Having already helped Team USA win bronze in the team figure skating event, Rippon’s short program in the men’s individual competition briefly put him at the top of the group, with a total score of 87.95, before he was bumped down to third by Dmitri Aliev (an Olympic athlete from Russia) and Canada’s Patrick Chan.
However, speaking to reporters after leaving the rink, and with his ultimate placement still undecided as the other men continued to skate, Rippon said he was “so happy with what I was able to do” — delivering a skate, set to “Let Me Think About It,” that immediately got social media chattering and which trended for some on Twitter.
As he finished, Rippon, 28, collapsed onto his back on the ice with joy.
“It was a little chilly,” he later admitted of that moment, “but also everyone else in the competition’s 18, so I just needed like one minute to like catch my breath. The rest of the kids, they’ll be fine. But I just needed a second, and it was just great.
“I was putting a lot of pressure on myself to skate well today,” he said. “I’ve definitely got a lot of attention over the past week and a half, so I wanted to show all of those people who have shown me love, they have their hands full.”
In his first Winter Olympic Games, Rippon has become one of the breakout American stars: first for his barrier-breaking presence as the first openly gay man on Team USA and then for his bright and very active social media presence.
“My phone is blowing up all the time,” Rippon tells PEOPLE. “My Twitter crashes all the time and my Instagram doesn’t work, but I’ll still find a way to post.”
“I think what’s helped me kind of keep everything into perspective is that I’m here and I’m doing a job,” he says. “Everything else, it’s just on my phone, and I can put my phone away and I can just stay here and stay completely present in the moment.”
Still, not everyone is a fan. Rippon has been outspoken about Vice President Mike Pence, who was chosen to lead the American delegation to the Winter Olympics and whose anti-LGBT politics are long established. Such political comments from an athlete have earned the ire of Sarah Palin’s daughter Bristol Palin, among others.
It doesn’t bother Rippon, it seems.
After he skated on Friday, he told one reporter: “Haters are just fans in denial.”
The Olympics are airing live on NBC. To learn more, visit teamusa.org.