Weir rearing to get back into ‘dog and pony’ show

Johnny Weir

USA’s Johnny Weir performs to “Poker Face” by Lady Gaga at 2012 Finlandia Trophy.

When USA’s Johnny Weir announced his comeback in February, many people believed it was just a PR stunt. This pre-Olympic year is full of announced comebacks, but as always, fans will have to wait to see what’s really in store later this season. Miki Ando of Japan just withdrew from the Grand Prix (GP) series and USA’s Evan Lysacek is out of Skate America as well, citing injury. Evgeni Plushenko of Russia intentionally skipped the GP in order to focus on Europeans.

Since retiring from competition after the 2010 Olympic Winter Games in Vancouver, the three-time U.S. Champion has been busy with figure skating shows, celebrity events, singing, publishing a book, and getting married. Returning to a grueling daily training regime isn’t exactly appealing in comparison. Even the skater didn’t imagine at first that he ever would consider competing again.

“I never wanted one more minute of competitive ice skating after Vancouver,” he confessed, “but let yourself sit and cook for two years, and anything is possible. Everything I’ve done in the last two and a half years since the Olympics has been great, but there is nothing like competing and the feeling it gives me.”

So Weir did it. He competed at the 2012 Finlandia Trophy earlier this month, looking a bit rusty and finishing fourth, but attempted the quad for the first time in both the short and long program.

“It’s my first time in a long time,” he noted. “To be back on the ice with the competition lights and to have the announcer say ‘from the United States of America, Johnny Weir’, it hasn’t happened in long time. It’s definitely overwhelming and it’s very aggressive.”

“I’ve had a life of leisure for the most part since Vancouver,” the 28-year-old joked. “I work very hard on my other jobs and I enjoy it, but there is nothing like figure skating—the determination, the drive, and the excessive training. I lost eight and half kilos to get ready for the season. It’s a lot of work.”

While Weir was happy to talk to the media even before the event and appeared relaxed, nervousness struck in competition.

“I was much more nervous than I expected to be,” the 2008 World bronze medalist admitted. “I’m always very focused, even when I’m nervous. It helps me to look angry when I’m nervous, because then nobody knows I’m nervous. But my legs were stiff. Coming back into this competitive situation is probably the hardest thing I had to do in my career so far.”

However, Weir has no regrets.

“I know when I first announced it, a lot of people were like ‘Why is he coming back? What is he doing it for? Is it just for publicity, is he just going to be like other American skaters that are saying they are coming back and they are not?’. So I’m very proud that I kept my word to my fans and my skating family and I skated.”

At the end, the American wasn’t totally happy with the way he skated in Finland, but was very pleased about taking that first step.

“I was so excited when the program was over, and people were excited and I wasn’t a disaster,” observed Weir. “I want everybody to be impressed, not only that I came back, but also that I’m doing well. I don’t know if I accomplished that, but I did a lot of good things for myself. I tried the quad in both programs in Finlandia, regardless of whether they were downgraded or not. But you know, I did the quad. I did the triple Axel in the second half with a combination. There are positives and negatives.”

“I can say that I did not miss being nervous in the last two and a half years,” emphasized Weir. “I still get nervous when I perform and when I do shows. It’s natural. If you weren’t nervous, then you don’t care about something. But this kind of stress for a competition, even a small one, is horrible. It’s the most horrible feeling in the world and I didn’t miss it. But I brought myself into it and I need to deal with it.”

“Overall, I gained positive energy after this competition,” he continued, while acknowledging that Plushenko celebrated successful comebacks in 2010 and 2012 at the European Championships.

“I’m not Zhenia Plushenko,” he explained. “I can’t come back and win Russian Nationals and Europeans. I don’t fight the same way that he does. I have a different soul, a different energy. Of course, I admire what he has done, but for me, I knew it was going to be a slow process.”

Weir was realistic and did not expect perfection going into Finlandia.

“I just wanted to get out there again and show everyone that I’m still skating and that it is not smoke and mirrors,” he said. “I’m actually coming back. I’m actually ready to compete, and I don’t care what anyone is saying about my performances and the jumps I landed or didn’t land. I care only that they have something to talk about. I did what I promised to do, and that was to come back for my fans.”

Indeed, fans from the USA, Japan, and Russia had traveled to Finland to watch Weir.

