Olympic Figure Skater Adam Rippon on How Martin Garrix, Coldplay & Queen Helped Him Go For the Gold

AP Photo/Rick Bowmer
Adam Rippon poses for a portrait at the 2017 Team USA Media Summit on Sept. 25, 2017 in Park City, Utah.

At 28, Adam Rippon is about to take to the ice for his first Winter Olympics -- which in some Olympic competitions is practically retirement age. But as the 2016 U.S. national champion from Scranton, Pennsylvania, is poised to be the first openly gay American athlete to qualify for a Winter Olympics gets ready to show the world what he has in Pyeongchang, South Korea, he says one of the things he has to thank for making it to his dream competition is music.

Rippon -- who was born with severe hearing loss and underwent surgery before his first birthday to correct the issue -- will be one of the most exciting and entertaining skaters to watch when the competition on the ice kicks off Feb. 15 with the Men's Short Program. He'll be skating after becoming the first man to win back-to-back world junior championship titles in 2008 and 2009, only to finish eighth at nationals in 2014. His journey took another detour while prepping to defend his 2016 U.S. national title when he broke his foot and had to sit that one out. But after training as hard as ever during a 12-week recovery, Rippon was back in the mix after finishing fourth at the 2018 nationals.

Before he left for Pyeongchang, Billboard spoke to Rippon about how he chooses music for his programs and how the major changes introduced into skating four years ago opened up a new world for his artistry.

The rule change in 2015 allowing skaters to perform to songs with vocals seems to have made a huge difference. Not everyone is skating to "Swan Lake," "Carmen" and the same old warhorses we got so tired of hearing. Now you're hearing Elvis, songs from Hamilton, Christina Aguilera... do you think skating has become more exciting because of that change?

I definitely think so. It opened the door to having anything be possible. You can skate to anything you wanted to or that you felt connected to. It's so important. Before, you had all these warhorses that you'd heard 1,000 times like you said, "Carmen." People were so accustomed to them, but now there's no excuse to not be original now. I remember when I heard about the lyrics change my initial thought was maybe it would sound like everyone was skating to the radio, but that hasn’t been the case. Some people put together programs that are brilliant and have a competitive feel to them. 

You went from performing to The Nutcracker, the usual waltzes and traditional classical pieces to Coldplay, Led Zeppelin, The Beatles, Sia, Queen...

When they allowed vocals to be used in competition I was like, "If we have this new rule I am going to go and utilize it!" It really opened the door for somebody like me to go out there and try to change it up a little bit. I think as humans we love things that sound familiar and sometimes in skating, before lyrics were allowed, we tried to do things that sounded familiar. But when we find something with lyrics, it's easier to portray that and perform. 

The change in the music rule happened to coincide with your coming out. Was that a happy serendipity?

Yes, it led to me having a more free attitude. If I want to skate to this club song, I'm gonna skate to this club song. If I want to skate to Coldplay, I'll skate to Coldplay. It was the perfect moment in my life to take risks, to take chances. Coming out was a huge moment in my life, and it felt very liberating and at the same time I could skate to something liberating.

I’ve been told before you hit the ice you put on your favorite playlist, which is Martin Garrix radio. What is it about his music that gets you pumped up?

I usually try to put on Martin Garrix or deadmau5 radio before I go out there... something upbeat that gets the blood flowing and is also sort of relaxing in a weird way. When you have that beat behind you and you're trying to get into the zone... I love that kind of music.

You've skated to Coldplay's "O (Fly On)" and "Arrival of the Birds" by Cinematic Orchestra, which are pretty unusual choices in the skating world. But you've made them seem like they totally make sense. 

I love Cinematic Orchestra. Some of the stuff they do is so grand and so big. The stuff they do is so perfect. The big thing I always look for is, "Is this music going to really affect someone sitting in the last row of a 15,000-seat arena?" I want to skate to something people can feel throughout the whole arena. Music like that resonates with everybody and it fills space. It's so important when you have four minutes to go out there and prove your case to the world, so you want that music to fill as much space as you want to as a performer. 

That's literally what every musician wants to do too.

Right. Hopefully the music is put together by someone who fills arenas, and as an athlete, you want to do the same.

What made you choose that Coldplay song, which is not one of their more well-known ones?

I also hadn't heard of that Coldplay song even though I'm a big fan. One of my friends who is also a choreographer of mine sent me this song and I was like, "Wow, this is really beautiful." Basically it was this idea that I was this bird that's the leader of the flock and I had this broken wing and toward the end I flew on. I had this program two years ago, and life imitates art and I broke my foot. Now when I do the program I think maybe my wing shouldn't be broken anymore. So now I'm flying through the whole thing. Chris Martin has this voice that resonates through a whole arena.

You're the oldest of six kids, so did you get to dictate what your younger siblings listened to?

When I was young, my little brothers were like, "What do you want to listen to?" As I got older, they were like, "Hey, Adam, move out of the way, we’re changing the music." I was the oldest of my brothers and sisters but the youngest of the cousins, so I always found myself listening to a lot of *NSYNC and talking trash about the Backstreet Boys.

You recently got some headlines for criticizing Vice President Mike Pence leading the U.S. Olympic delegation because of his reported past comments supporting gay conversion therapy in the past. His spokesperson released a statement saying that the allegations are "totally false" and that the veep will enthusiastically support the U.S. team. Were you surprised the vice president's team responded to your comments? And isn't the idea of the Olympics that it's a time when we set aside all the partisan things that divide us and join together to celebrate our universal love of fair competition? And, you know, winning medals, duh!

I don't think anything this current administration does surprises me anymore, including me getting into a back-and-forth with the vice president, which is incredibly bizarre. That's what I love about the Olympics as well: It's a chance for everybody to put that aside and you’re competing as Americans. A lot of people reached out to me and said they support what I said and a lot of people commented that they hope I fall and that it's the first time that they will never be cheering for an American, which is so sweet. I think Vice President Pence going is a political act in itself, on the same token as me being able to go to the Games as an openly gay athlete is a political act in itself. It's a big event that has always lent itself to getting political, but what I do love about sports is the chance to put that all behind us. As the Games get started, hopefully that back-and-forth with Vice President Pence will fade into the background. I will be focused on my event and focused on doing my best for my country.

[Editor's note: After Billboard spoke with Rippon, USA Today reported that the athlete was invited to have a one-to-one conversation with Pence, which he reportedly declined. Pence responded by tweeting on Wednesday (Feb. 7) "one reporter trying to distort 18 yr old nonstory to sow seeds of division. We won't let that happen! #FAKENEWS. Our athletes are the best in the world and we are for ALL of them! #TEAMUSA." He also directly addressed Rippon by saying, "I want you to know we are FOR YOU. Don't let fake news distract you. I am proud of you and ALL OF OUR GREAT athletes and my only hope for you and all of #TeamUSA is to bring home the gold. Go get 'em!" In addition, a spokesperson for Pence's office denied that he ever extended an invitation to Rippon. The skater's mother spoke to CNN on Thursday morning (Feb. 8) and denied that her son had rejected a meeting.] 

You're best friends with fellow skater Ashley Wagner. Do you guys listen to music together? Do you have similar tastes?

We have very similar tastes. It's fun. In the car yesterday we were together and she was listening to some really heavy EDM music and i was like, "Wow, this is really heavy!" She said, "I consider this really relaxing." Now my tastes have changed a bit, so usually if want to mellow my mood I'll put on a jazz radio station.

Watch Rippon skate to Cinematic Orchestra and Coldplay at the 2018 U.S. championships below: