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5Embracing the Starving Artist
My ankles swelled into a war zone of black, blue, and bloody red from the countless footwork passes I’d run through. My hip flexors were slack with overuse from millions of jumps and difficult spins. Every muscle in my body ached. Even my brain throbbed from an entire day of having directives in Russian hurled at me as rapidly and forcefully as machine-gun fire. In a temporary break from my regular training with Priscilla, I spent the summer of 2003 in a program with one of the world’s best Olympic coaches. During the insane, grueling summer camp for skaters, I subsisted on coffee and slept in a stranger’s extra bedroom—and I had never felt luckier.
I had been so disheartened by the fiasco at the National Championships in Dallas and my subsequent relegation to a skater’s no-man’s-land by the USFSA that I briefly considered quitting the sport altogether. I didn’t think I had the head for it anymore. Resting on talent alone, I had turned last season (when I should have proved myself Olympic-level material) into a total disaster. The skating world didn’t believe I had what it took to be a serious competitor, proving that with my new low ranking.
Their harsh voices berated me in my head until I came to my senses. I had never listened to those people before, so why would I now? I wanted to keep skating. I needed to. After all my family had sacrificed, personally and financially, for me to pursue this dream, I couldn’t give up after encountering a bump in the road (even if the bump was the size of Mount Everest). Plus, I hated when people told me what to do. If the entire federation signaled that I should quit, then I would do the opposite—even if it killed me.
But if I planned on reviving my career after taking a blowtorch to it, a real change of pace was in order. Last year had been a failed experiment in stretching my wings, but the original impetus hadn’t been totally wrong. I did need to be away from Priscilla and my mom so that I could learn how to stand on my own two skates. I needed to be inspired.
That inspiration came in the form of a fur-swathed, Dior-toting Russian woman named Tatiana Tarasova. In the obscure town of Simsbury, Connecticut, the world-famous skating coach and choreographer spent summers training an elite group of athletes including Olympic champions such as Alexei Yagudin and Ilia Kulik and my friend, the skating star Sasha Cohen. After Sasha helped me get a foot in the door, I skated for Tarasova. Her only comment, to my mother, was, “Yes, I will take Johnny.” Normally she charged in the double-digit thousands for one program, but Tarasova let me train with her all summer for free since I didn’t have a penny to my name. Waiving her fee proved she believed in me and offered encouragement before I took even a single lesson. I had been given a second chance and resolved not to blow it.
At the International Skating Center of Connecticut, we skated for about six hours a day, so much more than I was used to, after which I would fall, practically paralyzed, into the bed in the bedroom I rented from a random woman. No matter how stiff or sore I felt, I hit the ice the next morning with the kind of energy fueled by inspiration. Unlike the University of Delaware’s crowded rink, here only five truly great skaters trained together.
In the classic Russian style, Tarasova taught us in groups, as opposed to one-on-one, so that we fought each other to be the best. The dynamic brought out the competitive spark still smoldering from my childhood. I definitely responded to all the skaters trying to one-up each other as we vied for Tarasova’s attention. The edge of my footwork got sharper and my jump technique stronger.
Entering the session late one day, she began barking in a choppy, aggressive Russian and finding fault everywhere she looked. Although I was far from fluent, I had taught myself enough Russian that I could communicate and understand when others spoke.
Suddenly Tarasova stopped and clapped her bejeweled hands together.
“Umnitza,” she said, which was Russian slang for “perfect boy.”
I had just come out of a spin in the new short program Tarasova had created for me and decided to extend my leg with a little more bravado than perhaps was necessary. At first I had no idea she was talking to me.
“You look like a young Baryshnikov,” she said, giving me a big smile before launching into a list of a million things I had done wrong.
Attracting Tarasova’s attention, I felt very special. And surprised. She had praised me for the kind of thing that Priscilla, trying to follow direct orders from the federation, constantly told me to tone down during my normal training life. Skate more like a man; watch your fingers so that they aren’t balletic; not so much movement in your hips, please!
