The Olympic aspirations would come. But the first time Adam Rippon went ice skating, he just wanted to be like the popcorn tin lady.
You know the one: painted onto those three-flavor tins at CVS, gliding across an idyllic Victorian lake and wearing a white muff and a bonnet. Five-year-old Rippon’s mom, however, barred the muff, preventing him from realizing his earliest skating costume dreams - devastation No. 1. Once on the ice, he fell over immediately - unexpected, and devastation No. 2. “After that fiasco, I never wanted to go ice skating again,” he writes in his new memoir, “Beautiful on the Outside.” “My dreams of being the world’s next ‘popcorn tin lady’ were over.”
More than two decades later, Rippon became, as he’s put it, “America’s sweetheart” at the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea, where he snagged a bronze medal as part of the figure skating team event. He was the first openly gay U.S. male athlete to win a medal in a Winter Olympics, and at 28, a decade older than his teammates. After retiring from competing, he won the 26th season of “Dancing with the Stars,” and - well, let’s not turn this into the Adam Rippon Wikipedia page. (“Which, honestly, is really worth a read,” he assures. “I’ve spent several hours there myself.”)
Brimming with Rippon’s signature sass, “Beautiful” is an entertaining, unfiltered look at the path to becoming an elite athlete - and it’s not all fun and (Olympic) games. Yes, we’ll see our delightful skater grow and evolve and, by the end, figure out the true joy of sport. But he shines brightest as he theatrically recounts the times his life was like “a raging dumpster fire.” To be clear: Rippon is funny. He lands a joke like it’s a triple axel, with eyebrow-raising, hilarious passages that demand to be read out loud to whomever is nearby.
Within a couple years of starting to skate seriously at age 10, Rippon traded public school for home school. He cycled through a rotation of coaches, which required him to move to different cities and live with whomever would have him. He was away so often that when his youngest brother had to draw a photo of the entire family for school, Rippon was omitted. “Adam’s not in the family,” the boy told their mom of six. “Adam’s the babysitter.”
Life away from home wasn’t the parent-free nirvana a teen might imagine - an elite athlete does little other than train. After a particularly poor skate, his mortified Russian coach chastised him: “You like having friends, don’t you?” When he answered in the affirmative, she responded, “Well, they’re not going to be your friends if you don’t skate well.” Another time, the coach charged Rippon’s mom a shame surcharge - an extra $500 for the shame of being associated with him after a less-than-stellar performance.
That kind of pressure underscores Rippon’s recollections: Beneath the jokes, there’s a suffocating need to win, and a never-ending quest to be perfect - and thin enough, strong enough, fast enough, dedicated enough. To afford it all. To enjoy a balanced life - without disappointing anyone invested in his success. Rippon recalls one attempt to placate his mother by distancing himself from a distracting boyfriend: “I would go back to being like a Ken doll with just a flat plastic front who did nothing except eat, sleep, and skate,” he writes.
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“Beautiful” is breezy and chatty, as though Rippon is massaging the script for one of his Instagram stories. He’s a pro at well-placed pop culture references and, where some elite athletes seem otherworldly - made from different stuff - he comes across as the relatable Olympian next door. His flair for storytelling peaks in tune with the drama surrounding his life: desperate financial struggles through his 20s; the devastation of failing to qualify for the 2014 Olympics; a catastrophic injury ahead of the 2018 games. In particularly compelling chapters, he reveals how he came out both personally and professionally - and how being gay affected his skating career. (“It’s not an overt homophobia, where gay skaters are punished, but a softer and equally insidious version of it,” he describes.)
He now equates his sexuality to a “fun fact ... like any other bit of biographical trivia.” But it was a headline-grabber during the games, when Rippon publicly criticized Vice President Pence, who was chosen as the head of the U.S. delegation to the PyeongChang Games, for not supporting gay people. The feud culminated in a Twitter spat with various members of the administration.
Once the cacophony calmed down, and after claiming his medal, Rippon ran into the U.S. men’s hockey team at a party. The members all wanted to take a photo with him because their girlfriends were fans. “It was like ‘Freaky Friday’ to me,” he writes. When he was a shy little kid, everyone on the hockey team wanted to beat him up. “Now they all wanted to take my picture and I was trying to be their friend. If I had a dollar for every girlfriend selfie I took with an athlete, I would have made back all the money I had spent on training to get myself to the Olympics in the first place.”
So, OK. Rippon might have gone home from the athletic world’s largest stage with a bronze medal in tow. But this memoir? It’s pure comedic gold.