NBC’s primetime figure skating broadcasts from the PyeongChang Games provide a steady dose of jumps, spins and America’s most talked-about platonic couple: analysts Tara Lipinski and Johnny Weir.
The duo exploded onto the scene four years ago as commentators on NBC Sports Network during the Sochi Games. Their wardrobe, flair and candor proved so popular that the network invited them back for the Summer Olympics. That makes PyeongChang their third Games, and their first on NBC’s biggest stage.
Lipinski, Weir and Terry Gannon (whom they call their “partner in crime”) almost immediately were part of some memorable calls at this year’s Games. Think of their joyful broadcast of American Mirai Nagasu’s historic triple axel, as the United States won bronze in the team event. Or their bluntness when gold medal hopeful Nathan Chen faltered.
“That’s the worst short program I’ve ever seen from Nathan Chen,” said Weir, which led to the Internet calling him “mean.”
The Washington Post caught up with Lipinski and Weir this week to learn more about their time in PyeongChang, whether they’re actually “mean” and their special pre-broadcast handshake.
Do you two have pre- or post-commentary rituals?
Johnny Weir: We have a “goody.” From touring, you have these little handshakes and things that you do with your co-stars in the shows, whether it’s a handshake, or a booty bump, or whatever it may be. Terry, Tara and I all have one that we do, the three of us, and we can’t do a show without doing it.
How are you feeling after calling your first round of primetime?
Tara Lipinski: After four years of waiting for this moment, and the anticipation and suspense, and then it all sort of arrived and it was a pretty amazing feeling to be up there.
Twenty years ago, I won my Olympic gold medal and it was the biggest dream of my life at that time. I was only 15. And then over the years, for this last decade, I’ve been working towards this next dream of sitting in the primetime booth commentating an Olympic games.
That it’s falling on that anniversary, it feels very surreal and it feels like this is what I’m meant to be doing, and I’m so lucky I get to do it with my best friend and with Terry Gannon.
Weir: The skating, the best part, has been really exciting. The first day, the boys were getting their jitters out, but I think for the most part after the men’s short program, everyone really delivered for their countries. It made skating really exciting, and it made our job also very exciting and a whole lot easier. Well, we have to say less.
Speaking of Gannon, does he feel left out of the costume game?
Lipinski: The first day we were a little off, but now we are completely matched up.
Weir: We all sort of get together that morning, and we help Terry pick out his tie.
Lipinski: And he looks so dapper on television.
Weir: There’s actually a Twitter [account] now that we see retweet things often, but it’s called “What’s Terry Wearing,” and it’s the funniest thing, because Terry actually has incredible style.
Lipinski: Although, we have influenced a few things. He said that when he went to Sochi, he brought one suitcase, and this time he brought two.
How many did you guys bring?
How about you, Tara?
Lipinski: That’s us combined.
Weir: How could I carry 21 suitcases?
Lipinski: I think we doubled it this time.
Weir: Yeah, I think I had four and a half to five in Sochi.
The Internet called you “mean” the other day and you seem to have toned it back a bit. Is that intentional?
Lipinski: We toned it back?
Weir: Yeah, that’s a shock to us.
Lipinski: I think the only thing that happened is that there’s been pretty good skating over [the weekend]. The first day of skating … it was disastrous, and there was really no other way to put it. So, if we see more skating like that, we’re definitely gonna call it as we see it.
I think that’s our style. It has been since we started in the booth. There’s no reason not to be authentic and real with your audience, and we’re not here to sugarcoat anything.
We’ve been skaters, so we totally understand where they’re coming from, and of course we wish everyone could stand out. But some days you just have bad days, and if people really wanna get invested in this sport, they have to know the ins and outs and it has to be honest.
Weir: I tweeted the other day that we’re commentators, not complimentators. We have to call it like we see it or we’d be doing a disservice to our sport. We’d be doing a disservice to the fans watching at home who may only watch figure skating every four years, and we want them to understand why the people that are winning are winning, why an element is difficult, why sometimes the girls wear over-the-boot tights, you know?
