When the Olympic Games Are Really a Job Audition
Adam Rippon — figure skater, TV appearance genius, and the first out male Olympic medal winner — talks about living on a bag of trail mix and wanting nice things.
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I started skating when I was 10. The funny and awful thing about skating when it comes to money is that if you do well, you can make a good living. But if you’re just right on the cusp of being in the upper echelon, you’re dirt poor. There is no middle class. There’s only doing really well or needing to still have your parents help fund your career. So that’s kind of the boat I was in at first.
In my late teenage years, I was doing really well on the junior circuit. So I was making a little bit of money, but my mom was still helping. It felt like a lot of pressure, like if I didn’t do well, if I wasn’t able to pay for it, I was letting my family down. I didn’t want that feeling anymore. I could handle if I made a mistake, because it’s just me and I’m the one who has to deal with it when I go home. But I didn’t want my family to deal with my mistakes.
At the gym, I would take all the free Granny Smith apples. So that’s what I survived off of: a $10 bag of nuts, and apples.
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So when I was in my early twenties, I moved to California. I told my mom and my coach that I didn’t want any help and I wanted to pay for my own skating. I wanted to just be my own man and to be responsible for what I was doing. When I went out there, the only money I had was from a competition I did a few months earlier in Europe. So I went into a Bank of America and opened a chequing account with 80 euros. With that, I needed to budget for ice time and to pay to go to the gym — because at the time, going to the gym was what was going to help me get more money. Like, if I’m in good shape, I’m gonna skate well, and if I skate well, I’m gonna get more money. And so that was the most important thing for me to do.
I bought the gym membership. After all that, the moneyI had left at the end of the month was just like — I was living off going to the grocery store and buying a family-size bag of trail mix. At the gym, I would take all the free Granny Smith apples. So that’s what I survived off of: a $10 bag of nuts, and apples. And then after being able to only eat nuts and Tazo tea from the gym for a while, I just sort of worked my way into a better spot in skating. I started doing really well. And it was because I was so hungry, literally and figuratively. I didn’t give myself any other option. I was like, I want to buy nice things and I want to pay my coaches. I don’t want to be in debt. So I was on the attack: Nobody is gonna get in the way of my earning my Bloomingdale's points.
Skating is really expensive — anywhere between $50 and $100,000 a year, depending on what you pay for a coach and how much you spend on costumes and choreography. The expenses all really add up. And in skating, you can get funding through U.S. Figure Skating and through the Olympic Committee, and you make prize money and you get money through doing shows.
Right before the 2014 Olympics, I did really well at one Grand Prix event. So I went from having maybe $500 at most — usually I had around $100 in my chequing account and I didn’t have anything in savings — to all of a sudden getting this big cheque for $20,000. So I went to Bloomingdale's for the first time, and I got a Canada Goose jacket. And really, after that one turning point of my doing well at a Grand Prix, I all of a sudden had some money. I had $20,000 in an account, and of course I needed to pay my coaches right away and I needed to pay for the costumes that I said I would pay for. And I had a leased 2003 Volkswagen Jetta that I was like, OK, time to make that monthly payment. So there were things like that. But it was the first time in my life that I felt a little security.
And I’m not gonna let any of these entertainment motherf
Like I said, in skating, the economy is: The rich get richer, and the poor stay poor. There is no middle class. And the difference is one competition. It would be great if there were more money involved in skating, but at the same time, I am so grateful for those times when I laid it all out there and I had nothing to lose, because it made me into this strong person who is able to go into things and be unafraid. Because when I was unafraid, that’s when I wasn’t holding anything back. So even now, having more, I always try to stay in that mindset of having nothing.
I did grow appreciative of when I was able to buy myself nice things. Like now: Do I really like nice designer clothes and stuff? Yes, I love it. And do I have a problem? Maybe. But I like it because it reminds me of the fact that, a long time ago, I set a goal for myself that if I wanted something, I could walk into any store and buy it. And sometimes I just go in and I see something, and I’m like, You know what? I’m just going to get it.
But that being said, I’m pretty careful and always have myself on some sort of budget, even if it’s not necessary.
When I was a skater, I was like, I have to make my money by landing the jumps. Now that I’m transitioning to this other space, it’s like, if I go on The Ellen DeGeneres Show, or if I go on Colbert, I'm like, I have to land this interview. Even when I was at the 2018 Olympics, I felt like I was way more of a personality there than an athlete. I felt so much more comfortable joking around in an interview or taping a skit or something like that. I’ve always been that person with my friends, and I always imagined myself getting more into entertainment. With everything that’s happened after the Olympics, it just feels so right. And I feel really lucky.
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I know sometimes that my personality or my sense of humour seems off-the-cuff and unprepared, and I love to tell jokes as if I’m completely oblivious or stupid. But I’m so thought out — so the opposite of that. When I was skating I was like, I’m not gonna let those motherfuckers get in the way of my paycheques. And I’m not gonna let any of these entertainment motherfuckers get in the way of my paycheque, either. I’m still fuckin’ white trash; I just wear designer clothes now. You can put lipstick on a pig, but it’s still from Scranton. In Hollywood, I think you see people who have settled into their wealth a little bit, because they’re not as flashy. And then you see people who just have new money, like me, and you see they like to have nice things. There’s so much glitz and glam that goes into Hollywood that’s so funny. I just filmed a TV show, and I would have to do spray tans — well, not have to, I wanted to so I would look good and thin. And I would do them, and you're getting your makeup done, and they’re like, “Oh, Adam, come here,” and they start putting makeup on my hands. I’m like, only in Hollywood is it, like, not even your hands are good enough.
And it’s crazy, the amount of stuff they give you for free in Hollywood. There are all these things that I've always wanted, and then all of a sudden you have the opportunity to meet people, and they're like, “Oh, here.” They just give it to you for free. And you’re like, Are you kidding me? Like, it’s so funny that barely anybody can afford a lot of this stuff, and then when you get to a certain social status of even just meeting a few people, they give it to you as a gift. It’s all kind of bullshit, but it is what it is, I guess.
I’ve always dreamed of owning property. You can have a million things from Gucci, but it doesn’t serve you well if you have to live inside your car. So I’ve been really looking at buying property. And I want to invest in myself and in my future. It’s just like skating: If you want to look the part of being the best, you’ve got to pay for the best costumes, you’ve got to pay for the best choreography. In the entertainment world, you’ve got to pay for the stylist, you’ve got to pay for the publicist. It’s just like being an athlete. The more you put in, the more you get out.
As told to Zach Baron exclusively for Wealthsimple; transcript edited and condensed for clarity. Illustration by Jenny Mörtsell.
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