GANGNEUNG, South Korea >> Shortly before Adam Rippon’s breakthrough victory at the United States figure skating championships, Brian Boitano crossed paths with him and asked how he was doing. Boitano, the 1988 Olympic gold medalist, expected Rippon to rave about his jumps or his signature spins.
Instead, Boitano said, Rippon pulled back his shoulders, puffed out his chest and proudly proclaimed, “I’ve never been thinner.”
It was 2016, and Rippon was subsisting mostly on a daily diet of three slices of whole grain bread topped with miserly pats of the spread I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter. He supplemented his “meals” with three cups of coffee, each sweetened with six packs of Splenda.
“It makes me dizzy now to think about it,” Rippon said in an interview last month.
In the lead up to the men’s singles competition at the Olympics this week, Rippon has been celebrated for his robust thigh and gluteal muscles, not to mention his tight abs. He weighs 150 pounds, 10 more than he did in 2016, when he took drastic measures to stretch his 5-foot-7 body, as if it were putty, into a leaner frame that he thought would be more aesthetically pleasing to the judges.
Rippon, 28, remembers wanting to resemble skaters like Nathan Chen and Vincent Zhou, his teenage Olympic teammates, whose matchstick bodies facilitate explosive quadruple jumps.
“I looked around and saw my competitors, they’re all doing these quads, and at the same time they’re a head shorter than me, they’re 10 years younger than me and they’re the size of one of my legs,” Rippon said.
Body image problems among women in aesthetic sports have long been acknowledged, if not reckoned with. The Olympic figure skating competition is missing two young stars from the 2014 Games, Russia’s Yulia Lipnitskaya and Gracie Gold of the United States, who revealed that they had eating disorders as they stepped away from the sport in recent months.
Among male skaters, though, body issues are more of an open secret, less likely to be addressed publicly by the competitors but evident to anyone in their world.
“It’s the same now as it was in my day, and I think it’s all figure skaters,” Boitano said. “We all live during our Olympic careers, and after our competitive careers, with an interesting relationship to food.”
To Boitano’s point, NBC skating analyst Johnny Weir, 33, a two-time Olympian, said he had maintained the eating habits that fueled his skating success. He consumes one meal a day, always before 5 p.m., he said, and otherwise subsists on coffee.
“That’s how I’m happiest,” Weir said, adding that for a pick-me-up, he will allow himself a small piece of dark chocolate or a spoonful of caviar.
Boitano, 54, has published a cookbook and hosted a show on the Food Network. He now adheres to a Mediterranean diet, which consists mostly of vegetables and olive oil, with some protein. When he competed, he ate primarily carbohydrates and rarely exceeded 1,800 calories per day despite the fact he was expending more than that.
“Could I have had super consistent quads, could I have been stronger, if I had eaten then the way I do now?” Boitano said in a telephone interview. “It’s something that I wonder about.”
Boitano thought his ability to ignore his body’s demands for fuel elevated him above his opponents who surrendered to their appetites.
“When I was hungry,” he said, “it made me feel strong.”
Boitano said judges, under the guise of being helpful, would apply extra pressure to drop a few pounds — even when his body fat hovered around 4 percent.
“If judges tell you to lose weight,” Boitano said, “you don’t have time figure out how do it healthily.”
The education process for American skaters and their national federation is continuing. David Raith, the executive director of U.S. Figure Skating, said Gold’s eating disorder “opens our eyes to what more we could do. We’re very sensitive to what’s happening, and as we go forward we will learn from this experience, and hopefully we’ll support all our athletes moving forward.”
Rippon has waited a long time for his Olympic moment and the global platform it affords him. He is willing to talk about his body issues for the same reason that he decided in 2015 to publicly reveal that he is gay: He hopes that by speaking honestly he can help others.
But many skaters are more reticent. In recent interviews with nearly a dozen male skaters from the United States, Germany, Russia and Canada, each said he knew competitors who had battled bulimia, the binge-purge syndrome. But no one volunteered any personal details.