But Tarasova appreciated everything that made me me, including my artistic side. She liked my body, which mimicked those of Russian ballet dancers, and provided choreography that enriched the way I moved on the ice. “Umnitza,” she applauded me throughout the summer, nurturing the healthy side of my ego and transforming Simsbury into a special hideaway where nothing was too artistic, nothing too over the top. With Tarasova I found my first opportunity to express myself fully and freely.
Not eager to leave this incubator, I didn’t take any breaks from the group’s training regimen apart for a necessary one to compete in a little local event back in Delaware. It was July and I had been training with Tarasova for less than a month when Priscilla told me at the last minute that I was expected at the Liberty Open at The Pond Ice Arena in Newark, Delaware. The call instantly dealt my ego, which Tarasova had been vigorously massaging, a brutal blow.
In the skating world, there’s an unspoken standard: once you compete in the National Championships on television and fight for a spot on the World Championship team, you don’t participate in small, local open events like the one in Newark. Those were the competitions where I blew everyone away at the juvenile level when I was just starting out at twelve years old. My entering the event at The Pond was as if Madonna were to try out for American Idol. But when Priscilla asked the federation how I could fix my reputation and get things back on track after last season, they responded firmly that I had to return to square one and prove myself all over again. “We need to make sure he’s training,” an official had told Priscilla, “and doesn’t do anything like he did last year again.”
So it was I found myself outside the small rink, steeling myself for a humiliating trial. The worst part was that I didn’t even feel prepared for this tiny event. July was extremely early to compete. I had just started working with Tarasova and the new short program she created for me was still in process. Meanwhile, we had been so focused on the new choreography that I hadn’t yet started doing run-throughs of the long program that I intended to hold over from the previous season.
With my heavy equipment bag slung over my shoulder, I registered myself at the foldout card table near the entrance and after writing my name, the elderly woman distributing the makeshift badges looked up from my signature with her mouth in a little shocked O.
In the skating world I was famous, for good and for bad. So my appearance turned heads in surprise as people wondered why I was there.
After changing into a simple gray and white costume, still a tight onesie that unabashedly showed off my thin frame but reflected my humble status in its lack of adornment, I waited near the ice. The other low-ranked senior level skaters with no chance at a national title sneaked furtive glances in my direction.
“Well, well, well, Johnny Weir,” said a judge in a Team USA windbreaker, hair dyed a slightly bluish tint. “What the hell are you doing here?”
The tips of my ears turned red with shame. I stared straight ahead and muttered, “Skating,” thinking about how much my mother hated when my brother and I mumbled as kids.
“Oh, you’re going to skate for us today?” another judge said, sipping from a large Dunkin’ Donuts coffee that smelled sickeningly of blueberries.
“Did you hear? He’s training with the great Tarasova. Well, I can’t wait to see this. That is, if he can stand on his skates long enough.”
The judges cackled mercilessly while I burned with my own thoughts. Before the cruel comments, I had felt deeply embarrassed. Now I choked with rage.
Training with Priscilla had been all about the problems with my skating; ours was a nuts and bolts operation. Whenever I headed out onto the ice during an event, I concentrated on my mistakes, which I knew well from hours of having them pointed out, and implored myself not to make them. Although the stage in Newark was tiny, this was the first time I had competed since the Dallas National Championships, the culmination of every single mistake I had made thus far in my career. My history weighed heavy.
But in this small place and moment, something shifted. After the announcer unceremoniously called my name and I took to the ice, the problem child found himself replaced by another one: umnitza, perfect boy. Tarasova’s voice played in my head, egging me on to remember the art and beauty and forget the pettiness of scores. The power of an Olympic coach telling me day in and day out how good I was fortified me. Just go out and skate, I told myself.
And I did. Cleanly, beautifully, perfectly.
Afterward, I took off my skates, changed into my regular clothes, and left without waiting to see my scores printed on the little pieces of white paper. I didn’t need to see the proof: I knew I had won.
In Simsbury the next day, I went right back to work, trying to outjump, spin, and sparkle the other skaters in my group. Tarasova, who blustered into our session just as I was completing a triple axel with joyful exuberance flying out of my overly balletic pinkies, clapped her hands in delight. She never asked me how the competition went or uttered one single word about it. This, another of her lessons, programmed me to know that nothing matters but the moment. Whatever happens at an event, good or bad, dissipates when you train on a clean slate of ice.
