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Figure skating is always a fan favorite at the Olympic Games, a combination of athleticism, sequined costumes and often melodrama. U.S. figure skaters are gathered in San Jose, Calif., this week for the national championships and a chance to qualify for the Olympics, which begin next month. NPR's Tom Goldman reports there has been drama, more real-world than soap opera.
TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: The U.S. Figure Skating Championships in an Olympic year are a stressful event. Performances in the short program and longer free skate don't solely determine whether a skater makes the Olympic team, but they count a lot. So the stumbles during routines are more frequent, the on-ice smiles sometimes appear strained. 2016 U.S. champion Adam Rippon was feeling it before his short program last night.
ADAM RIPPON: When I made a little mistake in the six-minute warm-up, I said, girl, you tight. So...
GOLDMAN: But the 28-year-old veteran told himself to bend his knees, take things one at a time. And it worked.
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GOLDMAN: Rippon flowed and jumped with ease. Although he's had success in his career, he's battled injury and illness and never qualified for an Olympics. But last night's second-place finish was what he calls a first step toward that elusive Olympic gold.
GOLDMAN: And if Adam Rippon makes the trip to South Korea next month, a much bigger audience will get to know a top-notch and highly entertaining skater.
RIPPON: A few weeks ago, I was asked in an interview - and I tweeted about it - that they asked me, what was it like being a gay athlete in sports? And I said, it's exactly like being a straight athlete, only with better eyebrows.
GOLDMAN: Rippon came out in 2015, and he could be one of the first openly gay figure skaters to compete in an Olympic Games.
RIPPON: Growing up, I really didn't have a lot of role models. And I said, if I was ever given the chance and the platform, I would share my story.
GOLDMAN: He says sharing that story has made him a better competitor.
RIPPON: Because I don't really care what other people think of me. I'm able to go out there and I'm really able to be, like, unabashedly myself. And I want somebody who's young, who's struggling, who's not sure if it's OK if they are themselves to know that it's OK.
GOLDMAN: Adam Rippon isn't the only member of the figure skating world to put a dramatic stamp on these championships. Sports federation leaders traditionally don't wade into controversy, certainly geopolitics, but not this week. After North Korea floated the idea that its athletes might participate in the Olympics, Senator Lindsey Graham said the U.S. should boycott the games. In San Jose, U.S. Figure Skating President Sam Auxier willingly waded into the fray.
SAM AUXIER: These athletes have worked so hard to get here. I mean, their whole lives are focused on getting to the Olympics. It would be devastating if we were to pull out just for this kind of posturing.
GOLDMAN: There's a direct connection to his sport. The only North Koreans who've qualified for Olympic competition are a pairs skating team. With talks now scheduled next week between North and South Korea dealing in part with the Olympics, Auxier hopes this country's leaders can see the games as one way to help move the Korean Peninsula away from crisis.
At least, he says, the U.S. should go to the games and win medals. He'll get no argument from Adam Rippon, Nathan Chen and Bradie Tennell, the men's and women's leaders after the short programs, and the rest of a bunch of hungry and slightly anxious skaters in San Jose. Tom Goldman, NPR News.
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