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Skate Today

Weir Seeks to Retain U. S. Title

Johnny Weir

Johnny Weir hopes to retain the men’s national title when the U.S. National Figure Skating Championships are held in Portland, Oregon this month. Weir won the title last season for the first time. Historically Weir has had more success internationally than at home. Although his best finish was fourth in junior men at U.S. Nationals, he won the 2001 junior men’s gold medal at the World Junior Figure Skating Championships. He was never higher than fifth in senior men before 2004, but was fourth at his only Four Continents Championships in 2002. In his first World Championships last season, Weir was a strong fifth, an amazingly high finish for a first-timer.

It was an amazing comeback for Weir, who had to withdraw from the 2003 U. S. Nationals in the middle of the long program. “It was a bad year,” coach Priscilla Hill recalled. “Johnny was injured before the Goodwill Games with a stress fracture in his leg that never had time to heal. He did too many events so by May the doctors told him he either had to stay off the ice or have a rod put in his leg. So he was off for most of the summer and couldn’t really jump until the end of September. Then I was sick for a month with viral meningitis and couldn’t coach. Then Johnny got sick at the Cup of Russia.”

“I wasn’t mentally ready for Nationals as I had been in the past,” Weir continued. “I was second after the short, then had a good practice. But I was nervous for the long, so when I fell and hit the wall, it just broke me. I’m not the type to fight for something that’s dead, so I just quit.” “I was stunned,” said Hill, “but I was just glad the year was done.” “I took some time off to reassess what I wanted to do,” Weir continued. “For a few days, I just wanted to sit in my room and eat ice cream, but I decided that skating was too much of a part of me to quit. Otherwise all my hard work would have been for nothing.”

When he failed to finish at Nationals, the U. S. Figure Skating Association essentially gave up on Weir for 2003-04. “They kept me in the team envelope, but gave me no support,” he said. “I didn’t get any Grand Prix events and had to compete in Sectionals. That upset me enough to fight harder every day to get back. When I won in 2004, it was huge. I had to skate last in the long, which is always hard for me, but I saw I had people in the crowd pulling for me and that made me happy. When I’m happy, I can skate better and it all came together for me.”

The 20-year-old is a comparative latecomer to the skating world. His father was raised on a horse farm, so it was only natural that Weir would learn to ride. By the age of nine, he was an accomplished equestrian who had won a variety of events with his pony, My Blue Shadow, a dappled gray Arabian-Shetland cross. But then came the explosion of televised skating for the 1994 Olympics.

As his mother was watching skating on television, it caught Weir’s interest. “I loved watching Oksana Baiul and how she skated and then there was the whole Tonya and Nancy thing,” he remembered. “I can’t believe people thought Kerrigan should have won. So I thought I’d try out some of the jumps in the basement on roller skates.” That gave his parents an idea for Christmas for next year. They got him some skates and group skating lessons for a Christmas present. He immediately went outside to try them out on a frozen field.

After his first lesson at the University of Delaware, Weir decided to try jumping. And he proved to be a natural at it. “Riding taught me body awareness,” he said. “I got an axel after one week of lessons.” By that time, he was twelve, two or three times as old as most skaters are when they start. But that didn’t prove to be an obstacle. “He was just naturally graceful,” said Hill. “He’d be good at any sport.”

Hill, who has always been his primary coach, thought he should be working with a partner and paired him with Jodi Rudden. “I tried to get him to do pairs, but he hated it,” said Hill. “Johnny was so much better than she was that he’d watch her in the air and fall if she fell so she wouldn’t feel bad.” “We were both the same size so the lifts were hard for me,” Weir explained, “but it was easy for me to copy all her moves.” Even so, Rudden and Weir qualified for the Junior Olympics in juvenile pairs in his first year of skating and in intermediate pairs the next year. He also finished fourth nationally in juvenile men that first season.

Weir quickly learned all of the single and double jumps and before he was 13, he had landed his first triple, a salchow. “He wanted to learn so badly that he’d try new things when I wasn’t there,” Hill recalled. “I had to keep telling him not to kill himself while I was gone.” It took him two weeks to learn a double axel, a month to learn a triple flip. “My favorite jump is the triple lutz,” he said. “All my jumps are pretty good but my best is the triple lutz.” He also likes to spin and includes spins in his programs that he’s learned from watching Lucinda Ruh.

