Sports Johnny Weir Welcome to My World

ISBN 13: 9781451610284

Welcome to My World

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9781451610284: Welcome to My World

In a memoir as candid and unconventional as Johnny Weir himself, the three-time U.S. National Champion figure skater who electrified the 2010 Winter Olympics shares his glamorous, gritty, heartbreaking, hopeful, and just plain fabulous life story. How does a boy from rural Pennsylvania become an all-American original style icon on the ice and off, adored by fans around the world, and hailed as “The Lady Gaga of skating” (Salon.com)? The answers are here, in his invigorating and thoroughly entertaining chronicle of the emergence of his natural talents for skating and horseback riding; the physically and emotionally grinding path to becoming a champion; a family who sacrificed everything to support his passions; an ability to rise again after the most devastating defeats and never look back; an appreciation of style (from his mom) and self-discipline (that would be from his dad); and a fearless confidence to say whatever’s on his mind.

Because when you’re Johnny Weir, you don’t worry about what other people think. You let everyone else worry about that for you.

Welcome to his world.

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About the Author:

Johnny Weir was born July 2, 1984 and is a three-time U.S. National Champion (2004-2006), the 2008 Worlds bronze medalist, a two-time Grand Prix Final medalist and the 2001 World Junior Champion. As of February 2010 he is ranked eighth male figure skater in the world. At the 2010 United States Figure Skating Championships, he was one of three male skaters to represent the United States at the 2010 Winter Olympics. In July 2008, the United States Figure Skating Association and Skating Magazine announced Weir as the winner of the 2008 Reader's Choice Award for Skater of the Year, an annual trophy voted upon by skating fans and awarded to the American skater or skating team whose achievements were of the highest merit in the previous season. Weir skated with the Champions on Ice touring ice show every spring from 2004 until 2007. Off the ice, he has appeared in a fashion spread in BlackBook magazine (including a shot of him in a wrap-around mini skirt), taught Kathy Griffin how to skate in the season two finale of Kathy Griffin: My Life on the D-List, and modeled in runway shows for the fashion label Heatherette. His well-received 8-episiode reality show/documentary, Be Good, Johnny Weir, airs on the Sundance Channel. He was featured on E!’s Talk Soup “awards show” and has also been on The Tonight Show and Chelsea Lately.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

5
Embracing 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.

“Yes, ma’am.”

“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 so...

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