I stood on the bed and taped a piece of paper to my bedroom ceiling. Then I lay down to make sure I could see the words when I woke up in the morning and before I went to sleep at night. They read: “Johnny Weir National Champion.” Clear as day.
Having returned to Delaware at the end of the summer, I refused to lose the drive or inspiration I had achieved with Tarasova and the other skaters in Simsbury. If I were going to be a national, or even international, champion, I needed to strip my life down to nothing but skating. Back home, however, I was surrounded by temptations that knocked me on my ass last season. Friends beckoned with parties or just one quick cocktail. Fried or sugary food appeared particularly tasty after my long workouts.
So I taped the mantra to my ceiling to keep myself in check. “No, I can’t come to the party. I have to go to bed early so I can be the National Champion,” I said to friends. I did Priscilla’s drills like a good boy and chose black coffee over cheesecake because I was dieting to be the National Champion.
Being dirt poor also helped keep me in line. I had a lot of trouble with money because, well, I didn’t have any. The federation had cut off my official funding and anyone who had previously given me money had either died or decided I was washed up. I didn’t merit a spot on any of the ice tours, where skaters typically make cash to fund their lives, and couldn’t get a job like a normal person because my training occupied all of my days.
I love money and, as my mother taught me, nice things, but through my experience that summer with Tarasova, I got in touch with my inner Russian-ness. And Russians, in general, don’t have money. So I was fine with not having it, either. I wore my poverty as a badge of a prideful club. I was a member of a romantic long-suffering sect, the Starving Artist. As part of my destitute chic period, I never dressed up for anything and hardly showered. If my hair was greasy from a workout the day before, I simply put it back in a headband. That’s what we artists, concentrating solely on the work before us, did. It was inspiring to feel like you had nothing.
The only time I got really fancy and dressed up was when I had my costumes on to compete. Sparkly, tight, colorful, and expressive, they transformed my drab, unwashed persona like a glorious drag queen who only comes alive to put on a show. For my long program, I had re-created the bland gray and silver two-piece, puff-blouse costume from my Dr. Zhivago program last season to look like an icicle. Baby blue Lycra covered in white fishnet, paint, and Swarovski crystals, the result was totally razzle-dazzle, much more Russian, and much more me.
The costume for my new short program showed my sensitive side (the depth behind all that glitter). The choreography Tarasova created to “Valse Triste” by Jean Sibelius, a slow, melodic march, had me tell the story of a man who arrives home from war in a suit he hasn’t worn since before he left to fight. Waiting for him in his duffel for over a decade, the suit has been ruined by dirt and shredded by time. My costume reflected that image with jagged rips and tears throughout the cloth, an oversized burnt and floppy rose on the lapel. Sorrow that would read on the ice.
Sectionals was another stop on the Johnny Weir shame tour that year. Competing in regional or sectional events is another one of those things a skater at the level of International Grand Prix events just doesn’t do. But I did. Because I didn’t finish in the top six in the previous National Championship, I had to requalify. Even though I had taken about ten steps backward, my only choice was to keep moving forward.
On the drive to the event, I popped Christina Aguilera’s Stripped into the CD player and pumped up the volume to liven up the deadly ride. The lyrics to “Make Over” filled up the inside of Priscilla’s massive SUV, providing some necessary color to the gray winter landscape. Christina helped me steel myself. Although I had no money or idea what the future would hold, a terrific group of friends supported me. My mom was still my best friend and even Priscilla and I were getting along better than ever. I had no fear heading into quad jumps or driving to an event where I would be something of a laughingstock, because I was in control of my life.
