Adam Rippon erupted onto the national stage at the 2018 Winter Olympics, helping the United States win bronze in the team figure skating competition while making history alongside skier Gus Kenworthy as the first openly gay American men to compete in the Winter Games. Never shy about using his new platform to speak his mind, Rippon recently talked with TIME’s Alice Park about his feud with Vice President Mike Pence, his new celebrity fans and his future off the ice.
Figure skating can be a grueling sport, and you missed the Olympic team twice before making it this year. Did you ever think of giving up?
After I didn’t make the last Olympics, I did think about retiring. I didn’t know if I could go through another four years. But I gave myself another chance and stopped putting so much pressure on getting to the Olympics or being national champion. I just focused on being a better athlete, and it took so much pressure off. My goals became personal.
Were you surprised by the outpouring of support when you finally made your Olympic debut?
Wherever I go, I always seem to make friends. I’m so glad I didn’t make the Olympic team in 2010 or 2014, because I was really young and didn’t know who I was. I think we are always on a journey to discover more about ourselves, and I’ve gotten past a huge personal hurdle and now it feels very comfortable to be myself. Sometimes I take people by surprise. But what can I say, I’m surprising!
Your new fans include a lot of celebrities. Who are you most excited to meet?
I would love to meet Britney Spears and Mindy Kaling and Reese Witherspoon. It still shocks me when people tell me that my whole Olympic experience inspired them, celebrity or not. So many people out there struggle to be themselves. Sometimes I trust myself a little too much. But if you can’t trust yourself, how can anybody trust you?
You’re not shy about using social media to snap back at haters. What’s your advice for doing it right?
The key is to make sure you’re dealing with a complete idiot, someone who incredibly stupid and has no tact. Then you can turn around and make it something funny. When people just outright say horrible things, it’s better not to respond. There are also so many people out there saying so many positive things—for every 10 positive comments there are one or two negative ones. Before you respond to that negative someone, respond to the positive ones first. By time you’re through you may realize that negative one isn’t worth your time. Unless you find somebody completely idiotic and stupid who says something that doesn’t make any sense. Then turn it around and make it a viral tweet.
What was your best moment at the Olympics?
I have two favorite moments: the whole day of the team event where I skated, Mirai [Nagasu] skated and Maia and Alex Shibutani skated and we came away with the bronze medal. My other favorite moment was walking in the Opening Ceremonies. I got to do it with my new friend Gus [Kenworthy] and with all of my U.S. figure skating teammates, some of whom I’ve known for over 10 years and feel like they’re my family.
What about the worst moment?
Probably all the nerves I was feeling before the team event and before the men’s short program. But there’s not really a worst moment you can have at the Olympics.
Many skaters who have come out as gay publicly did so after they retired. Why did you decide to compete openly?
I just stopped giving a sh-t. People are so worried about what others think, and I say that based on my own experiences. Skating is a judged sport, and you want to come off as the all-American you think they want. I let go of that notion.
Was it hard?
It’s so important if I have a platform that I use it. For a long time I thought that if I shared my story, I might not be accepted. But I gained so much confidence from it. When you are really able to embrace yourself, the whole world opens up and it’s so liberating. I think I lost 400 pounds of stress after I did it. I felt … free.
Have you heard from Vice President Mike Pence after he tweeted that he supported you and the rest of Team USA?
I haven’t heard from him. I didn’t want to meet him before the Games, because it’s distracting. But it’s foolish not to open the conversation and take advantage of the situation.
So would you talk to him now?
Yes, but I can’t speak from personal experience. This is a conversation for the trans woman who isn’t allowed to use the bathroom and for someone who has been denied services at a business based on their sexuality. These aren’t experiences I have ever gone through. I speak up for those people because I feel all Americans should be treated equally. I feel like I started to be their voice without Mike Pence. But I think he gave me a little bit more power than he thought.
Will you visit the White House with other U.S. Olympians?
Oh, no. I won’t be going. This Administration ran on a platform of fear. I don’t think that’s any way for us to live. I would never want my sister to be spoken to the way Donald Trump has spoken to women. I would never want anyone to talk to my mother that way. And my mother would never tolerate one of her sons doing that, either. I think we can do better.
Do you see yourself as a role model?
I want to. I always remember my mom told me to work hard and treat other people the way you want to be treated. And if you feel you didn’t have a role model growing up, then act the way you want your role model to act. When I was young, I wish somebody like me would have told me that being different was going to make me really special.
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