Johnny Weir: The Road to Russia
Many U.S. figure skaters don’t like to compete in Russia, especially in Moscow. It’s a tough place to, well, place, let alone win. Russia, in fact, has claimed 71 gold medals at the World Championships as compared to 49 for the States. In the men’s division, the Russians have skated away with the last seven World and three Olympic gold medals.
Johnny Weir, however, would like nothing better than to visit Moscow in March. That’s because the world’s skating and ice dancing super power will host the World Championships next season for the first time since 1903. Sweden’s Ulrich Salchow won the men’s competition back then and Dick Button may not have even been born. Or at least he wasn’t yet a television commentator.
Prior to Senior Grand Prix assignments being released, Weir, as the reigning national champion, seemed an obvious selection for Skate America. However, despite his decisive win in Atlanta and his fifth place finish in his first World Championships, Weir wanted to compete in Skate Canada, Trophee Lalique and, you guessed it, Cup of Russia. Though Skate America will be contested at the Mellon Arena in Pittsburgh, only a five-hour drive from his home, it takes place during North Atlantic Regionals. Priscilla Hill, head coach of team Weir since his first Waltz jump, will be with students in Amherst, New York at that time. Weir, the youngest national champion since Todd Eldredge won in ’91, competed in both Lalique and Skate Canada back in 2001 at age seventeen. Then he placed fourth and seventh respectively, after having been the World Junior Champion the previous season.
Weir got two thirds of his goal, being assigned Cup of Russia, Trophee Lalique and the NHK in Japan in early November. His trip back east, though he’ll fly west out of Philly, will have him competing against good buddy Tim Goebel and rival Mike Weiss. The trio has captured five of the last six national titles.
“Being pushed by the best in the U.S. helps get you ready for the rest of the world,” Weir said.
The final stop on the Grand Prix tour takes Weir near the banks of the Volga River to Cup of Russia. In between, Weir will see the Seine River when he travels to one of his favorite cities, Paris, as he skates in Trophee Lalique. Despite the challenging schedule, Weir has bigger fish to fry.
“My goal is to arrive in Moscow at the World Championships as the reigning national champion and challenge for a medal,” Weir said the day after flying back home to Newark, Delaware after the first leg of the Champions on Ice tour. “My more long range goals are to qualify for the 2006 Olympics in Torino, again representing the U.S. as the national champ. However, none of these things will be easy to do, the U.S. men’s team is very deep and we have a mix of experienced veterans and up and comers. It’s good that we have depth because that will push all of us to be better.”
Not easy to achieve but Johnny Weir seemed to do the impossible this past season after a disastrous 2002 – 2003 campaign. That year Weir won the short program at Nationals in Dallas, but imploded in the long, withdrawing after a series of mishaps. And to compound matters, that fall a bout with flu caused him to withdraw from Cup of Russia and the NHK Trophy in Japan. Because of the dismal showing that year, Weir found himself having to compete at Eastern Sectionals for the first time since 2001. At Easterns in Lake Placid, Weir whipped a bunch of mid level talent to earn his ticket to Atlanta.
The scratches in major events naturally didn’t sit well with the powers at the USFSA, as Weir’s only international assignment in the Grand Prix Series was the second tier Finlandia Trophy. In Helsinki, Weir again won the short program only to be upset by a guy from Romania named Gheorghe Chiper. Weir won the rematch at Worlds in Germany, however, as he finished two spots off the podium while Chiper had to settle for seventeenth.
Weir’s success last season included a series of triumphs over three time U.S. Champ Mike Weiss. At the Dallas Nationals in 2003, Weiss was in danger of not making the world team after a shaky short program but took advantage of a series of miscues and meltdowns to glide away with the gold medal. Now, Weir has whipped Weiss the last three times the pair has met. While Weir’s stock is rising and Weiss may be on the decline, the decisions have been close as only one place separated them in Atlanta, Germany and at the World Skating Challenge in Providence. The reason boils down to this: Weir skates precise but Weiss tries, and sometimes lands, a quad.
Weir won Nationals with a smooth as silk triple Axel, two triple/triple combinations and the best spins this side of Switzerland. Still, to strike gold, or even silver or bronze, in at the World Championships, four revolutions is a must. Of the quartet of men ahead of him in Germany, all tried, and three cleanly landed, quads in their long programs.