Still, by the time I arrived at Art Devlin’s Olympic Motor Inn, where I was staying in Lake Placid, my relentless spirit had begun to relent, just a little. What started as a tickle in my throat turned into a full-blown cold, a fitting tribute to the dreary iced-over town. I have always felt uneasy in Lake Placid. In close proximity to nothing more than cold, dark mountains and miles of trees and townies, the tiny town is horror-movie material. My motel, little more than polyester bedspreads and ugly carpeting, provided no comfort. This wasn’t the official hotel of the sectionals where all the other skaters were staying. No, that was down the street and more than I could afford. I had to settle for serial killer lodging. Wrapping myself up in my own sheet so that I wouldn’t have to touch the dubious bedding, I took solace in my thriftiness and hoped this Starving Artist might get at least a few hours of sleep.
Though I felt sick and tired the next day, my confidence going into the event soared off the charts. My costumes were unique and gorgeous; I had a short program created by a world-class choreographer; and I was skinny as a rail. Nobody at this two-bit competition could touch me. A few of my friends had generously driven up to watch me skate, which reminded me that although I felt totally alone at times, I wasn’t really.
I skated my short program flawlessly, but during my long program, I fell down on a jump. Unlike in years past, however, I didn’t unravel at the first hint of a mistake. Because I was far and away going to win, the fall wouldn’t hurt me. I stopped for a second on the ice, caught my breath, skated around in a little circle to gather myself, and then gestured to my friends before finishing. A little impertinent perhaps, but eight hours was a long way to drive to watch me skate.
I won and, more important, earned my place at the National Championships. I still had a lot ahead of me to prove that I could be good again, but for the moment I basked in the relief of accomplishment. I knew it was short-lived since, as I had learned from Tarasova, tomorrow I would be back on the ice starting from zero.
However, my moment of glory was even more short-lived than expected. Right after the competition, while I made my way to the locker room to change, a judge approached me.
“You know you’re never going to be able to work yourself back from this,” he said.
“Excuse me?” I said, although I had heard him perfectly.
“Johnny, just don’t expect anything at Nationals. You shot yourself in the foot last year,” he said. “You’re looking better, and you can obviously skate well. But all I’m saying is you’re not going to get any favors from us.”
I waited to see if he was finished and then turned to the locker room without offering a reply. There was nothing I could say to him, at least nothing that wouldn’t get me in deeper trouble with the federation.
If he or any of his cronies who didn’t believe in me had seen the mantra taped to my ceiling—Johnny Weir National Champion—they would have laughed me out of the arena. But his remarks, instead of eroding my confidence, only stoked the fire in my belly. I would be the next national champion, not only to prove something to myself but also to shove it down the throat of anyone who counted me out.
Not a single skater who needed to qualify at the sectional championships had won a national title in nearly a decade, but that’s what I set out to do when I arrived in Atlanta for the Nationals in January of 2004. I had a goal, but I wasn’t an idiot. It would be a miracle if I could pull it off. A lot of famous people were competing, such as Timothy Goebel and Michael Weiss, two of the big mainstays of figure skating at that time. So I had a long list of fierce challengers and skating favorites, plus a panel of judges who practically hated my guts. A miracle, indeed.
I looked good on the ice during practice—boom, boom, boom, landing every jump—and impressed a few stragglers who had come to watch me, probably by mistake. Any pressure I felt going into the competition came from within since, frankly, nobody else paid me any attention. The press wasn’t writing about me, fans weren’t clamoring for my autograph, and the officials weren’t monitoring my practices. As I said, I was a complete write-off.
Flying under the radar, I entered into the short program by psyching myself up with the idea that I had something special to bring to skating in the States—if I could just keep it together. I was a hybrid of Russian and American skating, two very different schools of thought. With coaches from both countries, I had married the artistic with the athletic, the passion with technique. My costumes were different and so was the way I moved my body. I was an American boy with a Russian soul, and nobody else skated anything like me.
Armed with this knowledge, I did what I had done since Tarasova gave me the program—skate clean and perfect and beautiful. I got off the ice and waited for my scores, not knowing what kind of numbers I would receive. I had skated well, but judging isn’t a cut-and-dry operation. A whole mess of things go into deciding what kind of number to put to a performance. Technique is a factor but so are subjective notions of skating as an art and the kind of skater who should win. Needless to say, politics plays a huge role. The judges consider who they want to be the face of the sport when making their decisions.