There are lots of things we have to explain, and if you aren’t used to hearing real critiquing or real commentating, yeah, it can be harsh when somebody falls down and we say, “Hey, they fell.” But would you rather understand why they fell, or would you just like to pretend it didn’t happen?
I think our response to people saying “mean” is truth can be harsh, and truth can be hard to hear at times. But it’s our job to do that, and we’re not backing away from it in any way.
Has prime time been a learning curve at all?
Lipinski: No. You wait for this moment, and then you get up there and you think, “Is it gonna be that different?” And it feels exactly the same. Obviously, the competition at an Olympics, the emotions are running high and the stakes are higher for these athletes, so it does bring an incredible, palpable excitement and emotion into the building. But other than that, you know, we feel at home.
Weir: We are Olympians for a reason. As soon as we heard that we would be becoming prime time commentators for the next Olympics, we started training. We started preparing. Preparation and training go into every aspect of life, and it was no different for us preparing for PyeongChang.
What does it take to prep every day?
Weir: We commentate a lot more often than just the Olympics. There’s an entire figure skating season that has less eyeballs on it, of course. But we start watching competitions and training videos and things come May, June, when all the skaters are getting their new programs, when they start to compete in smaller events, and we watch them progress through the whole season. We have to study backstories on every single skater because, here in PyeongChang, we’re covering every single skater whether it’s on NBCSN or NBC Primetime.
You have to be ready at the drop of a hat, doing your homework, doing research, even when we’re away from events. And of course, here, we’ve got binders, and notebooks, and statistics, and all this stuff that we carry around with us just so, in case something happens, we’re ready for that moment.
What should we watch for the rest of the games from both the skaters and you guys in the costume department?
Weir: Well we’ve been saying for the last year or so that figure skating’s on a revolutionary level that we have never seen, and that, in many cases I didn’t think I’d see in my lifetime. Nathan Chen is doing five, and sometimes six quadruples in his long program, and that’s outrageous.
What I’m most looking forward to are the special moments that you could only get at an Olympic Games. The person that perseveres, the one that comes from behind, the reigning champ that comes back and proves everybody wrong, that you can win this thing twice. There are so many great story lines to this Olympics. The most exciting part of it is the level that they’re skating at. It’s absolutely insane.
In the costume department, we wear what we feel good in. We do try and coordinate a little bit so we’re more appealing on camera, so that Tara’s not wearing bright pink and I’m wearing bright orange. You know, we do take care and we have a big pride and honor in making the best reality TV show there is and that is the Olympics.
Do you ever regret something you’ve said on air?
Lipinski: I feel like Johnny and I really just speak our minds. … Our chemistry and banter with Terry is very conversational, so it’s never like we’re planning these moments. We just sort of have this easy talk on camera, and I’ve never really felt that. Johnny, have you?
Weir: No. There are things that you wish would’ve come out better, or sometimes you stutter, or have trouble finding the word that we want, but that’s the great thing about Tara and I being together is that we can catch each other when that sort of thing happens. I have never felt bad about anything I’ve said for the most part, simply because when you tell the truth, while it may not always be the prettiest truth in the whole world, you don’t have anything to regret. If somebody fell or there’s a judging mishap or something like that, we have to tell it like it is and that’s why we have our jobs.
You’re friends with the skaters. Is that ever an issue?
Lipinski: We know the skaters. The skating world is a very small world. But is our job. We are here to entertain an audience and the viewers at home, and that’s who we’re working for. So it’s very easy for me to watch a performance and just speak on it as I see it.
Weir: I still skate and I still tour the world, with a lot of the skaters that we’re calling. But you do have to disconnect from your friendships with them. Evgenia Medvedeva wrote me last night and asked to see the NBC coverage of her performance in the team event because she wanted to hear Tara and I commentate. Things like that make us feel good because it means that skaters respect our opinion and respect what we’re saying about them.
But really you have to turn the friendship button off and teach people what they’re seeing and call it like it is in the moment. And if you’re too friendly or too familiar and you put your friendship with somebody first, you can’t be a proper commentator. You have to call it like it is, and sometimes that’s hard with friends.
This interview has been edited.