“It was amazing for me in both the short and the long to skate out and have such a reaction from the audience,” said Weir. “A lot them were my fans, they traveled from far away, but there is a lot of Finnish skating fans that have heard about my comeback and have heard about me and supported me. To see Russian, American, and Finnish flags flying is a beautiful feeling for me. It was great to have the respect and the understanding from the audience that I can’t be perfect right away, that I need to work. The audience understood that, and that’s what I’m really happy about.”

When Weir first announced his comeback, he himself wasn’t able to immediate grasp the concept and what it meant.

“I made the announcement in February and I think it took me a little while to realize, ‘Okay, this is real. I’m actually doing this,” the skater explained. “I think it took me until June, when we did the first run-through of the long program, for me to realize that I was actually going to try to compete again.”

He discussed his comeback plans with his family, his coaches, his husband, and a few friends.

“I have a very small circle of people around me,” said Weir, “so I was talking about it slowly, and everyone was supportive. Galina said that I should do it, and whenever I’m ready come into the rink, she’d be there. My husband actually pushed me more than anybody else. He said, that it is so attractive that I have a talent and that I should skate and show everyone my talent. He was a big inspiration for me to come back.”

Weir has no delusions, and realizes that competing again won’t be easy.

“It’s not easy to come back and to compete against 17, 18, and 19-year-old kids,” he acknowledged. “Before the Sochi Olympics, I’ll be close to 30, and it’s very hard. Especially when you don’t fight like a dog like Plushenko. It’s a very difficult thing, and I wanted to inspire my fans by doing it.”

The athlete doesn’t feel that he has changed much over the past few years.

“I’m still me,” Weir said with a smile. “I’ll still say anything I want. I still work hard to back up everything I talk about. Maybe a little bit older and married now, and that has been a big change to my lifestyle and the way I approach the competitions. I’ll never change. I’ll always be me. I’ll always want to sparkle, be the best, and be in the limelight, but definitely having a life outside the rink has given me a whole new sense of what this means.”

“It’s whom I am, but it’s not going to kill me,” he summed up. “I’m not going to die if I lose to someone or if I miss a podium by 0.1 points. It doesn’t matter so much to me. My whole life is about performing well and bringing attention back to my sport and my country and helping people to fall in love with skating again. So, no, I’m not different.”

The training situation is basically the same as it was before his retirement.

“I have the same coach, Galina Zmievskaia,” he confirmed. “The only thing that is a little different on the practice is that I train strictly with Zmievskaia, not with Victor Petrenko anymore, because he has a rival student with Michal Brezina. We all skate together and see everything what we are doing, but I train with Zmievskaia.”

“The same off-ice trainers, costume seamstress, and designers are the same,” Weir added. “It doesn’t feel the same. I think because of my time off the ice and the growth that I’ve had in my life away from the ice. I can approach my training differently. I don’t have to be pulled by my hair into the practice rink by Galina every day. If there is a day when there is too much going on in my head and I’m not feeling strong enough, I say, ‘Galina Jakovlevna, I’m sorry, but I have to leave.’ It’s very grown up now, my work. It isn’t as do-or-die as before, which helps me to enjoy what I do every day more.”

For Weir, the sport hasn’t changed that much either. Following his retirement, he didn’t follow competitive skating before tuning in again.

“After Vancouver, especially, that first season, I was very disenchanted with figure skating,” admitted the skater. “I didn’t want to know anything about it. I didn’t want to watch the new talent, because I was very hurt after Vancouver. I felt that I did the best I ever could do in my life and I still didn’t do enough to make anyone happy on the judging panel. I stayed away and then I started slowly to check into it again.”

“I’m a big fan of Yuzuru Hanyu and I wanted to watch the success,” he continued, “as well as my girls. I’ve had my friends over the years that I would watch on youtube to see how they were doing. In my opinion, figure skating is still the same – same judging panel, same coaches, new faces from the younger skaters, but there is not so much that will change.”

“Rules change every year, but other than that, it’s always like a special puppy or pony show. You groom your skater to the best they can be, the prettiest they can be, and you pop them out there to be judged,” Weir said, gesturing as if he would groom a dog.

Even though Weir said that he came back mainly for his fans, he still wants to be competitive and proved it by attempting the quad toe in both programs at Finlandia.

“The quad is steadily coming back,” he announced. “I had boot problems this summer when I changed from the pair I’ve been in since Vancouver as they were so comfortable and nice. When I went into my new pair, they were shaped kind like the letter “C” inside. I was also so busy running all over the place doing shows, and trying to make money to support my comeback that I never had time to fix it. It was only a month and a half ago. Since then, I’ve been trying to get it back. Before the boot problems, I was doing it very well and also working on the quad Salchow.”

