Arts & Entertainment

Recharged Weir Determined to Take Back Skating Title

JOHNNY WEIR skates at a competition from 2007. (Photo: Paul/Michelle Harvath) Three-time U.S. figure skating champion Johnny Weir was unceremoniously stripped of his crown a year ago, when his arch rival on the ice, Evan Lysacek, prevailed at the 2007 championships in Spokane.

Weir, still reeling from the bruising cascade of negative criticism that attended his fifth place finish in the March 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin, had endured a lackluster year for which the loss of his U.S. title was only the final blow. He did so poorly, in fact, he slipped to third place. “I had no real desire to even be there,” he said.

But Weir is back at the U.S. championships this week with a fresh resolve and sharply refined work ethic that produced two first-place medals on the Grand Prix tour this fall, at the Cup of China and the Cup of Russia.

Weir and Lysacek will face off, as it were, tomorrow and Sunday in St. Paul, Minnesota. The “short program” will take place on Friday and the longer, “free skate” program will occur Sunday. NBC will broadcast the competition this weekend.

Neither skater, whose styles are radically different, denies that there is an intense rivalry between them, and no particular love lost, either.

Lysacek, who trains in the Los Angeles area, exhibits a purely athletic style, replete with the challenging jumps and spins that rack up the judges’ points in the new, recent years’ controversial scoring system. Weir, who now trains near Manhattan, is far more artistic in his style, mixing the athletic challenges of the sport with a fluid, ballet-like grace.

Both are in their early 20s, and both have their eyes set not only on the U.S. title this weekend, but ultimately on Olympic gold in Vancouver in 2010. With Weir’s rebound this season, there seems to be no lack of rigor and determination in either of them to achieve that goal.

In a telephone conference call with about 40 reporters last week, Weir said that he attributes his new-found approach to his skating to his tough decision last summer to sever ties with his home town and the coach he had since he began skating a decade ago.

Departing Newark, Delaware for Landhurst, New Jersey, a suburb of Manhattan, and leaving his long-time coach and friend, Priscilla Hill, was tantamount to leaving home for the first time and a very emotional experience for Weir. But the move, he said, “was like a new lease on life as an adult.”

He took an apartment across the Hudson River from Manhattan and has done little, combined with his rigorous training schedule, but “eat, sleep and clean” to cope with any homesickness and anxieties about living alone for the first time. He also conceded to sleeping with a large steak knife next to his bed at first. But as he’s settled in, he’s quickly become an “aggressive driver” on forays into Manhattan, where he made it a point to say that his favorite restaurant is Cipriani.

The key to his move, however, was signing on with a new coach, Galina Zmievskaya, whose drill sergeant-like demands for discipline and rigor were an entirely new thing for him. He knew that to reach his full potential, he needed that more than Hill’s nurturing approach, which had been so important to him earlier in his development.

“I knew I had to change coaches and my training regimen in order to become a champion again,” Weir said on the conference call. He was on the phone at his apartment in Wayne, New Jersey, for the call arranged by the U.S. Figure Skating Association.

Now, he said, “I am very confident. I’m better trained than any other year that I’ve gone to the national championships.” He conceded he “didn’t deserve” to win last year. “I was uninspired. I wasn’t prepared. It was so hard to motivate myself.”

But that was then. “Now,” he added, “I’m focused on skating so well so that I’ll never allow a third-place finish to happen again.”

Some things about Weir remain the same, however. Once again, he’s designed his own costumes and worked closely with his choreographer to formulate a routine and music that carry a personal message.

This time, he worked with Uri Goren, the creative force behind the British symphonic pop group, Globus, to customize a musical program for his free skate called “Love Is War.”

“It’s about the constant battle it takes to be yourself,” he said.