Icebreaker and His Obstacles
Tuesday, February 7, 2006
U.S. figure skater Johnny Weir has contemplated dyeing his hair blue and decorating himself with feathers to capture the essence of his music. He has worn crimson streaks in his hair, a massive sequined broken heart on his chest, sheer purple fabric, off-the-shoulder necklines.
At the mid-January U.S. championships in St. Louis, he performed with one arm covered with fishnet and sequins, part of a silver-and-white cascade of glitter and sparkle designed to evoke his choice of music, from the ballet "Swan Lake," right down to a red glove on his right hand that represented the head of the swan. Her name, he said, was Camille.
Even when he is wearing street clothes, Weir's eccentricity shines through, conveyed in some instances by his preference for designer scarves -- he wore one made out of chinchilla and a fluffier item imbued with shades of orange and blue during the U.S. championships -- and in others by the clever, introspective and occasionally controversial stream of consciousness that seems to spill out of him when faced with any sort of audience.
In the space of two interviews last month, Weir mentioned vodka, cocaine, cognac, cigarettes, feather boas, pond scum, self-tanning lotion, his mother's rowdy adolescence and her "getting drunk" after his victory (she later explained she and some relatives had merely sought out celebratory champagne in the hotel bar). For his drug references, he received a reprimand from U.S. Figure Skating Association officials. For his exquisite skating, he was awarded his third national title.
Weir, 21, considered a medal contender in the men's singles competition at the 2006 Olympics, which begin with Friday's Opening Ceremonies, personifies the grandest hopes and most nightmarish fears of his sport's governing officials. Can he realize his substantial potential on the sport's largest stage, matching or bettering the bronze medal Tim Goebel earned in 2002? Along the way, how many people will he offend -- or captivate -- with his showmanship and outlandishness? It is unclear what the American viewing public will make of Weir, competing in his first Olympics, who has endured the nickname Johnny Weird. "If I appeal to myself and my mother, I'm happy with that," he said. "I'm exactly the same as this, if not a little more outrageous, when I'm at home."
'I'm Going to Have a Great Time'
Weir's personality blossomed in the residence he shares with his parents and younger brother in Newark, Del., where the family moved from farmland in Coatesville, Pa., to give Weir access to skating lessons. John and Patti Weir describe themselves as solidly middle class ("country bumpkins," according to Weir). Johnny's father is a former linebacker, captain of his high school football team. Patti Weir captained the cheerleading squad at the same high school. What her son revealed to dozens of reporters in January, she said, is true: she did get caught smoking in the bathrooms at 13. She said she and her husband smoke to this day. She did ride on the backs of motorcycles.
"She was crazy and wild and had a great time," Weir said. "I'm going to have a great time, too."
Like her son, who was confronted by USFSA Executive Director David Raith for what were deemed inappropriate comments during the U.S. championships, Patti Weir said she also received a "dressing down" by a figure skating official she declined to name. She said she was approached shortly after Weir had claimed his gold medal, and told to rein in her outspoken son. "They ruined my entire evening," she said. "I didn't take it with a grain of salt."
Raith said neither he nor USFSA President Ron Hershberger discussed the issue with Patti Weir, and that whoever did so was not speaking in any official capacity.
"My husband and I have taken the stand that this is the way we raised our child, and we will not change him," Patti Weir said. "We will not make him cookie cutter just to satisfy [figure skating officials], but we will tell him to temper the things he says. . . . I want my kids to be true to themselves."
Said John Weir: "I think some people take life too seriously . . . [but] we talked about it a little bit, and he's also a smart kid. He probably realized he took it a little too far. But he spent 21 years learning to be himself. Unless someone is offering a boatload of money, we wouldn't want him to change at all."
'Johnny Was a Little Bit Different'
For years, the Weirs worked together at the Peach Bottom Atomic Power Station in York County, Pa., about 40 miles northwest of Baltimore. Patti is now employed as a home inspector. John Weir, severely injured when he was thrown from his Jeep after skidding on a patch of ice in 1984, was disabled after one of his four resulting back surgeries. He still needs knee replacement surgery. He is supposed to use a cane, but doesn't.