His career began, not in a pricey private rink, but rather on the cornfield abutting his parents’ Lancaster County farm, where at age 12 he taught himself to skate after the melted snow froze over. He watched Oksana Baiul on TV and tried to copy her moves, and in warmer weather he practiced on roller skates. He picked the sport up quickly (while it usually takes years to learn a double axel, Johnny got it in one week), and after just three years was competing internationally. In his fifth, he won the World Junior Championship. He was 16.
His parents worked at a PECO power plant before his father, John, injured his back in a car accident. Eventually, Johnny, his younger brother and his parents moved to a modest home in Newark, so Johnny could train with Priscilla Hill. Patti worked three jobs while Hill picked Johnny up from school, schlepped him to and from practice, watched out for him, and became a second mom.
His 2002 Newark High School yearbook lists his likes as techno and pop music, French and Russian, *NSYNC and Versace. But unlike his classmates, Johnny was headed for fame. The trips, the accolades, the stardom — and all the accompanying travel and show costs — came fast. “It was rapid mentally, it was rapid talent-wise, it was like ‘Holy shit, what are we doing here? We’re broke. We’re not prepared for this,’” Patti says. Johnny’s family isn’t from money. Not poor, but not from money. His mom adds, “I gave him two years of just going butt-whoopie-wild.” Once he was out on tour, making money, Johnny indeed went butt-whoopie-wild, accruing more than 100 pairs of designer sunglasses, a Lexus, and more Louis Vuitton than Kanye. (“When I’m 40 and can’t fit into the clothes I have now, I’m going to make a fortune selling them as vintage,” he tells me.) He also accrued the headlines and the shushing by the federation. More recently, his outings on the ice have been tumultuous and unsuccessful, only feeding the Greek chorus writing him off as ice-skating’s Jessica Simpson. After he placed fifth at the ’06 Olympics and rival Evan Lysacek beat him out for what would have been his fourth consecutive national title, Johnny found his career, and confidence, on thin ice.
So in June he chucked all those years of nurturing from Hill, switching coaches, rinks, choreography and programs. “I’m old now, so I don’t need someone to teach me basics and techniques. I need someone to push me,” he says. “I think once you’ve been at the international level for a certain amount of time, people start expecting you to phase out, and that’s completely natural, because there are young kids coming up that everyone wants, because they want to see the young hot-shot kid.” In other words, the kid Johnny was not too long ago. He slides a bag of ice down his pants, inching toward his sore hip. “I’m getting to the point where I know I only have three more years to really make my mark.”