

Staying at the top in figure skating is particularly challenging mentally with age, according to Paul Wylie, who won his Olympic silver medal in 1992 when he was 27. "They had a survey that said how often do you think about quitting? Yearly, monthly? And I was like, daily!" he said. "Every day I struggled. Because you're in a rink skating with 8-, 9-, 10-year-olds, and you're a grown person. You really have to be rooted in your purpose, and that's one thing I really noticed about Adam: He feels like he is on a mission."

That mission is grounded in the pain of 2014, when Rippon finished eighth at the national championships and missed the Olympic team. Devastated, he considered leaving figure skating, but couldn't quite carry through with it.

"I remember a practice with Rafael [Arutunian], and I was like, Raf, I don't like to compete," Rippon recalled at nationals in January. "And he was like, 'You need to figure out if you want to do this or not.' At first, I was like, 'I don't want to do this anymore.' But every time I found myself trying to take time off of the ice, I just found myself coming back to the rink, because it was my home."

He came out publicly in 2015, and since then has transformed his skating. "It's given my skating a greater purpose," he said. Long known more for his artistry than for his jumps, Rippon doubled down on his technique, working with Arutunian to perfect his triple axel, a jump he couldn't do when he was younger, and iron out the kinks in his other elements.

"Raf has calmed Adam down," said 2014 team bronze medalist Ashley Wagner, one of Rippon's closest friends who trains at the same rink. "Adam is ridiculously intelligent, and that can be an athlete's undoing because you're hyperaware of everything that's going on. Rafael has introduced him to a very solid technique, so he can have confidence and turn off his mind when he's skating. That's totally changed his career."

Rippon has also embraced the performative aspect of his skating, choosing music that allows him to better express himself on the ice. Earlier in the season, he skated to Rihanna's "Diamonds" -- with his own vocals. He ultimately dropped that act, and instead opted for music he called "trashy club mix" for his short program because "it embodies me even more than my own voice," he told The New York Times.

"He was what I would call more a pure classical skater," said Wylie, who once worked with Rippon on his triple axel. "Now he's able to push the envelope. With his openness and his self-discovery came a more daring approach. Some would have called it risky, I think he called it personal."

Rippon does not plan to do the quad, the jump that has come to define the men's competition, in Pyeongchang. He's struggled to land it in competition all season, even as his training partner Nathan Chen has done seven quads at a single event. Now that he's finally reached his dream of being at the Olympics -- and won a bronze medal in the team event -- Rippon's goal seems to be delivering a perfect performance rather than scoring the most points.

"Sometimes I think trying all these super-technical elements, the performance gets lost," he said. "When I started skating, I saw these performances, and they blew me away. That's what made me fall in love with skating. When I go into the individual event, I'm going to perform my ass off and have such a good time. I enjoy it, and I want people to enjoy it half as much as I do."