“I’m definitely putting in a quad for next season, it’s a necessity for winning a medal at Worlds,” Weir reasoned. “I’ve been pretty consistent with the quad toe since Christmas and I’ve working on the (quad) flip.”
Something else that might help Weir join the quad club is his association with the Quad King himself, Olympic medallist Tim Goebel. The pair roomed together from East Rutherford, New Jersey to Everett, Washington on the first leg of the Champions on Ice tour. Despite vying for titles and spots on the World Team, the two are friends.
“Tim and I got along great on the tour,” Weir said. “We had a little bet going on and after each show we’d say who we thought won that city. It was inspirational seeing him skate so well after having such a rough season. And then you see Rudy Galindo doing triple flips on two porcelain hips and you can’t help but to be impressed.”
Weir is represented by Collins-Marshall Management and was offered a spot on part I of the Champions Tour after his pristine long program in Atlanta. The deal was for one year but Weir is hoping that a repeat performance at next season’s nationals in Portland will land him a multi-year contract.
“I thought since this was my first time traveling with COI that I would be an outsider but that wasn’t the case at all. Before the tour, the only other COI members that I was close with were Tanith Belbin and Sasha Cohen. But the more experienced skaters went out of their way to help me feel welcome. I spent a lot of time in Nicole Bobek’s room, although sometimes I ‘d forget her room number and have to call her from the elevator. She’s always up beat, and likes loud music and dancing.”
Bobek, who like Weir skated to music from the Russian epic Dr. Zhivago in winning a national title, performed first after the intermission break. Jenny Kirk would open the show, followed by Weir.
“We’d sign autographs after the show and some people would look at me and think I was maybe part of the crew,” Weir said. “It would be great to have success like Sasha or Michelle Kwan but the other side of that is they are absolutely mobbed by fans. It is nice to have some privacy.”
Nicole and Johnny made it a point to watch each other’s programs. Also in the stands for the Philadelphia and D.C. shows were Weir’s parents. His mother Patti, who accompanies her son to competitions, was in attendance when he skated in Providence. It was there almost a decade earlier that Bobek overcame her underachiever tag to win Nationals and later that season finish third in Birmingham, England at the World Championships.
“I skated okay in Providence,” Weir said. “I’d already done a few stops on the tour by then and felt pretty comfortable competing against such big names. Skating in front of a large crowd and for a national television audience can only help me in big events in the future.”
Two-time Olympic champ Dick Button, who unlike some other commentators does not freely throw around superlatives when analyzing U.S. skaters, is impressed with Weir.
“What a year for Johnny Weir,” is how Button greeted the television audience when Weir first appeared on the screen during warm-ups in Providence. Button described Weir as more than just a jumper but an entertaining artesian. His only criticism is that Weir has to come out of his shell more and work the crowd.
“I think I’m getting better at relating to the audience,” Weir said. “Skating on the tour definitely helped me with that. Entertainment, rather than elements, is the name of the game in professional skating. I think I skated my best at the end of the tour in Everett, Washington. Even though I was dead tired by then, it was a packed house and everyone really wanted to go out on a high note.”
One of the most tiring aspects of touring is traveling.
“Johnny loved being a part of COI but he also learned to hate buses,” according to Patti Weir.
“The drive from Detroit to Chicago was pretty grueling but the audience is there for a show so you have to give it your best,” added her son.
The COI family usually travels on two buses. Athletes can choose either bus but one is usually made of mostly European skaters and the other North Americans. COI managers and coordinators (everyone connected with the show seemingly has a title) are on both buses and a few of the veteran skaters bring along family members.
“There’s a Russian bus and an American bus,” Weir said matter-of-factly. “The Russian bus is more of a party atmosphere with a lot of music. Most of it is Russian groups but occasionally you’ll hear some Christina Aguilara. I was on the Russian bus, and so was Sasha Cohen, unless she wanted to get some sleep. The Russians have great confidence and poise. Not just in their skating but in all aspects of their lives.”
To help get some of that old iron curtain magic going, Weir worked with Tatiana Tarasova in Simsbury, Connecticut for a month and a half last summer and will double the amount in 2004. Tarasova guided Alexei Yagudin to greatness and currently works with the beautiful Shizuka Arakawa, who went from fifth to first at Worlds under Tarasova. Can she do the same for Weir?
“Priscilla Hill is my head coach and is with me in the kiss & cry area but Tatiana puts in her two cents,” he said. “Obviously she has a great system up in Simsbury. In fact, she has me learning Russian.”
It should come in handy next season.