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Make no mistake: Weir is serious about winning

Now in 'warrior' mode, recently wed icon has heart set on Sochi

Johnny Weir's return to figure skating is about winning competitions, not publicity.
Johnny Weir's return to figure skating is about winning competitions, not publicity. (Sarah S. Brannen)

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By Lynn Rutherford, special to icenetwork.com
(08/02/2012) - Johnny Weir does a butterfly into a camel spin, changes to an inside edge, and then catches his free leg for a "donut" position. After a few wobbly turns, he falls.

A minute later, he tries again. Another fall.

"You know, in the old [6.0 judging] system, I was taught to do spins effortlessly," Weir said. "Now, it's supposed to look like you're killing yourself to do something, and that's a little bit of a barrier. I'm trying to do things the kids are doing -- inside edges, with my body flipped upside down."

Weir's coach, Galina Zmievskaya, honed her craft in Soviet-era Ukraine. She has no sympathy.

"Rules," she said. "We can change nothing. So just do it."

When the three-time U.S. champion announced his return to eligible competition in January, his words met with some skepticism from skating insiders and fans. Maybe it was fodder for his Logo reality show, Be Good Johnny Weir, the second season of which premieres next month. Maybe he wanted to maintain his profile in People. Perhaps he would try it for a few months, and then give it up.

Some seven months later, Weir, who turned 28 on July 2, skates two sessions a day at the Ice House in Hackensack, N.J., under the demanding eyes of Zmievskaya, his coach since 2007. Judging from a few recent practice sessions, he has reclaimed all of his triples -- including a triple Axel-triple toe combination -- and is within striking distance of landing consistent quad toe-triple toe loops, something he thinks he will need in his programs when he returns to competition this fall.

"U.S. Figure Skating is not going to send me to Cup of Russia [in Moscow, Nov. 9-11] if I'm doing an exhibition program," he said. "To survive and come back not just for the novelty of it, you have to do what is required of you, and that includes a quad."

Make no mistake: Johnny Weir is serious.

"Absolutely, he is doing well," said Zmievskaya, coach of Olympic champions Viktor Petrenko and Oksana Baiul. "He is working hard, he is skating his programs with the jumps. He landed the [quad] toe months ago, and then we switched skates, and now it's coming back."

For a guy who likes the limelight, it has taken some willpower. In demand after stirring performances at the 2010 Olympic Winter Games -- not to mention a documentary and book, Welcome to My World -- he has had to turn his back on the red-carpet circuit in favor of a more Spartan routine.

"In the beginning, it was hard," he said. "One and a half or two months into it, it was too much. I just wanted to go to fashion shows and do my celebrity thing. But then I went to Aruba [on vacation], I came back fresh and I was fine."

Czech skater Michal Brezina, who trains in Hackensack under Zmievskaya's son-in-law, Petrenko, is impressed with Weir's practices.

"Absolutely, he can fight for medals," said the 22-year-old, sixth at the 2012 World Figure Skating Championships. "The triple Axel is there. The programs look good. Everything is there except the quad sometimes."

After Weir's teammate and longtime rival Evan Lysacek won 2010 Olympic gold without a quad, defeating Russia's Evgeni Plushenko, the International Skating Union (ISU) assigned more points to the four-revolution jump and made it easier to get partial credit for the maneuver. At the 2012 World Championships, the top four finishers all hit at least one quad.

Weir, who has yet to land a fully clean quad in competition, doesn't think the jump is his biggest hurdle. He counts transitions -- the portion of the program components score representing steps and movements between elements -- as an even bigger challenge.

"It's the thing that was my biggest weakness and the thing I thought [judges] could pick on, and picked on before," he said. "So now we have transitions into and out of everything. No one can say I'm not doing them."

The pursuit is steady and intense, but not all-encompassing. There were shows in China in June, and he spent a week in Los Angeles that month to tape a show for Food Network.

"I have to be able to make a living, I have to pay my bills," he said. "The people in Hackensack have been very good to me; they donate ice. But I have to pay Galina, and I still have a life, and one thing I've told everybody in my life is I won't be poor for figure skating again.

