Weir proclaims to world: 'I'm still a figure skater'

Three-time U.S. champion dedicates time, passion to comeback amid other responsibilities

Johnny Weir, seen here with coach Galina Zmievskaya at the Finlandia Trophy, says he has lots of tricks up his sleeve for the Olympic season.
Johnny Weir, seen here with coach Galina Zmievskaya at the Finlandia Trophy, says he has lots of tricks up his sleeve for the Olympic season. (Jyrki Pirkkalainen)


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By Jyrki Pirkkalainen, special to
(11/06/2012) - Lady Gaga's "Poker Face" was no random music choice to mark Johnny Weir's comeback to competitive skating in Finland last month. He had used the song for an exhibition number before.

He had already competed at the Finlandia Trophy back in 2003 as a 19-year-old newcomer to the international senior scene. Later on, he became a three-time U.S. champion and two-time Olympian, not to mention a pop culture, fashion and reality TV icon. He has probably been more in the limelight than any other skater in the world lately.

Yet, when he took the ice for his short program in Espoo, Finland, his legs were shaking.

The day before, jet-lagged from a cross-Atlantic flight, Weir had said he hoped to be "rested enough to shake my butt a little bit in the short program." And he was. Weir kept his poker face, but his dance moves made the audience go wild. However, as far as technical content was concerned, he still kept an ace or two up his sleeve -- or in this case, drawn on the palm of his glove as part of the costume.

"I was nervous, incredibly nervous. More than I've ever been before. I was literally shaking," he admitted. "This has definitely been the hardest thing I've done in my career. I'm proud I kept going and I did what I came to do.

"No matter what [else] I do, be it fashion design, singing, or reality TV, I'm still a figure skater. Figure skating has gotten me to where I am in life, and I'm pleased with that," Weir said.

"I work very hard on my other jobs and I enjoy it, but there is nothing like figure skating and the determination, the drive. I lost 8.5 kilos to be ready for the season. (Yes, he talked about kilograms, not pounds.) It was a lot of work.

"I'm excited to show everyone what I've done, but I'm not putting the pressure on myself to win," he said. "The pressure here is strictly to help the audience enjoy, to show them that I'm back, and all I really want is to enjoy what I do."

Even the quad is back

Weir has been preparing for his comeback with his old coach, Galina Zmievskaya, in Hackensack, N.J. His training regimen is the same as it used to be -- only the mindset is different this time around.

"I think that because of the time off the ice, I can approach my training differently," he said. "I don't have to be pulled by the hair by Galina to get me on ice anymore. And if there is a day when I have too much going on in my head and I don't feel strong enough, I can say to Galina that I'm sorry but I have to leave. My work is very grown up now."

Despite having returned to full-time training only half a year ago, the 28-year-old has gotten his old jump repertoire back and is visibly in great shape.

"The quad is steadily coming back," he said. "I had boot problems this summer when I changed from the pair I skated in Vancouver; they were so comfortable and nice. When I went to my new boots, they were shaped like the letter C on the inside.

"I was 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, so it wasn't until a month and a half ago that I changed the boots or tried to fix them. So, since then, I'm trying to get it back, but before the boot problem, it was going very well.

"I'm also working on a quad Salchow," he added.

At Finlandia, Weir attempted the quad toe loop in both the short program and the free skate, which would have been unusual in the old days.

"I want everybody to be impressed, not only that I came back but also that I'm doing well," he said. "I don't know if I accomplished that, but I did a lot of good things for myself."

Supporters online, rivals on ice

Since retiring from competition in 2010, Weir was disenchanted by figure skating and didn't follow the sport. He started to check into it again, only slowly, and one reason for that was a young talent from Japan.

"I am big fan of Yuzuru Hanyu and I wanted to watch him, as well as my girls. And then, also friends from over the years, I would watch them on YouTube."

Weir said he wanted to help Hanyu because he knew how difficult the transition to seniors can be for a young skater -- Weir himself won the world junior title at the same age of 16. He has been supporting Hanyu in Twitter messages, and a couple of years ago he was even asked to design a costume for Hanyu.

In Espoo, the two men, who are each other's fans, competed against each other for the first time. After a phenomenal free skate with two different quads, the now 17-year-old Hanyu ended up winning the whole thing, while Weir was left off the podium, finishing fourth.

"Johnny is my hero, but here we are rivals", Hanyu said, summarizing how he felt about the situation.

"Married old man" still wants to sparkle

While Weir doesn't think he has changed that much as a person, he says that having a life outside the rink has given him new perspective.

"I'm still me," Weir said. "I still say anything I want, and I still work hard to back up everything that I talk about. I'm still me. Maybe a little bit older.

"And I'm married now. That has been a big change in my lifestyle and in the way I approach competitions. Victor (Voronov, his husband) actually came with me to Finland to support me.

"I will never change. I want to sparkle, be the best and skate in the limelight, but having a life outside of the rink has given me a whole new sense of what this means. It's who I am, but at the end of the day I'm not going to die if I lose to someone or if I miss a podium by 0.1 points."

Still, the ultimate goal has been set on Sochi 2014.

"This season is my first season back and the music is quite special, but for the Olympic season, I have so many tricks up my sleeve that I want to show everyone," he said. "I want to work with famous designers for the costumes and really try to put together all the talents I've worked with for the last couple of years to make my dream as sparkly as possible."

Self-appointed as "an artiste," Weir likes to create his own programs himself, with the help from Zmievskaya.

"Galina and I talked in the beginning of the year, and she said, 'If you go to a choreographer, they'll make you like they want you to look. It's better just to skate around to the music, hit pretty positions, and I'll tell you if they're good or not,' " Weir said, describing their creative process.

"For the short program, we worked with Lady Gaga's dance choreographers, but at the end of the day, Galina and I constructed the programs ourselves," he said. "The programs will continue to develop, 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."

A story on how to be successful but humble

Back to Lady Gaga and Weir. The two New York-based celebrities do share some attributes. The skater admits he'd love to work with the pop star sometime in the future.

"Everyone in America thinks of me as Gaga on ice, so I think it's only natural that we would perform together one day," he said.

"She has been supporting me. During the Olympics, she sent me messages saying good luck and 'Show everyone that you are a poker face.' She is very talented and nice. I really respect people who can be so successful but at the same time very humble."

Indeed, there are different ways of being humble.

Lyrics aren't allowed in competition music, so Gaga personally sent three different versions of her "Poker Face" hit to Weir, all without words.

"That's a cool story. Whether I skate well every time or not, I have music from Gaga," he said.

Weir had barely walked out of the kiss-and-cry area after the short program, leaving the spotlight to the Zamboni for an ice resurfacing break, when another Lady Gaga song resounded through the Barona Arena in Espoo.

I'm on the edge, the edge, the edge of glory, and I'm hanging on a moment of truth...

Pure coincidence or a conscious pun from the rink DJ? We'll never know. But we do know something for sure:

Johnny is back for good. And he will be back in the spotlight, no matter what he does.