When my scores came up they reflected the federation’s ambivalence toward me. My numbers were all over the place. For my artistic score, they ranged from 4.9, which was horrible for a senior level skater, to a stellar 5.8 out of a perfect score of 6.0. Because none of the judges expected me to be prepared or skate well, it was like they didn’t know what to do with me when I did. After both the technical and artistic scores were posted, I’d received a majority of the judges’ votes for first place.
It was a real shock, not just to me, Priscilla, and my mom, but to everyone at the event. In one short program, I went from outcast to first place. The press needed to rewrite the story lines to include me: the skater who had “imploded” in a “disastrous” last season had turned into a “contender.”
Suddenly all the skaters and officials who hadn’t given me the time of day only a few hours before were patting me on the back.
“You did so amazing!”
“You’re skating like the champion we always knew you’d be.”
Just as I had ignored the mean remarks by the judge at sectionals, so I did the same with the praise. Good, bad, whatever, I wasn’t going to listen to it because it was all fake. I had my blinders on and reminded myself that every single one of those backslappers had been equally ready to send me home.
I needed that fire and aggression the next day to get me through the long program, which is hard enough to get through without the pressure of being number one. This time, however, I refused to buckle under my virtuosity. After a year of training my mind to believe I deserved the title of champion and following up with the behavior to prove it, I was ready for a repeat performance. I was strong enough now. I could do it.
Unfortunately, I drew to skate last, a horrible, horrible place for someone with my history of nerves to be in. I didn’t know if I’d be able to keep up my tough attitude as one by one, the best American skaters performed before me. Michael Weiss, my fiercest rival at this event, skated second to last. A big hulking and classless idiot with three national titles, two world medals, and two Olympic teams under his wide belt, he was a huge star and everything that the U.S. Figure Skating Association wanted at the helm. I sat huddled in the dressing room, listening to every torturous moment, when the crowd erupted into applause for some fantastic jump he landed cleanly. His scores also came through loud and clear. They were great numbers: 5.7’s, 5.8’s, and 5.9’s. Just great. For him.
I left my bravado in the dressing room when it was time for me to compete. Skating around in a little dazed circle, I had my eyes wide open but couldn’t see anything. Priscilla tried to talk to me, but I couldn’t hear what she was saying, either. I had come down with hysterical blindness and deafness. I fought to stay calm and got into my starting position.
Which Johnny was it going to be?
Good? Or bad?
I started out feeling shaky and too aware of my body. A loose sequin at my neck scratched and the nail on my left big toe pressed slightly into the skate. My breath caught in my chest, flittering about like a caged bird. Then I started to pick up speed in my program. The sound of shearing ice and the visual whirl of the arena drowned out the small discomforts my nerves had produced. The speed, music, and flow combined to give me that rush of great skating. Suddenly I was flying and before I hit the last forty seconds of the program, the crowd had started clapping and hollering.
When I finished, the entire audience leaped to its feet. I couldn’t even hear the announcer say, “And again, ladies and gentlemen, Johnny Weir,” because people were screaming so much. Everyone was excited over this comeback, me included. A year before I had been lying in the center of the ice with television cameras broadcasting my fraudulent, injured self to countries across the globe. Now I stood in the center, healthy and whole. I didn’t care what place I was going to get; this was my victory.
Even though I was clearly the emotional favorite of the audience, sitting in the kiss and cry area waiting for my scores I didn’t think I actually had a chance at winning the title. The judge at sectionals had put it plainly: “We aren’t going to do anything for you, Johnny.” I had said I wanted to win, but the truth was I felt happy to the point of tears at the prospect of earning my first senior national silver or bronze medal.
My technical scores came up, and they were all 5.9’s, and 5.8’s, higher than Michael’s. My pulse raced. Then the second round of scores for artistic merit came up, and I had a perfect 6, 5.9’s and one 5.7. All but two judges gave me first place. Now I was really crying. I had won my first national title just as I’d promised myself and everyone else I would.
When you go on the ice to do anything, you’re totally alone. You can have the best, most expensive coaches in the world and an entire team of people behind you, but once you’re actually out there, it’s you that has to do it. I had done everything myself, and I did it my own way.
© 2011 Johnny Weir