Lambiel and Weir: Perfect together?

Rivals and friends share ice, plan new programs in Wayne, N.J.



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By Lynn Rutherford, special to
(07/21/2008) - In a mid-July afternoon practice session, Stéphane Lambiel and Johnny Weir quickly show their strengths.

One reels off two quad toe loops; the other hits a few high, fluid triple Axel-triple toe combinations. While Lambiel does his famous headless scratch spin, Weir sweeps across the ice in an Ina Bauer.

"This is not [ice] dance; dance is political," said the skaters' coach, Galina Zmievskaya. "There is no trouble having them both [train] here. Men's skating is a sport. You land your jumps, great. You fall, see you next year."

The 23-year-old Lambiel arrived at Wayne, N.J.'s Ice Vault in late June, leaving his home country of Switzerland and coach of many years, Peter Grütter, to train with Zmievskaya and her son-in-law, 1992 Olympic champion Viktor Petrenko. Weir, 24, was already in residence; Zmievskaya and Petrenko coached him to a bronze medal at the ISU World Figure Skating Championships earlier this year.

"I think the training conditions in Geneva were not possible anymore," Lambiel, a two-time world champion, said. "The ice was too crowded, and there were not enough hours.

"I had really good times with Viktor doing shows in Japan and also doing Champions on Ice shows in the U.S. That's how I had this connection. I asked them if it was possible for me to come here and try to practice together."

For now, the Swiss star is boarding with Petrenko and his wife, Nina, a choreographer.

"I'm staying at Nina and Viktor's house, and I love it. It's very easy; everything goes well," he said. "It's not more than 20 minutes from the ice rink, so I do not spend much time in the traffic.

"I hope I find a place to live close to the ice rink -- maybe in between here and New York, so on weekends I can go to the city."

In the time-honored etiquette of the sport, Zmievskaya asked her top pupil, Weir, if he would mind Lambiel's company, and the three-time U.S. champion assented.

"It's definitely something new, but when I trained [summers] with Tatiana Tarasova, I was with other top-level skaters," Weir said.

"This is going to be on a more daily basis. I think it's something that both of us need to get used to, but I'm happy that he's here and I'm happy that I have someone to compete with everyday, and somebody who is my friend, that I actually like, skating with me everyday."

"Same thing for me," Lambiel added. "I've been all the time alone [training in Geneva], the only high-level skater on the ice. So it's nice to have Johnny here."

Asked if the two world and Olympic medal contenders might step on each other's toes, Zmievskaya scoffed.

"We are two coaches here, me and Viktor," she said. "One day, I focus on Johnny, and Viktor works with [Stephane]. The next [day], we switch. Why should there be problems with skaters? You cannot use your energy that way. Spend your energy working on your programs.

"In the Russian system, no one skated alone; it was always in [a] group. There was competition all the time, pushing each other. They are very mature, very good level of skaters, these two."

Weir's previous coach, Priscilla Hill, who trained the skater for 10 years, thinks the new arrangement could be beneficial.

"They were both raised the same way, as the only big skaters in their rinks," Hill, who remains on good terms with her former pupil, said. "It will be interesting to see how they both take to the position. It could be good; it depends on how they use it. At the end of their careers, it could push them both to the maximum, or it could break them."

Lambiel is seeking to shore up an inconsistent triple Axel. Although he has hit it at important competitions in the past, it went missing this year, and he slipped to fifth place at worlds.

A current International Skating Union (ISU) judging instructional video uses Petrenko's triple Axel as an example of a stellar, "+3" jump. Another of Zmievskaya's pupils, former Ukrainian champion Viacheslav Zagorodniuk, also had a renowned triple Axel.

"Of course, I knew that Viktor and Galina had a great technique, and I am coming here to improve my weakness," Lambiel said. "To improve, that's why I am here."

Weir also has a gap in an otherwise impressive technical arsenal: he has never landed a clean quad in competition. At worlds this year, he tried the jump, but it was downgraded by the technical panel.

"For sure, I'm working on the quad later this summer," Weir said. "When we're done with my programs, I'll switch over to new boots and really start going to town with them. Of course, it should be in my long program for the whole season, because last year I ended with it."

The focus now is on perfecting new programs. Lambiel, who had long worked with Salome Brunner, has turned to Zmievskaya, Viktor and Nina for choreography.

His new short is set to a jazzy piano version of Gershwin's "Summertime," his free, an Astor Piazzolla tango.

"We just work all together [on the choreography]," said Lambiel.

"That's really how we work here," Weir interjected. "Even last year I had official choreographers, but we changed things around to make the programs more comfortable. The whole team works together; Nina does the finishing touches, Viktor makes sure it's possible to put a jump here or there, and Galina has rule over everything."

Zmievskaya is especially enthused about Weir's new free skate, choreographed to music from the French-Canadian musical Notre Dame de Paris.

"Actually, that's a funny story," Weir said. "Usually, in the morning, I play classical music or something that's very soft, just to wake up to. So I played Notre Dame de Paris one day, and [Galina] flipped out. I found out it's a really good piece of music to kind of pacify her and make her relax; at [U.S.] nationals this year, she sat in her hotel room and just played the music.

"It's definitely going to be a special program for us; I'm going to skate it as a mixture between Quasimodo and Esmeralda."

Weir's short is set to French composer and conductor Saint-Preux' "On the Wings of Time."

"It's not a finished product yet," Weir said. "But it's coming along well."