By Amy Shipley
Washington Post Staff Writer
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.
Though the Weirs expected a football player when their first son was born, they never discouraged his distinctive interests, even when he shunned balls, sticks and toy guns. Johnny Weir fell in love with figure skating after watching skaters Oksana Baiul of Ukraine and Nancy Kerrigan of the United States during the 1994 Winter Games. He spent so much time attempting single axels on roller skates in the basement that his parents finally bought him used ice skates, and he continued to hone his skills on a frozen-over patch in the cornfields behind their home.
When they took him to a local ice rink, certain he would be enticed by the hockey leagues, he instead skated off by himself, doing figures on the ice. The hockey players decided it would be fun to fire pucks at him. He jumped over those shots. "We always knew Johnny was a little bit different," John Weir said. "We were aware he had a tough time now and then."
Weir's first skating teacher expressed amazement at the technique he acquired from television and immediately recommended he join an established coach. For a while, Johnny Weir's mother made the two-hour round trips with her son to Newark, where he had begun working at age 12 with Priscilla Hill, who remains his coach. As the frequency of the lessons increased, the Weirs decided to sell their home and move the family closer to the skating rink.
Just six years after Weir took up the sport, he competed in his first senior nationals.
Throughout his adolescence, Weir felt more comfortable on skates than off. He said at the U.S. championships he could be a role model for kids who had been "squashed on." In weighing the obstacles he's had to overcome, he puts puberty up there with an on-ice meltdown at the 2003 U.S. national championships in Dallas, where he was ridiculed after he fell twice and left the rink with an injured back and knee. Indeed, Weir seems to have only recently grown into his personality. Early in his career, he seemed overly deferential to his peers and lacking in self-confidence.
At this year's nationals he attributed a string of poor results during the fall season to personal travails that accompanied his maturation to adulthood. He declined to elaborate, but mentioned a "chafing between relationships" that created frustration and distraction. The issues were merely "growing-up things," his mother said. The timing was unfortunate: He and Hill had been told by judges his programs needed reworking, and Weir's ability to focus was in tatters.
"I didn't feel good even off the ice," he said. "Going onto the ice and skating poorly, ultimately I felt worse. . . . Certain things in life I've learned you are constantly battling. There is always something nagging at your heart or mind or soul . . . [but] there is a time for guts and glory. You go home after, and cry into your pillow and pass out."
Said Hill, "We had a few rough moments where it was very emotional."'We're Here'
Weir said he had made it "over the bridge" by the U.S. championships, but his season's problems did not end there. Though he won the men's title convincingly, his long program was rated third best by the judging panel, so he has since scrapped it in favor of one he performed last year. Weir also is striving to add a quadruple jump to his repertoire. It is a competitive element he has not yet mastered, but it is widely considered essential for an Olympic medalist.
Whether he wins a medal or not, Weir seems ready to unveil his personality to the world.
"I don't know if the sport is ready for Johnny, who is outspoken, and my husband and I, who raised him to be that way," Patti said. But "we're here. . . . If he wants two tons of rhinestones on his costumes [that's fine]. . . . He would love to open the American people's minds.
"When Johnny is on the ice, I think I can look into Johnny's soul. Johnny's flamboyance on the ice is, to me, just a natural gift. I could watch Johnny skate and never jump."
Some could listen to him talk and never skate. Tim Goebel called him one of the funniest people he has ever met. Others wish he would shut up. When asked about his reprimand from the USFSA, Johnny Weir all but shrugged, but still unleashed an even-tempered shower of sarcasm. "I love hearing bad things about myself, people reprimanding me for saying what I want to," he said. "I love that. They have their interest to uphold and I have mine. When people have different agendas, they often clash."
Added Weir: "I don't want to offend anyone who might give some money to the federation. . . . I won't make any drug references today."
Raith described his conversation with Weir as positive, saying he merely urged him to eliminate offensive remarks. "We want you to be who you are and what you are and speak your mind," Raith said. "But you don't need to talk about some things. . . . There are areas that are not appropriate."
All of the Weirs will watch Johnny perform in the Turin Games, a major achievement. Because of his back troubles, the high cost of travel and the needs of the Weirs' other son, a promising soccer player, John Weir has not attended any of Johnny's senior-level competitions. He has seen his son skate live only once, at a novice event contested in Philadelphia.
He is not sure how his back will tolerate Saturday's flight to Italy, as he can hardly stand car rides of more than an hour, but he calls the trip a "dream come true." John Weir doesn't know whether his son will medal, but he knows for certain he will be proud.
"My child's not weird," he told a reporter when queried about Johnny's reputation. "Everyone else is."