Ron A. Thompson, a consulting psychologist for the Indiana University athletic department, said there was a cultural component to male skaters’ reserve about discussing their body image problems.
“Males are supposed to be stronger and not need psychological assistance,” he wrote in an email. But he said that eating disorders “are not discriminatory, they occur in both genders in all sports.”
According to the National Eating Disorders Association, 20 million American women and 10 million men will at some point struggle with a clinically significant eating disorder.
Jeremy Abbott, 32, a two-time Olympian who retired last year, strives for a healthy lifestyle, but he said that even now, “in all honesty, my body image is probably very low. I’m not in bad physical condition. I have the concept of that. But I still kind of look in the mirror and nitpick everything.”
Kelly Rippon, Adam’s mother, remembers when his first coach, a woman, informed her that her son, then 10, would never be able to execute advanced jumps because of his “heavy bottom.” The coach suggested that Rippon be steered toward speedskating.
The coach’s critique did not sit well with Kelly Rippon, a former dancer who remembers subsisting on sandwiches that consisted of two lettuce leaves wrapped around a tomato slice. She began to change her eating habits, she said, after the singer Karen Carpenter died from complications of anorexia in 1983.
After noticing that her son, in his teens, had adopted a diet of water-based vegetables, Kelly Rippon sat him down and explained why it was important that he mix in some protein.
“My mom understands because my mom went through the same thing,” said Rippon, who ate normally for several years and even bulked up through weight training.
Then he moved to Southern California in the fall of 2012 to train with Rafael Arutyunyan, a product of the Soviet Union’s coaching system. Arutyunyan took one look at Rippon’s muscles and sent him straight to an elliptical machine to start shedding pounds.
Rippon also adopted his draconian diet.
“I’d do a few days having my three pieces of bread and then finish the whole loaf of bread and have 3,000 calories,” he said, adding that he would tell his coach: “‘Rafael, this is what I’m eating.’ And he said, ‘I know. It’s really hard.’”
Arutyunyan said he had since learned to address his skaters’ weight with a new vocabulary, in his nonnative English, and realized that he could not be as blunt as when he worked in the Soviet system and thought nothing of calling an athlete “fat.” In the United States, he said, he has attended seminars that drove home the point that “it’s kind of abusive or maybe they can get sick.”
So now Arutyunyan will tell his skaters that they look sluggish or that they need to be in better shape.
“But basically,” he said, “same time I’m thinking, ‘OK, how I can make elephant to fly?’”
Last year, shortly before nationals, Rippon broke his left foot while hopping to warm up his legs. During his monthslong recovery, he decided to address his diet because he suspected unhealthy eating had contributed to his injury.
“I think I had a stress fracture before I broke my foot,” Rippon said, “and I think that was absolutely because I was not getting enough nutrients.”
He started working with Susie Parker-Simmons, a sports dietitian with the U.S. Olympic Committee, and as he grew more mindful about eating, Rippon said, a fog of fatigue over him lifted.
“I didn’t realize I was so tired all the time,” he said.
Parker-Simmons’ goal was for Rippon to see food as fuel, not a foe. She promotes healthy relationships with food by encouraging athletes to plant seeds and eat what they grow. She will also play to their competitive natures by holding contests to see who can create the most delicious meals using nutrient-rich ingredients.
Body composition analysis is another part of the equation for Parker-Simmons, who educates the athletes on how to get the most out of their genetics, which in Rippon’s case includes his muscular thighs and buttocks.
“These athletes are so disciplined,” Parker-Simmons said, “and food is one of the things they can actually control when they can’t control other parts of their lives.”
The day after Rippon was named to the Olympic team in San Jose, California, he went to a restaurant and tucked into a lunch of leafy greens tossed in Caesar dressing and topped with pieces of seared tuna.
“I don’t feel any guilt eating this,” Rippon said between bites. “But there is a part of me that’s thinking, ‘How nice. I’m treating myself to creamy dressing.’”