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Johnny be good: Weir in medal contention

Will outspoken skater be U.S. Figure Skating's savior in Gothenburg?

Three-time U.S. champion Johnny Weir is one of the top men competing in Tokyo this weekend.
Three-time U.S. champion Johnny Weir is one of the top men competing in Tokyo this weekend. (Lynn Rutherford)

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By Lynn Rutherford, special to icenetwork.com
(03/21/2008) - Johnny Weir arrived at the men's short program press conference today bright, smiling and all decked out in red, white and blue -- and for once, his comments were almost as conservative as his attire.

This time around, he had saved his best performance for the ice.

"I feel very good; I've done everything I can to deliver a good program," he said. "I've put my personal life on hold. I've been eating properly, training hard. It's definitely paying off."

Weir had just completed his best short of the season, complete with crisp, softly-landed jumps; elegant footwork; and precise spins. His 80.79 points puts him second in a field crammed with high-achieving contenders. Only Jeff Buttle, another skater known more for his artistry than his quads, outscored him, and by just 1.31 points.

"I just felt so comfortable out there; it was a fantastic way to finish off [competing with] this short program," he said. "It's about time, too, because the sequins [on this costume] are about ready to fall off, and I almost forgot my gloves at the hotel. I think [this performance] is a good ending for it."

A good ending for Weir could also mean good things for U.S. Figure Skating, scrambling to gain as many entrants as it can for the 2009 World Figure Skating Championships in Los Angeles.

The U.S. ladies' team is already down to two spots, and officials are hoping Weir can come through with a podium finish to give the U.S. a fighting chance to have three male skaters. Since U.S. champion Evan Lysacek withdrew from worlds with a shoulder injury, Weir is the last best hope.

"No offense, but getting three men is not the most important thing for me," Weir said. "I don't really care how many men we get to bring to worlds or Olympics, as long as one of them is me. Of course, I support [U.S. teammates] Jeremy Abbott and Stephen Carriere, and I want them to skate well, but it's not my first priority. So of course, I don't feel any pressure."

(To qualify three entrants, the placements of the top-two competitors cannot equal more than 13. Carriere is currently in 11th place; Abbott sits 14th.)

The ebullient Weir didn't even react to a question about a prominent New York Times story, also published in the International Herald Tribune and widely circulated here in Gothenburg, positing him as an effete sequin wearer and his equally svelte rival, Lysacek, as a rough-and-tumble, hard-core athlete.

"At this point between me and Evan, the press will talk all it can...flip around things you've said and misquote you," Weir shrugged. "I don't get upset; I don't listen. The only time I ever got upset was once when someone wrote I wore a chinchilla boa to a press conference. I would never do that; it was a scarf. That made me angry."

Weir approached this event strategically, declining an invitation to the ISU Four Continents Figure Skating Championships in South Korea to focus on his training. He and coaches Galina Zmievskaya and Viktor Petrenko departed their home base in New Jersey early in favor of practicing in Russia.

"Coming to Europe is always difficult for Americans and Canadians, because you lose a half a day, not a whole day," he explained. "I'm glad I flew to Moscow first for a few days and got to feel my legs, sleep at the right times and wake up at the right times."

Since leaving long-time coach Priscilla Hill last spring to train under Zmievskaya, who also coached Olympic champions Petrenko and Oksana Baiul, Weir has worked harder and more seriously than ever before.

"Basically [my coaches] are very strict about regulating what I do, which days I do certain elements, which days I can lay back," he said. "They made me realize I'm not a car running. I go forward and then fall back to maximize what my body has to do. The lifespan in this sport is so short; I need to maximize everything I can."

According to Weir, that includes the quad toe loop, a move he has never cleanly landed in competition [he two-footed the landing at the 2008 U.S. Figure Skating Championships].

"Yes, I will try to do the quad in the free skate tomorrow, I don't understand why I wouldn't," he said. "It's been dependable [in practice] this week, better in my programs than out. I hope I can go out there and show all I can do."

And so does U.S. Figure Skating.