"I have the luxury of being asked to be part of TV shows and different projects and that's wonderful. It takes away training time and one week in LA was a week I wasn't with Galina. I pay the price when I come home, but I'm strong enough to realize I can have both when I need to. Of course, the week before a Grand Prix, I'm not going to be doing shows."

More often, he sticks to a simple routine five days a week: an hour-and-a-half skating session in the morning, another in the afternoon. Usually, he is done by 3:00 p.m. Then it's off to Pilates at his trainer's house, and then home to Victor Voronov, whom he married in a New York City civil ceremony on Jan. 2. There, he enjoys taking the lead domestic role.

"I have to cook and clean and take care of my husband and puppy [Tëma, a Japanese Chin], and be OCD and crazy about things being in order and sterile," he said. "My days are really full. I sleep well."

Weir keeps his professional and personal lives separate. Voronov, a Georgetown Law School graduate who recently took the New Jersey bar exam, rarely watches his practices.

"He has been here, I think, twice," Zmievskaya said.

"He understands I don't like to take my work home, so as soon as I walk in the door, we don't talk about figure skating," Weir said. "June was difficult. I was gone for one month and he doesn't know how to wash clothes or cook. Some things I prefer he doesn't learn, because I'm the only one who can do it right."

"I am a warrior"

When Weir last competed, at the 2010 Vancouver Games, he called his "Fallen Angel" free skate "soft and sad and very emotional," and had what he considered the performance of his life. The judges didn't agree, placing him sixth. The decision devastated the skater, who made his feelings plain in a series of interviews.

This time around, soft and sad is out.

"I want people to see I am a warrior. I am angry; I am very fiery," he said. "The free is called 'Phoenix' and its pieces are by the group Escala ['Sarabande' and 'Requiem'] and violinist Edvin Marton [a Chopin selection]. I chose music I love and am inspired by. They are classics, but the way we've arranged the program nobody will think, 'Oh, I've seen this before.'"

His short is pure athletic entertainment, set to the music of one of his idols, Lady Gaga. Most of the choreography is from the skater and his coach, with others lending expertise.

"Nikoli [Morozov] just works on steps; he is very good with the judging system," Zmievskaya said. "Johnny has a very talented body; he really feels the music. He is not a baby. In my opinion, he needs to make programs with his own feelings and not represent a choreographer."

"Nikoli is an advisor; everything else, I'm a free agent," Weir said. "I wanted to work with David Wilson in the beginning of the summer, but he is very busy and my schedule wasn't matching his. So the programs are all me and Galina."

Although Weir is delighted with his Grand Prix assignments [including Rostelecom Cup and Trophée Eric Bompard] and hopes to qualify for the Grand Prix Final in Sochi in December -- a test event for the 2014 Games -- those are just the appetizers. The main course will be the 2013 U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Omaha in January, where he must place in the top two to qualify for the 2013 World Figure Skating Championships.

"Nationals, that's the hardest competition," he said. "If I do everything I can, long and short with the jumps, I don't see why one of the spots wouldn't be mine." Pause. "It will be a hard fight."

While the skater and U.S. Figure Skating have had a few bumps over the years -- some of which were chronicled in his book -- things are more than cordial now.

"I feel very good about my relationship with USFS," he said. "I've had so much respect from them and so much support, ever since I announced this return. If I win one of the [world] spots, great. I really want to help the U.S. get three spots for Sochi. If I skate well and don't win one of the spots, I'll go on vacation earlier. Then again, Four Continents is in Japan this season, and I'm not against it."

Weir's next stop: U.S. Figure Skating's Champs Camp in Colorado Springs later this month, where he and other international competitors will perform short programs and free skates for officials and judges and gain their opinions. After that, he hopes to test his programs at Finlandia Trophy in early October.

"We're really looking forward to the test skate in Colorado because we'll get feedback from people who are our bosses," he said.

"I mean it. What's the point in doing something if you don't really go after it? I'm very serious about what I'm doing. I'm serious about competing -- win or lose, that's my main focus. I want to be at the Grand Prix Final; I want to skate in the Olympic Arena in Sochi."