BEIJING — Adam Rippon delivered one of those quintessential Olympic moments four years ago in Pyeongchang, when his dazzling free skate helped to clinch the bronze medal for the U.S. in the team event to begin the figure skating program.
Not only did Rippon leave fans breathless, he became the first openly gay American to medal at the Winter Games.
Timothy LeDuc wants to do the same for U.S. athletes that identify as nonbinary.
The 31-year-old LeDuc and pairs partner Ashley Cain-Gribble won their second national title last month in Nashville, giving them a spot in their first Olympics. While they are long shots to land on the pairs podium in Beijing, the final discipline of the figure skating program, they could help the U.S. win another team medal if they are selected to perform.
Regardless, LeDuc will be the first openly nonbinary U.S. athlete at the Winter Games when they step on the ice.
“It’s been a really long journey for me, embracing my gender,” LeDuc said. “I’ve had some amazing people in my life help me through that journey.
“But I hope when people see my story, they aren’t saying, ‘Timothy is the first nonbinary person to achieve this level of success in sports.’ It’s that queer people can be open and be in sports. We’ve always been here, we have always been a part of sports. We just haven’t always been able to be open.”
That’s true even within figure skating, which historically has been among the most inclusive of winter sports.
Take, for instance, Brian Boitano, who won gold for the U.S. at the 1988 Calgary Games. His showdown with Canadian rival Brian Orser — the Battle of the Brians — is among the most memorable in the sport’s history. But it wasn’t until 2014 that Boitano came out as gay when he was selected as part of the U.S. delegation to the Sochi Games in Russia.
Orser, now among the world’s renowned coaches, came out as gay a decade after the Calgary Games.
Even the flamboyant Johnny Weir, among the most beloved of American figure skaters thanks in part to his work as an NBC analyst alongside Tara Lipinski, did not come out as gay until after competing at the 2006 and 2010 Winter Games.
“I’m not ashamed to be me,” Weir wrote of coming out in his autobiography. “More than anyone else I know, I love my life and accept myself. What’s wrong with being unique? I am proud of everything that I am and will become.”
What he became most recently was a member of the U.S. Figure Skating Hall of Fame.
Indeed, the stigma that might once have attached itself to gay, lesbian or transgender athletes has waned as the public has grown in its knowledge and acceptance of them. Last year, Canadian women’s soccer player Quinn became the first openly transgender and nonbinary Olympic medal winner when they earned gold in Tokyo. Weightlifter Laurel Hubbard, skateboarder Alana Smith and cyclist Chelsea Wolfe — all transgender — also competed in those Summer Games, among at least 186 openly LGBTQ participants, as tracked by Outsports.
That has given skaters such as Jason Brown, who came out as gay last June and will compete for the U.S. in Beijing, the freedom and courage to do so during their competitive days rather than wait until long after they have hung up their skates.
In fact, LeDuc initially came out as gay at the age of 18.
It wasn’t until last year that the 31-year-old from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, came out as nonbinary. The term is used to describe a person who does not identify as exclusively male or female. The Human Rights Campaign says it can also encompass agender, bigender, genderqueer and gender-fluid.
“It’s incredibly important for young people who are nonbinary to see people similar to themselves competing at the highest level of sports, and being accepted for who they are,” said Rodrigo Heng-Lehtinen, the executive director for the National Center for Transgender Equality in Washington, D.C.
“One of the biggest challenges that nonbinary people face is this notion that they are alone and that no one else has gone through what they are feeling,” Heng-Lehtinen said. “They are showing other nonbinary athletes — and everyone else — that you can be yourself, live your true life and accomplish your dreams, no matter how big they are.”
LeDuc might be the one carrying that message, but it resonates across the members of Team USA — sometimes in Avant Garde ways. Take the free skate of American ice dancers Madison Chock and Evan Bates, where she portrays an alien that is being romanced by an astronaut set to music from the French electronic music duo Daft Punk.
Chock says the space-age love story — which could land them on the Olympic podium — conveys the welcoming mindset of the U.S. figure skating team.
“The core of our program is love and acceptance, and it’s about finding love and acceptance in someone who is different than you,” Chock said. “We find a way to find more that’s similar than different, and I think that’s a very important message for people to remember. We want to remind everyone that we’re all more similar than different.”