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Weir handles pressure, wins bronze medal

American proves that he's tough enough

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By Lynn Rutherford, special to icenetwork.com
(03/22/2008) - Waiting in the mixed zone and watching Daisuke Takahashi and Stéphane Lambiel skate on the high-def monitor backstage was near torture for Johnny Weir.

The American, who skated second in the men's final warm-up group, was in first place when he came off the ice, but there were four more skaters to go. He was the last person that could prevent the U.S. from going home from the 2008 ISU World Figure Skating Championships without a medal (the U.S. had not been shut out at a world championships since 1994).

And that wasn't all. Also on the line were the number of berths for the U.S. men into the 2009 World Championships, which just happen to be taking place in Los Angeles. With U.S. teammate Stephen Carriere certain to place 10th, only a podium finish from Weir would make the grade and secure three places for American men (in order for a country to receive three spots at worlds, the final finish of their top-two skaters the previous year must add up to no more than 13).

"I don't know; its still wide open for these last boys, if they skate well," Weir said at the time.

"That wasn't the performance of my dreams. I left some points on the table. This new system, it just kills you with the points."

Weir was especially shocked that his opening quad toe attempt received just 1.57 points after being downgraded. In addition, his triple flip garnered the dreaded "e" from the technical panel, signifying a wrong-edge take-off and limiting its Grade of Execution to negative territory.

"It wasn't the best program; hopefully, next year I will skate better," he said. "But for right now, it was the best I had in me."

After Takahashi and Lambiel's marks came up, and the "1" still appeared next to his name, Weir heaved a sigh of relief. With just Brian Joubert and Jeffrey Buttle left to skate, he had done his job.

"I did it; I won a medal," he said.

Later, in the press conference, he cut loose with a few trademark Weir-isms.

"I could have peed myself, really," he said. "I was so nervous and scared and shaking, and I didn't want anything to go wrong.

"I was fighting for every element. ... My coaches told me, 'You do this every day. You can do this. Believe in yourself.' And I tried to do it, but even with [their words], it comes down to what you do by yourself in this arena [dressed] in rhinestones and velvet."

It's been a long, strange journey to the podium for the irrepressible skater, whose honesty and quips have delighted journalists across six continents.

At his worlds' debut in 2004, Weir placed fifth. The following year, he was fourth, but he backslid in 2006 to seventh.

After placing eighth last season, he left his coach of a decade, Priscilla Hill, and his parents' home in Coatesville, Penn., to train in New Jersey under Galina Zmievskaya and Viktor Petrenko.

"He did his best possible today; it was hard, under all this pressure," Petrenko, the 1992 Olympic champion, said. "Even if he was not comfortable with all of his jumps, he fought for everything, he didn't give up. This was [a] very important step for him."

Weir now calls Zmievskaya; her daughter Nina; and Zmievskaya's son-in-law, Petrenko, "my second family, because my real family is not [living] so close to me now. Any problem I have, I can go to them. They'll help me with any situation or difficulty. I couldn't ask for a better coaching team or better transition from last season to help me rebound."

Neither Weir nor gold medalist Jeffrey Buttle executed a quad during the competition, which troubled silver medalist Brian Joubert, who thinks the sport's best jumpers should be better rewarded.

Not surprisingly, Weir disagreed.

"This makes a very strong statement that my sport is not defined by one jump or one element," he said.

"It's the whole package you need to have to be a top-level skater. How many times have we seen skaters in the bottom [warm-up] group do great quads? The well-rounded skater who can perform all the elements well will be rewarded."

With a world medal finally under his belt, Weir hopes to do even better next season.

"I'm okay with this [finish] today; it's great," he said. "But if I'm still in the same position next year, standing there waiting to know if I'm on the podium, it will be a lot more challenging."