In Part 1, Johnny talks about Evan Lysacek, butching up 'his sport' and his upcoming Stars, Stripes and Skates event
Johnny Weir is one of the most recognizable faces in figure skating. At the 2006 Winter Olympics, the brash athlete became a media darling for his unbridled emotion and his unfettered comments. His career since those Olympic Games has been a bit of a roller coaster, suffering some embarrassing defeats (not making the World Championship team in 2009) and some wonderful triumphs (winning the bronze medal at the 2008 World Championships). He has moved out of his parents’ house, changed coaches and now sets his sights on something wonderful at the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver.
In his first interview with a gay sports publication, Johnny sat down for a phone conversation with me earlier this week from his home in New Jersey. Talking to him is a breath of fresh air. While most other elite athletes are measured in their responses, Johnny says what’s on his analytical, creative and insightful mind. I’ll admit: His personality has made him one of my favorite athletes, so if there’s some fawning in my questions, I apologize in advance.
One of the little idioms of his speech I picked up on was his reference to “my sport.” He talks of skating at times as though it’s his and he knows what’s best for it. And it’s partly that young confidence, falling well short of arrogance, that endears him to so many of his fans.
We bring you the interview in two parts. Today it’s all about skating: Thoughts on his competition, the skating powers that be, his own performance and the future of his sport. On Tuesday, we talk to Johnny about sexuality, his own sexual orientation, crazy fans and his personal life.
Photo credit: Leah Adams
Johnny Weir: I got involved with Stars, Stripes and Skates in the summer of 2003. It’s hard to be an American and a citizen of the world and not be affected by what happened on September 11. So I wanted to lend my time to remembering, but at the same time giving someone something wonderful to look at in remembrance, in celebration of all those lives. Figure skating is a beautiful sport and Stars, Stripes and Skates is a great show. And all the proceeds go to the Heritage Foundation. For me personally, it’s just seemed like the right thing to do.
OS: What will we see from you at the event?
Johnny: I’ll be performing my new short program for the Olympic season for the first time. And I’ll be performing my gala performance to Poker Face.
OS: Is this the last time you’ll be performing to Poker Face?
Johnny: I’ve had requests from my fan group in Russia to make sure that I perform Poker Face when I go to Russia in October. But this will probably be the last time performing it in America.
OS: After the event, what can we expect to see from you in the following 6 months?
Johnny: It’s crunch time, it’s now or never for me. I’m getting a little bit old to be in the sport and compete with the young and rising talent, which I once was. I feel that this is my last legitimate chance for an Olympic medal. Maybe it’s not my last year figure skating, but it’s my last legitimate year as a contender. So I’ve given up everything. I’m training every day, I eat properly, I make sure I sleep properly. I’m doing everything my coaches tell me so I can be the best I can be for the Olympic Games. But of course I have the events in Russia and Japan in the fall, and then the U.S. National Championships. And then I’m dreaming of the Olympic Games. I think this year you’re going to see me fiercer than I’ve ever been.
OS: Will we see you skate in the Olympics?
Johnny: Well that’s all in the hands of the judges at the U.S. National Championships. Of course, that’s what I’m pushing for, that’s what I expect from myself, that’s what my coaches expect from me. But we’ve seen many occasions when the judging in figure skating hasn’t exactly been right or what the people felt, the people in the audience and in the skating community. I think as long as I do my job, the judges in the United States will put me on the Olympic team.
OS: Evgeni Plushenko and Stephane Lambiel both left the sport and have returned to compete in the Olympics. In other sports, there is some resentment toward athletes, like the Williams sisters in tennis, who like to come in and out of the sport when there’s a big championship on the line. Is there any of that resentment in skating?
