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Adam Rippon on being bullied, called 'gay' for skating as a boy: 'I felt embarrassed'

In honor of Spirit Day, the 29-year-old shared his advice for other young boys who love to skate but worry about being bullied.
Image: Today - Season 68
Adam Rippon opened up to TODAY about his childhood and what it was like to be bullied for figure skating as a boy.NBC / NBC/NBCU Photo Bank
/ Source: TODAY

As a former U.S. figure skating champion, Adam Rippon knows what it's like to be loved — but he's also had to deal with his fair share of haters.

In honor of the 10th anniversary of Spirit Day, an annual LGBTQ anti-bullying campaign organized by GLAAD, Rippon opened up to TODAY about dealing with bullies, plus the advice he would give to little boys out there who just want to skate.

Adam Rippon memoir, "Beautiful on the Outside"
Rippon recently released a memoir, "Beautiful on the Outside."PETER YANG / Grand Central

The Olympian, who's cheekily dubbed himself "America's Sweetheart," gets deeply personal about his experiences growing up in a new book, "Beautiful on the Outside."

"I want (readers) to know that I included a lot about the times that I failed because those were important times when it comes to learning the most about myself," he said. "And in those times, I was feeling the least afraid to do anything or try something new."

Adam Rippon
Rippon as a 2-year-old boy. The former figure skating champ said he was teased for skating but coped by reminding himself that he was doing something he loved. Courtesy of Adam Rippon

But despite the emotional parts of the book, which came out on Tuesday, Rippon said fans can also expect a good laugh.

"It was like Freaky Friday to me," he writes of a time when a group of hockey players clamored to get a photo with him. "When I was a shy little kid with teeth as big as Hilary Duff’s before she got her veneers filed, all the macho guys on the hockey team intimidated me. Now they all wanted to take my picture and I was trying to be their friend. If I had a dollar for every girlfriend selfie I took with an athlete, I would have made back all the money I had spent on training to get myself to the Olympics in the first place."

Here's what he had to say about growing up, dealing with bullies and and how he handles his own inner saboteur.

TODAY: How were you bullied as a child?

Adam Rippon: When I was young and at training, there were times when I would go to school (and) there'd be classmates that bullied me for skating, but I always tried to remember that skating was something that I loved. That's what I focused on. Even though there were times it felt hard and it felt like it wasn't fair to get treated that way, I was being made fun of for doing what I loved to do, so I just let my love for skating supersede any of that negativity.

One time, I was in the fourth grade and somebody said, "Oh, because you skate, you're gay." And I didn't even know what that meant. But to me it felt like they were trying to insult me and I felt so exposed in front of all of my classmates and my peers. I felt embarrassed and I didn't know why and I didn't even know what being gay really meant.

But I also remember feeling badly for them. I remember being grateful that I got to do something that I really liked every single day. I relied on the friends that I had in my class in those moments because they didn't see any difference or make me feel any less than for loving to skate.

Rippon at 10 years old. In an interview with TODAY, he shared his advice for other 10-year-old boys who love to skate.
Rippon at 10 years old. In an interview with TODAY, he shared his advice for other 10-year-old boys who love to skate. Adam Rippon / Adam Rippon

Do you read negative comments online?

Every once in a while I do, because I'm only human. But I think the best piece of advice I've ever gotten was: Every time you get a negative comment, you want to comment on it, you want to say something, you want to defend yourself. But for every negative comment, there are more positive comments, and it's not fair to the people who send you positive comments that you would only give attention to the negative ones. So for every negative comment that you want to respond to, respond to three positive comments first.

And I have been taking that advice to heart. By the time you get through three positive comments, you don't even remember that one negative comment. It's just not worth your time. And through that practice, you're highlighting and bringing up the best in your own feed and in your community.

Sometimes we can be our own worst bully. How do you deal with that?

I think about the things that I like about myself. I try to focus on that when I feel insecure or when I feel like I'm not enough. Of course there are days when you don't feel your best and you feel like you have no more to give or you feel like you may not be enough. But I think if you start with working on feeling comfortable in your own skin, that's the most important thing. That's where all of your success can start from.

Adam Rippon, DSW, TODAY, style, TODAY Style
Rippon competes during the 2018 Winter Olympics. Roberto Schmidt / Getty Images

What's your message to any 10-year-old boy out there who is interested in figure skating but also worried about being bullied for it?

My advice to that kid would be: Don't focus on the negative. Don't focus on the people who are trying to bring you down because you have found something that you love. Focus on the joy that you experience from that. At the end of the day, the only thing that matters is that you've done something that you love. And in that process, treat people the way that you want to be treated. Life is a lot shorter than we think and it's really important that people treat others the way they want to be treated because when we put that energy out into the world, it serves us all really well.

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What advice would your mom give to you as a kid when you were growing up and dealing with bullies?

My mom's advice to me was to focus on what I was doing and to do it to the best of my ability. When I was young, I didn't really understand what that meant, but I later learned that it's so easy to compare ourselves to other people. Yet when we focus on our own journey, at the end of the day we can put our head down on our pillow and be really happy with the kind of person that we have become.

How does it feel that the people who may have once bullied you are now trying to get a selfie?

It feels full circle. It reminds me that I can walk into a room today and put out the energy that it doesn't matter who you are, where you come from, that you will be friends with me. It doesn't matter what your background is (or) what you might think of me, but you will walk out and you will think that I'm cool. I've walked into rooms and I've met people who I feel like may have had some sort of hesitation toward me before they met me. But once they meet me, we break down that wall immediately.

I don't ask them to like me; I just assume that they will. I don't really give them any other choice. I treat those people like my friends because at the end of the day, everyone just wants to connect.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.