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Weiss doesn't stand alone anymore

Charity show a hit in Arlington, Va.

Three-time U.S. champion Michael Weiss.
Three-time U.S. champion Michael Weiss. (Getty Images)

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By John Markon, special to icenetwork.com
(09/08/2008) - As a young figure skater, Michael Weiss had a way of standing alone.

"I did that way too often," said Weiss. "My only problem with skating as a kid was that I didn't know anyone else who did it, particularly boys. I'd go to the rink every day, and I'd be, at most, one of two guys there. I remember I was always trying to convince my friends that skating was cool and that skating was fun."

Some 20 or 25 years later, what's changed? Weiss is still attempting to persuade anyone who'll listen that there's fun to be had on the ice.

It was a central theme of a competitive career that saw Weiss win three U.S. men's titles and skate in two Olympic Games. It's also the idea behind Champions Live!, an annual event Weiss stages in northern Virginia to benefit his Michael Weiss Foundation, which fosters the development of talented young American skaters.

Weiss' shows are different from some other charity events in that, while the names on the marquee tend to be big, the atmosphere is informal and the setting is small. This year's Champions, staged Sept. 6, took place in front of a capacity crowd of 1,100 at the NHL Washington Capitols' practice rink in Arlington. Previous shows had been staged in even more intimate surroundings at the rink where Weiss practices in Reston, Va.

Weiss treated his 1,100 customers to a lineup that included Brian Boitano, Sasha Cohen, Yuka Sato, Jeffrey Buttle, Todd Eldredge, Jennifer Robinson and reigning American women's champion Mirai Nagasu, one of the more prominent young skaters who's been sponsored by the Weiss Foundation.

"It's a set-up that can only work in a benefit event," Weiss said. "I think keeping the seats full and the building small makes for a better environment for the skaters and the fans. We do put a lot of talent in front of that small crowd, but I think that's how you build up a loyal fan base.

"I'm always overwhelmed by how eager the skaters are to help. Trust me, they didn't just happen to be in the Washington area over the weekend. They stay at my house and skate for free. If they didn't, there's no way I could pay them enough to put this kind of program together."

Many of the Champions performers were skaters who appear with Weiss in Scott Hamilton's Stars on Ice review, which raised another point. During Weiss' days as a competitor, few skaters were more competitive. Weiss loved the challenge of attempting difficult elements in front of demanding judges. He liked it so much, and did it for so long, that there was skepticism over whether or not he was suited for the life of a professional entertainer.

Weiss tours the U.S., Japan and Canada with the cast of Stars. He's away from home -- and his wife and two children -- for more than five months of every year.

"I do not enjoy being away for that long," Weiss said, "but, otherwise, I like pro skating every bit as much as I liked competing. What's really cool is that now, I can literally do anything I want. I can use any music. I can go up into the crowd. I turn as many back flips as I want to do. I can do the jumps I like and skip the ones I don't.

"As much as I respected the structure of competitive skating, I might like the freedom of what I'm doing now even more."

Which could mean Weiss, 32, won't be taking off his blades any time soon. He's still one of the more athletic skaters available for viewing and has nine triple jumps and five back flips scripted into every performance of Stars on Ice.

He didn't put that entire arsenal on display at this year's Champions, but Weiss did close the show with an energetic version of the "Save a Horse, Ride a Cowboy" routine he performed in last year's Stars.

"With so much talent on the show, the first decision I made was that I had to skate last," Weiss said. "Otherwise, I'd probably still be deciding who should close."

Special mention was given to Eldredge, a six-time U.S. men's champion. He's performed in all four of Weiss' shows.

"And he's one of my best friends," Weiss said. "That wasn't always the case. When I was coming up as a skater, Todd was on top, and I was the guy trying to knock him off. We were more rivals than anything else."

"But you grow out of that real fast," joked Eldredge. "Once I got to know Mike, I wondered why I'd always had such a low opinion of him."

Other featured spots on the program went to Cohen and Boitano, who skated back-to-back to rival versions of "Imagine." Cohen used Avril Levigne's 2007 cover while old-schooler Boitano (still very watchable at age 44) went with the John Lennon 1971 original.

"Doesn't that figure?" said Boitano, who was one of the first established skaters to recognize potential in Weiss and to start dropping Weiss' name in front of reporters and skating officials as a potential American champion.

"I first met Brian in 1994," Weiss recalled. "I guess I'm still surprised he wound up being a friend. I'm even more surprised he's staying at my house tonight, and I'm making him sleep on a bunk bed.

"But that's what this show's all about. It's skating. It's fun. It's cool. It hasn't changed for me."