Johnny: The sport is very different from when Plushenko won his Olympic title, and Lambiel won the silver. It’s a different system, different rules, so coming back is harder than it ever was in my sport. I personally have no resentment because a competitor means nothing to me. I just need to do my best and think about what I’m going to do and make sure I look gorgeous. But other skaters harbor resentment, because people have worked for the four years for their Olympic berth, and people come back who are already favorites and some feel that takes away their chances. But if you’re good enough and strong enough in your head, it doesn’t matter if a Plushenko or a Lambiel come back. Or a Williams sister. But I’d be scared shitless of the Williams sisters. Those are some big girls to get on their bad side.
OS: Is there really bad blood between you and Evan Lysacek, or is it something the press has made up?
Johnny: Of course, there’s jealousy there. I’m jealous that he’s the World Champion right now and he’s been jealous of me in the past for things I’ve achieved, because we’re athletes and because we compete against each other for the same titles. There’s very little bad I can say about Evan. He’s a different person than me, and he lives his life very differently than I do, and he does his sport very differently than I do. But I can’t say anything bad about him. It’s his choice, his path. He’s always been relatively nice to me, as far as competitors go. I have no bad blood toward Evan. I can’t speak for him, but we’ve always had a warm relationship. But we can’t be the best of friends.
OS: What do you do to train when your coach isn’t around pushing you? And that question comes from a friend who’s just starting out in figure skating.
Johnny: Well tell him good luck! The most important thing is to not be afraid to fall down on his face. It’s important to not be afraid to fall. My current coach, Galina Zmievskaya, never misses a practice. It’s very rare that I’ll even have two minutes by myself on the ice. But when my previous coach wasn’t around, I’d put on my hard-core workout music and just push the hell out of myself. What’s the point in taking all this time and energy on the ice not to push? You don’t need someone screaming at you, though it helps when you don’t want to work. The drive to become better is something that’s always pushed me.
OS: What are your thoughts on Skate Canada’s efforts to “butch up” figure skating? Will more people watch if the face of figure skating suddenly becomes more masculine?
Johnny: I don’t think any facelift for my sport will change the viewers who are watching. I don’t think turning figure skating into some kind of X-Games event will promote figure skating to the male population of especially North America, but also the world. This kind of talk has been going around for some time, about making the men more masculine and the women more feminine. But it’s not figure skating if you don’t have the freedom to express yourself and make something beautiful. That’s my goal every time I get new music and get new costumes: to tell a story and to put on a show. To butch up figure skating is a ridiculous idea, because there’s no putting me in some two-piece pants suit to skate in. [Laughs.] I love my glitter, I love my prettiness, I love getting my hair done before the events, I love putting on makeup because I’m going to be on TV. I know Elvis Stojko was a big proponent for butching up men’s skating, but I have a hard time taking suggestions from a man who rocked purple pajamas in the Olympic Games and World championships. In my opinion, anyone who wants to change the actual people who are doing the figure skating can suck it.
OS: If you were to decide how figure skating was going to build relevance and viewership in the 21st century, what would you do?
Johnny: I would put me on the cover of everything. [Laughs.] But to be serious, every sport on TV has its ups and downs. Reality TV has its ups and downs. It’s natural for people’s tastes to change. Of course, we have our diehard fans who love figure skating, people who paint their fat bellies the colors of the Chargers for football games. There are these fanatics who love that one sport, an that won’t change. But to have people interested from a young age, that’s the key. To have figure skaters be the High School Musicals, the Lady Gagas. In sports, you have a very limited opportunity to show who you are as a person. And when people can’t relate to the athlete they see on the ice, they aren’t going to tune in to see how Johnny does next week. They don’t feel they know the person. Butching up figure skating, changing age limits and changing scoring systems aren’t going to change the brand or the sport. You have to use the talent you have.
Instead of pushing the athletes we have now, saying look how good our athletes are -- Evan Lycacek is the World Champion, Johnny Weir has a movie coming out -- people hide behind the fact that they don’t want to promote anyone because it could be seen as favoritism. I think the people in charge in my sport don’t use what they have, they hide behind an old face.
Be sure to check out Johnny at the Stars, Stripes and Skates event in Danbury, Conn., Sept. 26, 7:30pm.