Weir has landed both the quadruple toe loop and the quad salchow, but doesn’t currently have one in his program. “I hope I’ll have a quad toe/triple toe by the end of the year,” he said, “but I don’t do things until I’m ready. I’m improving on the quad every day, but it’s more likely that I’ll add more difficult spins or more turns in my step sequences to my program. My programs have always been technically difficult and I’m not planning on making any big changes for the new system.”

Weir is a very lyrical skater. “My first choreographer was a dancer for the St. Petersburg Ballet,” Weir stated. “That’s where I learned all the arm and leg positions. I have a classical style. That’s my niche.” As a result, the new judging system is a huge advantage for him. “The old system was better for skaters who just thought about jumps,” said Hill. “The new system helps Johnny because every part of your skating has to be good.” “I like it very much,” Weir agreed. “I have more of an advantage under the old system because things like having good flow out of my jumps and having a different look on the ice helps.”

Weir works with both Hill and Tatiana Tarasova as coaches, splitting time between The Pond in Newark, Delaware and the International Skating Center in Simsbury, Connecticut. “I went for a month to Simsbury in 2003,” Weir noted. “Then I went there for three months this summer.” He works on ice for two or three hours a day, five days a week, and spends another two hours a week doing Pilates and other off ice training.

The move to Simsbury in 2003 did wonders for Weir’s confidence. “Tatiana kept telling me, ‘You know you can do this. You’re the best.’ To have a person of her stature say that meant the world to me.” “Johnny felt that he could just be himself last season,” Hill added. “And he trusted himself throughout the season. He’s learned what works for him. Tatiana gives him information and he translates it into his own style on the ice.”

Tarasova and Evgeny Platov choreograph Weir’s programs. “I try to have all new programs every year,” Weir said. “I have to do the same thing in practice every day so it makes it more interesting for me to have every program that I do be different every year. You can’t skate to something for a year and not like it so I always pick my own music. This year, we sat in Tatiana’s dining room to decide.”

“I found the music for the long program this year and Tatiana found the music for the short,” Weir continued. “She originally wanted it for the long but when she heard my music, she agreed it was better so we switched her music to the short.” He is using “Rondo Capriccioso” by Saint-Saens for the short, “Otonal” by Raul di Blasio for the long, and “Imagine” by John Lennon for the exhibition. “Otonal was Maria Butyrskaya’s best long program,” he explained. “I loved that program. It’s moody, but it’s kind of a step up in my maturing style. It has some long flowy parts but also good parts for step sequences. I’ve never felt like I’ve felt for a long program before.”

Off ice, he listens to pop music, especially Christina Aguilera. “She’s very talented and not like other pop stars,” Weir said. “She can really sing. I can relate to her comeback and how people attack her.” He also enjoys skiing, swimming, and diving when his schedule permits. When he goes to the movies, he watches comedies, dramas and horror films. Weir’s family has lots of pets. His pets include two birds named Sunshine and Star and a Chihuahua named Bon Bon. He also collects pandas and crystalline dragons.

But his major off ice interests are shopping and travel. Although Norway and Australia were among the most interesting countries that he has visited, he prefers big cities. “I like to come to events early and see things and shop,” Weir stated. “I’m more relaxed when I come early and get familiar with the city. My favorite places are big cities like New York, Paris, Boston, and Moscow. Moscow’s a beautiful city. Some of it is gray and grim, but it’s exciting. I’d like to see Tokyo.”

“I think that’s a really neat thing,” Hill added. “I know I didn’t take the time to see things when I was competing. “How many people get a chance to see all these places in person while they’re young?” Weir already speaks French and is taking a Russian course at the University of Delaware, but doesn’t plan to attend fulltime until he finishes skating. “I’d like to have my own fashion line,” he added. “I love clothes and I’m learning more about fashion everywhere I go.”

“I always want to affiliated with skating, whether it be coaching, or doing a show, or choreographing,” Weir said. “I like all the opportunities it has made for me. I’m coaching a lot of students now. I spend about two hours a day, five days a week coaching, just singles. Some of my kids made Easterns this year. I like coaching. I’ve seen what Priscilla goes through, but I like helping the kids, especially with spins. The girls are flexible and can bend in any shape. And I really like choreography.”

This year, Weir won both the NHK Trophy and Trophee Eric Bompard Cachemire and finished second at the Cup of Russia, qualifying him for the ISU Grand Prix Final, but he had to withdraw due to a sprained foot. He plans to continue at least through the 2006 Olympics, but has not thought about anything past that. “I’m focusing on training and having fun now,” he said. “I’ll only be young once. I’m just thinking about one competition at a time and not rushing things. I’m trying to enjoy life now. If I feel like I’m skating well, then I’m happy.”

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