Soccer star switches to figure skating

Johnson chooses ice over grass to pursue his dream

Alexander Johnson waits for his scores at the JGP Final with his coach, Joan Orvis.
Alexander Johnson waits for his scores at the JGP Final with his coach, Joan Orvis. (Scottie Bibb)


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By J. Barry Mittan, special to
(12/22/2008) - U.S. junior men's competitor Alexander Johnson's first love was soccer. Starting at the age of five, he played competitively until he was 14, when he gave up the sport to focus on skating.

"I played on a traveling team in soccer, playing left defense," he said. "My team made it to the state championships. I liked playing soccer, but I loved skating too much, so I gave [soccer] up."

Johnson, 18, started skating when he was five. "My dad used to flood our back yard to make an ice rink," he said. "My sister and I used to skate out there."

"I started skating in hockey skates, but then I got jealous of my sister's figure skates," he recalled. "So I put on her white skates and stuck with that. I wanted to try hockey, but I never did."

His sister, Shannon, still skates on a synchro team.

"I didn't start lessons until I was nine," he stated. "I have loved to skate ever since I took my first step onto the ice. I knew I wanted to be like Michelle Kwan and Tara Lipinski and go to the Olympics and worlds, but, at a young age, I didn't know what it took to be like them.

"When I medaled in juvenile boys at my first regionals, I said 'OK, it's just another competition,'" Johnson recalled. "But one of my friends told me I was going to junior nationals, and my mom had to fill out the papers.

"It was just funny because I had no idea that there was something after regionals called junior nationals," he admitted. "I just did what I was told because I loved to skate, and my coach had been putting me on the right path.

"That was my first glimpse into really competitive skating. I had always competed because I loved it. I never really understood what I was doing until I made it to my first junior nationals."

Johnson has competed nationally each year since 2002, spending two years in each division from juvenile to junior. He was seventh at 2008 U.S. Figure Skating Championships in junior men in 2008 and won the silver medal in novice in 2007, his only podium finish.

This season, Johnson won the ISU Junior Grand Prix in the Czech Republic and finished third at the JGP in Great Britain. He qualified for the JGP Final in Korea, where he placed sixth.

"My goal was just to reach the Final," he said. "I had no other expectations. I'm glad I accomplished that goal in my last year in juniors."

"When I first got there, I was like, 'This is just like a Junior Grand Prix; you have fun and enjoy it,'" he said.

"Then I saw the rink, all the other people, all the fans watching, and I was like, 'Oh my gosh, it feels like worlds.' It was really cool.

"Now I'm hoping to make junior worlds," he continued. "Next year I'll be skating seniors.

"I want to take skating as far as I can, hopefully to worlds and the Olympics," he said. "I hope to be a part of the sport as a judge or a technical specialist when I get older."

Johnson also tried pairs, competing at the juvenile level for two years with Chelsey Jernberg. They were 15th in juvenile pairs in 2004 and 16th in 2005.

"Chelsey came to my rink and wanted to do pairs," Johnson said. "She was perfect and little, and I loved it. We had a lot of fun."

Joan Orvis has coached Johnson, who trains in Edina, Minn., for almost his entire career. He works for three hours a days six days a week on ice.

"I do an hour a day every day of off-ice training," he added. "I do Pilates with a trainer and work out by myself."

When asked what else he does to stay in shape, he said, "I love running. It's a relaxing thing to do, especially in the fall when it's cool and all the leaves are changing.

"I also like to ride bikes with friends. It's like cross training, but because I enjoy it so much, it doesn't feel like work."

Currently, he includes a triple flip-triple toe, triple Lutz and double Axel in his short program.

His long program elements include a triple flip-triple toe and triple Lutz-double toe-double loop combinations and a triple Salchow-double Axel sequence. He also does a triple Lutz, triple loop, triple flip and two double Axels.

"I landed the Axel and double Axel the first time I tried them," Johnson said. "I landed my first triple Axel two weeks before the Final. I had been working on it for a while, but then it started bothering my knee so I stopped during the JGPs. I wanted to get it in my program for the Final, so I started trying it again."

Canadian Sebastien Britten choreographed Johnson's programs this season. He has been working with Johnson since 2007.

"I love working with him, but he's really hard on me," Johnson said. Orvis also modifies the choreography as needed.

"I like to skate to classical music," Johnson stated. "Most of my programs have been classical, although I did Beetlejuice once."

"I'd like to do a tango, but too many people are doing those," he related. "I almost decided to do a program to an instrumental version of 'Painted Black.' It would be interesting to skate to a techno piece, but I don't know how that would go over with my coaches.

"I really love piano and cello music," he added. "They're really intriguing instruments. I used to play the cello and the trumpet, and I'd like to play the piano."

"My dad played the trumpet, and I got my knack for music from him," Johnson said. "Being able to understand the music helps me be a lyrical skater. I understand music and tempo. "I listen to everything from alternative to opera. I have over 3000 songs in my iTunes music library."

For the short program, Johnson skated to "Fantasy for Violin and Orchestra" from the Ladies in Lavender soundtrack by Joshua Bell.

"I got it at the iTunes store," he said. "I was checking on classical and clicked on one piece and said, 'That's my short.'"

His free skate was to "Rondo Capriccioso" by Camille Saint-Saens and "Meditation from Thais" by Jules Massenet.

"I searched for a long time but couldn't find anything, so I decided to stay with the old long. It's a new program with different cuts from the same music," he explained.

"I love my short," he noted, "but I want to have two new programs for my senior debut. I like to change one program each year because it's an easy transition."

Johnson uses "Stop and Stare" by One Republic for exhibitions. He worked with Orvis to choreograph that program.

The 18-year-old is a freshman at the University of Minnesota, studying physics and calculus at the Institute of Technology.

"My major is mechanical engineering, but I'm looking into international business because I like to travel," he said.

"It's hard to do classes in season, and my coach wants me to stay focused on skating," he explained, "so I took off this winter and will do courses in the summer.

"Summer's when I like to go up to our cabin on the lake. We have a boat for water skiing and jet skis. I like camping or lying on the dock watching the stars. It's so relaxing."