Figure skater Adam Rippon has officially wrapped his first Olympic competitions — and he tells PEOPLE he’s likely to celebrate with a “stiff drink.”
The 28-year-old, who made history as the first openly gay man to compete for America in the Winter Games, has become the toast of Twitter in recent weeks, as much thanks to his strong showing in the skating team event as for his quick-tongued social media presence.
Hollywood, too, has taken notice, with Rippon exchanging messages with the likes of Zach Braff, Mindy Kaling, Reese Witherspoon and other stars.
But all of that — the personality-driven spotlight, the plaudits from celebrities, the thousands and thousands of retweets — is secondary to the skating, and it’s his skating that gave Rippon reason to smile.
“I came here as an athlete, I came here as athlete to show why I’m at these Olympic Games, why I was chosen for the team, why I needed to be on that team event, and that’s been so important to me and that I’ve gotten to show the world who I am,” he told a ring of reporters after his free skate in the men’s event on Saturday.
“I think I’m leaving showing the world that you can also have a big personality and be who you are in the process,” he said.
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Rippon first drew notice on the ice at these Games when his team men’s free skate helped keep aloft the U.S.’s medal chances. Performing to a mix of “Arrival of the Birds,” by The Cinematic Orchestra, and “O,” by Coldplay, he earned third and America ultimately won bronze overall.
That same skate this weekend in the men’s individual event got him slightly lower marks and his total score there came in at No. 10 — still a success, in his eyes.
“To come away from this Olympic Games to skate three clean programs in the midst of what seems like a lot going on, and a top-10 finish in the individual event and a bronze medal , I think this is sort of like a dream Olympic Games for me,” Rippon told the press later Saturday.
“I think I’ve show the world that I’m a fierce competitor,” he said, “but I think I’ve shown them that I’m also a fierce human being.”
While Rippon says he has “no idea” what’s next for his career (and another Olympics seems unlikely), he did have immediate plans for what came after his clutch of interviews.
“I know the next thing off the ice for me is to take off this sweaty hot-mess costume but then after that, who knows?” he tells PEOPLE. “They usually say that after the Olympic Games, somebody’s life changes forever and a lot of times it’s the gold medalist. But I have a feeling that my life has changed forever.”
Rippon also had warm words for fellow Team USA skaters Nathan Chen and Vincent Zhou, who both turned in strong free skates in the men’s event to land in the fifth and six slots.
Chen’s skate, particularly, was a redemption: After two error-prone appearances at these Games, he made history landing six quadruple jumps in his third routine.
Zhou followed Chen to nearly pull off five quads. None of their competitors did more than four.
Both Chen and Zou are at least a decade Rippon’s junior and, with the ability to pull off physically imposing quads, represent the cutting edge of the sport, he said.
“I saw how Nathan skated and then I saw how Vincent skated and I have to say, you know, I am so honestly grateful that I can skate here and in this same completions with these guys. They are incredible,” Rippon said.
Of Chen’s comeback on the ice, he said, “I skate with Nathan every day and he has had such a rough effing week. And for him to kind of put that all behind him and skate so well today — I saw him before I had my six-minute warmup and he was in street clothes and I gave him a huge hug and I said, ‘I’m so proud of you.’ The weight of the world was on him.”
“And Vincent, the future is out there for him,” Rippon continued. “These kids are amazing, and I’m honored and grateful to be on this team with these kids. They feel like my kids, but I’m so proud of them. And on top of that, I’m proud of what I was able to put out there as well.”
Speaking to reporters after his skate — and as he has for weeks — Rippon continued to field questions about his visibility as a gay athlete. He was unabashed.
“I’ve just been myself and so genuinely me this whole entire time, and I think people just aren’t expecting that,” he said. “But you know what? Expect the unexpected.”
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He had a few thoughts as well for what his status as a role model might mean, noting that certainly he hoped his place at these Games would ease the way for others going forward. His success in figure skating, despite his age in a sport so focused on youth, was also seemingly on his mind.
“I want to inspire other young kids, no matter what their background is or where they’re from or anything like that, that they can go out there and if you work hard, you can do anything,” he told reporters.
And make no mistake, he said: “I’m representing my country whether they like me or not.”
“I’ve gotten a lot of attention I think just for being myself. I think that a lot of people, when they come to a competition, are afraid to be themselves no matter who they are,” Rippon said, sounding both serious and wry. “I think one thing that I want people to come away with from this competition is that I’m not a gay icon or America’s gay sweetheart — I’m just America’s sweetheart and I’m just an icon. And if you have a personality like mine, it’s for everybody.”
The Olympics are airing live on NBC. To learn more, visit teamusa.org.