It’s a goal for Weir to win back fans of figure skating, and his return will do that without a doubt.

“Figure skating is only popular in most of the world every four years and I want to change that,” noted Weir. “I want to show the world that figure skaters are interesting people, that they aren’t sparkling robots. They have character. Everyone works very hard and they deserve all the recognition in the world, even more so than some of the football players in the world who have a contract every year for six million dollars. They hurt their toe and they still get six million dollars and they are still famous. Figure skaters work very hard for very little. If I in any part can bring in a wider fan base and bring more people into the sport, I think it’s a beautiful thing.”

The two-time Olympian definitely is someone who attracts an audience, and is probably one of the first international top athletes to marry a same-sex partner. His husband, Victor Weir-Voronov, a lawyer by profession, had traveled with him to Finland to support him.

“My whole life I just wanted to live,” emphasized Weir. “I wanted to be me. I didn’t want to push an agenda, and I didn’t want to make more people to like me. I didn’t want to make anyone believe in my life. All I wanted to do was to live, and if me being married to a man is interesting to people, I’m proud of it.”

“For me, it’s just my natural way of life,” explained Weir. “Being sort of a gay icon in my country has led me down many roads that I didn’t even think about before. Where kids are killing themselves, getting bullied at school, and injured in fights. It was horrible to hear. But to stand and be proud and be strong was very important to me.” Weir said.

Because of his outspoken personality, Weir has not always had the best relationship with U.S. Figure Skating.

“The gay thing is completely separated from the skating,” Weir pointed out. “My position with the federation is different now, because since the Olympics, I have a certain level of notoriety and celebrity in my country and my federation knows that I can help them to bring in more of an audience. They realize that I bring more fans and I know I need them to help me to get to the World Championships and Olympics so I can build more fans.Now we have kind of an understanding. I’m not going to change them, they’re never going to change me, but we understand each other better now than before.”

Weir presented two new programs – “Poker Face” for the short and “Phoenix” for the long. He is especially proud that pop star Lady Gaga herself helped him with the music. He sat with Lady Gaga’s mother in her restaurant in New York and told her that he would love to skate to her daughter’s music, but he cannot use songs with lyrics. The mother called Lady Gaga right away.

“That night literally after one hour, Gaga sent me “Poker Face”, three versions, no words,” said Weir. “That’s a cool story. Whether I skate well every time or not, I have music from Gaga.”

Lady Gaga’s dance choreographers worked with the skater on the short program, but he and coach Galina Zmievskaia created most of the choreography for the long program themselves. Weir regretted that in the first competition he did not show everything as planned.

“You couldn’t really see how pretty the programs were, because I took everything out to focus on the jumps,” he admitted. “The programs will continue to develop and grow, and every day there is something new in there. In general, the programs are very interesting, cool, and comfortable. As soon as I get over that stress of competing again, everybody will see. In practice, it is much smoother.”

The skater now has a month to prepare for his two upcoming GP events in Moscow and in Paris in November.

“I’m always so inspired when I compete in Russia,” said Weir. “That being my first Grand Prix back in this crazy game again, will be very special. I’m so looking forward to that. And then a week later is France. If I make the Final, I’ll be excited to skate in Sochi. If not, I have a winter break before the National Championships.”

Like most top level athletes, Weir has a few minor injuries that can be bothersome.

“Every day there is something little and new and that’s just because I’m an old horse now,” he said, laughing. “I wake up every day and my thumb will hurt because I stepped out of a jump and put my hand down. Or a hip will hurt because I fell too hard the day before. Also, since the beginning of the year, I had to lose a lot of weight to get back in shape. With that my body is readjusting.”

No matter. It is something Weir is aware of and is ready to deal with.

“My husband was actually was telling me, ’You got only two points for trying a quad, why try a quad?’, recounted Weir. “I said, ‘You know I’ve been away for two and a half years and I want to show people that I’m trying.’ Even if I don’t win, even if I don’t succeed at everything I try, I need to show everybody that I’m trying to get better and improve myself. You’re never too old to step over yourself.”

“If I never win another medal in my career, I know that I have already done so many good things,” Weir stressed. “A person from a small town in the middle of nowhere, I’ve done more than most of those kids ever get a chance to do. So I’ll never be sad. I’ll be angry if I make mistakes, but I’ll never be sad. I’m very proud of everything I’ve done and everything I will do.”

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