GANGNEUNG, South Korea -- As he went into the final steps of his routine on Monday, Adam Rippon -- with his heart cantering and the volume in the arena rising to a frantic peak -- was focused on a single thought.
"Baby," he said to himself, "you better keep it together."
Rippon's powerful performance in the long program of the figure skating team competition helped send the United States on its way to a bronze medal in the event and left the 28-year-old Olympic rookie from Pennsylvania simply giddy. "Now I'm actually an Olympian! They have the footage!" he said afterward, bouncing in skates through the snaking interview area.
It was typical from Rippon, who is bold and unflinching and, if nothing else, candid. And while some might find Rippon's confidence overwhelming (if not sometimes arrogant), the truth is that he is in many ways exactly what we should want athletes to be.
There is authenticity instead of obfuscation, declaration instead of equivocation. While some who find fame through sport might use the demands of their work as a weak shield for their thoughts and feelings -- sweating and training at the expense of all else -- Rippon sees it another way.
One of the first openly gay American athletes to reach to these Olympics (and arguably the most high-profile one at these Winter Games), Rippon has not shrunk from the importance of his platform. He is, as he said, "here to do a job," but he recognizes that, like most people who don't traffic in athletes clichés, there is nothing physically crippling about both possessing an opinion and then sharing it.
And despite what players or coaches like, say, New England Patriots bench boss Bill Belichick might have you believe, original thoughts do not lead directly to the failure of a person's otherwise impressive athletic gifts.
"I think my voice has given my skating more importance," Rippon said. "It gives my skating a greater purpose."
Why shouldn't it? The standard position in sports is so often to shunt aside anything unrelated to the obvious pursuit of victory that a perspective like Rippon's can be disquieting. To that end, some television coverage of Rippon sometimes glosses over (or skips entirely) how his sexual identity fits into his personal narrative, and the official transcripts of Rippon's interview on Monday that were provided by Olympic officials did not include any responses that weren't of the stock sports variety.
But that is what makes Rippon's willingness to engage -- to be, well, a person -- significant. When he was asked earlier this year about his thoughts on Vice President Mike Pence leading the American delegation here, he did not fall back on the chestnut of wanting to avoid "distractions." He said what he felt (which was "Mike Pence doesn't stand for anything I really believe in") and did not back off it when there was the inevitable pushback.
He is raw. Sometimes, that can look cocky -- as when he suggested before the U.S. Nationals in January that the event was "going to be my coronation" -- and sometimes it can be hilarious, like when he posted a detailed tweet about whether or not he used extra padding to enhance his posterior while performing ("No, it's just my real butt.")
It is, at all times, genuine. Rippon's celebration when he finished his long program here -- which featured several muscle-flexes and some fevered jumping up and down -- was only eclipsed by his reaction as he watched teammate Mirai Nagasu dazzle in the women's portion of the event.
Four years ago, Rippon and Nagasu shared hamburgers and regrets as they watched the figure skating event at the Sochi Olympics go on without them. On Monday, Rippon was in tears watching his friend become the first American woman to land a triple axel in the Olympics, and his shriek as she closed her program could be heard two levels up from the ice.
Rippon is showing that it is, in fact, possible to be a strong athlete, a strong teammate and a strong advocate all at the same time. Sharing a kiss with Gus Kenworthy, another openly gay athlete at these Games, during the Opening Ceremony did not somehow impinge his ability to land a triple lutz.
Neither did declaring that he wouldn't go to the White House if invited after the Olympics nor, for that matter, did commenting on his disappointment over the "generic" condoms being distributed at the Olympic Village ("I thought maybe they'd have like Olympic rings on them"). Rippon's candor is not just limited to his sexual identity, either. He finds no weakness in talking about his frustration when he struggles, and spoke frankly about how he was depressed after missing the 2014 Olympics.
"You're an ambassador," Nagasu said to Rippon in the mixed zone, and he beamed.
Rippon's mother, he said, often told him that there was value in talking about his experiences and his thoughts because there is undoubtedly meaning to it for others far beyond his own circle.
Now, on the biggest stage of his career, he has embraced that idea. And he is determined to be himself.
"I always knew I had a voice," he said, "but it took me a very long time to find it and to use it."