He’s an Olympic newbie at age 28 — and the very first openly gay U.S. athlete to qualify for the Winter Olympics — but figure skater Adam Rippon doesn’t mind standing out from the crowd.
“I’m one of the oldest figure skaters competing now in the world on the Olympic level. I think in the past that would’ve discouraged me, but it kind of really motivates me because it’s different and I love to be different,” Rippon told PEOPLE in the months leading up to the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics, where the takes the ice Sunday night in the states (Monday morning in Korea) as part of the figure skating team medal event.
“I love to have my own story, my own path and forge ahead because my career isn’t going to be like anyone else’s,” he added.
After Rippon was named to the 2018 U.S. Olympic team in December, the athlete subtly noted him place in LGBT history — posting two Instagram photos of himself along with several emojis, including a gay symbol.
The Scranton, Pennsylvania, native also recently talked about what it’s like to be a gay athlete in sports, joking both in an interview and on Twitter that “it’s exactly like being a straight athlete. Lots of hard work but usually done with better eye brows.”
More seriously, however, Rippon made headlines for publicly clashing with Vice President Mike Pence over the politician’s record on LGBT rights.
According to a report published by USA Today on Wednesday, a member of Pence’s staff reached out to the U.S. Olympic Committee to set up a conversation between the 58-year-old politician and the 28-year-old athlete back in January.
The alleged request came the same day USA Today published an interview with Rippon in which he said he wanted to skip the standard meet-and-greet event between Team USA athletes and the American delegation, which is being led by Pence for this year’s opening ceremony.
“You mean Mike Pence, the same Mike Pence that funded gay conversion therapy?” Rippon, who publicly came out as gay in 2015, said in the Jan. 17 piece. “I’m not buying it.” (A rep for Pence told PEOPLE at the time that the vice president does not and has never supported conversion therapy.)
Last month, Rippon told PEOPLE he stands by his USA Today comments.
“I just don’t think that’s right,” he says, “and I think there are so many people who also don’t think that’s right and I think right now more than ever I have this window of time to say what I feel and hopefully make a change.”
“My mom has always taught me to stand up for people who don’t have a voice,” he added.
On Wednesday, Pence tweeted directly to Rippon, stating “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 his original conversation with USA Today, Rippon said he would be open to meeting with Pence after the Olympic games.
RELATED VIDEO: Ashley Wagner Thinks Adam Rippon in the Olympics Will Change How People ‘Interact with the LGBT Community’
Pence controversy aside, Rippon does have one celebrity staunchly in his corner: Oscar-winning actress Reese Witherspoon.
“Reason #1 to Watch #WinterOlympics2018 : ADAM RIPPON” she tweeted Wednesday, which prompted a characteristically fun response from the skater.
Although Rippon knows how to have fun, hard work — and overcoming adversity — is also something Rippon knows a lot about.
Just as his career was rising — thanks to his winning the world junior championships in 2008 and 2009, and serving as an Olympic alternate in 2010 — he missed being included on the 2014 Winter Olympic team. The setback was difficult for Rippon, but it also provided the champion figure skater with a renewed sense of fervor.
“I didn’t know if I wanted to compete, I had lost the reason why I was continuing to practice, train and compete because it’s hard. It’s grueling,” Rippon tells PEOPLE. “But I found that that was where my passion was at — it was in the everyday grind. It was improving and I still felt that at my very core I had so much more to give.”
Through the years, Rippon says his best friend, figure skater Ashley Wagner, helped him to realize the power that comes from embracing his own path instead of trying to follow in the steps of the legendary skaters of the past.
Missing the Olympic team gave Rippon the motivation to do things his way, and focus on having more fun with his performances. He was going to skate his best — while dancing to music he liked — without concerning himself with pleasing everyone else.
“I said, ‘I’m going to do this for myself,’ ” Rippon recalls. “As soon as I said that, I had a complete breakthrough.”
This personal revolution led to Rippon’s first national title in 2016. He placed sixth at the World Championships in Boston that year, and though he didn’t win, the audience gave him a standing ovation once his performance, set to a medley of Beatles songs, came to an end.
This freedom of dancing to the music he likes is something he is going to continue at the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang.
“When I was choosing my programs for this season, I really wanted to skate to pieces of music that really resonated with me personally. As an audience member, I like to watch what they’re doing and that’s one of the reasons I love skating because it’s a performance, and I love to perform,” Rippon says. “That’s my favorite aspect of skating.”
In 2017, when he was warming up just before the national championships, Rippon sprained his left ankle and fractured his fifth metatarsal bone in his left foot. The injury led to his withdrawal from the championships. For Rippon, “Arrival of the Birds” will signify both his recovery and return.
“It’s about a bird who is the leader of the flock and then has a broken wing, but then regains their strength and they find themselves flying free to victory,” Rippon explains. “This season I’m coming off of that injury, but I’m so much stronger because of that. I never lost sight of what my goals were and I think that program is my story—I’m going to fly free. I can do it.”
He adds: “That broken wing is a metaphor for my broken foot, or falling short of the goals and the dreams that I’ve had before. But I won’t let that hold me back.”
What Rippon enjoys the most about skating is the “superhuman” feeling that comes over him while he is taking off, gliding through the air, and just before hitting that perfect landing just a split second later.
“You feel so powerful. It’s such an awesome experience,” he says, adding that the feeling is only heightened during competition. “Those are the moments athletes live for — we live for those exhilarating, breathless, take your breath away you’re on the seat of your chair moments. I think that in combination with a performance with the element of risk, that’s what makes skating so special.”
- Reporting by ADAM CARLSON