Olympic figure skater Adam Rippon shot to international levels of fame during this year’s Games in Pyeongchang. But his longtime BFF, fellow Olympian Ashley Wagner, isn’t letting all the attention give him an inflated ego.
“I’ve put him back in his place a couple of times,” Wagner, a ZICO Water partner with their What’s Inside is Everything Campaign, tells PEOPLE of Rippon post-Olympics. “I’ve reminded him that when I met him, he straightened out his curly hair into this bowl cut thing. I’ve known him since then, and I’ve had to re-humble him a couple of times.”
Wagner admits this isn’t a hard task: “He’s such a genuinely good guy — it doesn’t take much.”
Humble moments aside, Wagner, who spoke to a group of young figure skaters in N.Y.C. on Mar. 6 in partnership with Figure Skating in Harlem, which provides skating opportunities to young women of color, tells PEOPLE she predicted that Rippon would be a breakout star of the Olympics, and loved seeing her premonition come true.
“I’m not surprised,” she says. “I knew this was going to happen. I told him it was going to happen beforehand. It was really cool.”
She hasn’t only enjoyed seeing her friend in the spotlight, but also the message Rippon brings to the fore: She thinks Rippon is the sort of public figure the U.S. needs at the moment — because he’s always exactly who he is.
“He is so incredible for this U.S. and our culture right now, because he is so unabashedly himself,” she says. “Yes, he’s the first openly gay U.S. Winter Olympian, but I think that he took that and turned it into a platform to show the world that there’s much more to him than being a gay athlete. He has a personality, he’s smart, he’s witty. Watching that, I felt like I was seeing something so much bigger. It was cool to watch that happen.”
Wagner was in PyeongChang, but not in the capacity that she originally anticipated: After coming in fourth place at this year’s National Championships, she was the team alternate. Being at the Games as a spectator and brand partner rather than an athlete was “interesting,” she said.
Wagner attended the women’s singles figure skating competition at the Olympics, and says watching her fellow Americans — Bradie Tennell, Mirai Nagasu and Karen Chen — compete was tough, with each women suffering falls in the competition.
“It was hard to watch, just because our ladies’s team didn’t do so incredible,” she says. “Sitting back and watching that, it was difficult. There’s no other way to put it.”
The Olympics weren’t without highlights for Wagner, however. She was thrilled that Team USA won the bronze medal in the team event (just as they did in 2014, when Wagner herself was one of the medalists) and loved watching Nathan Chen’s history-making free skate, which included six quadruple jumps. Being there in person for those moments made them all the sweeter.
“I’ve grown up with these people,” she says. “They’re my friends, they’re my family. Being able to be there for them, and watch them get that Team Bronze — it was really cool to experience it on the other side. I can genuinely be happy for them, because I’ve known these people forever, and I know what it means to them and their careers.”
Wagner has high hopes for the 2022 Olympics, and points out that this year’s figure skating team was made up of several of relatively new skaters, with many still in their teenage years, including Tennell, Vincent Zhou, Karen Chen and Nathan Chen. In four years, she says those skaters could be poised for gold.
“The Olympics are overwhelming enough as is, and we sent a lot of people who didn’t have much international experience to begin with,” she says. “I think that’s kind of the reason why things went the way that they did. It’s definitely a building year for the U.S., and I think next Olympics we’ll come back stronger.”
As for her own skating career, Wagner has yet to make a decision about whether or not she’ll continue competing.
“For me, this is still all so fresh,” she says. “I want to give myself the time to actually process it and figure out what I want. If I can, at the end of the day, be like ‘Okay, Nationals, I’m satisfied with what I did and I feel good with that,’ then I’ll totally be okay bowing out. But if I get through the summer and think ‘That’s not enough for me, I want to do it my way,’ then I’ll keep going.”
In the meantime, she’s embracing life in Southern California: going to the beach, doing yoga, thinking about a future career in media and spending some time in the sun, rather than on the ice.
“Discovering what normal life is like is so exciting for me right now.”