It’s 11 o’clock on a Thursday morning, and Russian techno thumps through the ice rink. A vision in a red CCCP half-zip nears the entrance doors to the ice, parading by the spectator side of the glass. His dark hair flies around his eyes as his white-gloved hands wave to a dozen little girls watching from upstairs. In their midst is a middle-aged woman from Japan who has flown in for a week just to watch Johnny practice. Even the usually raucous and trash-talking teens passing through for hockey camp wait, leaning against the boards. Because all of them — the little girls, the disaffected teens, the crazy lady from Japan — have come to gaze, to gape. To do what people have been doing for years: see what Johnny Weir is going to do next.
Johnny steps onto the ice, skates a few quick laps, then glides to the center. He stops, shimmies, and hikes up his black Lycra pants. He looks over to his coach.
Cue program music.
It begins with echoes of a tolling bell. The first 10 seconds of music get cued and re-cued while Johnny works on the intro at least 20 times, each more focused than the last. He’s serious, and the performance is serious, accelerating with jumps and runs across the ice, ending with 20 solid seconds of standing and sitting spins.
Against the boards, Johnny’s new coach, Galina Zmievskaya, stares. Zmievskaya is, to say the least, the polar opposite of motherly Priscilla Hill. A stern five feet, give or take, in knee-high furry boots and a Bolshevik-red coat, she sports fuzzy blond hair and a seemingly permanent scowl. Her hands folded behind her or crossed in front, she looks like the Kim Jong Il of ice skating. She barks commands, mostly in Russian. Johnny — knowledgeable in French, Russian and Japanese; he studied linguistics before dropping out of the University of Delaware — has made a point to learn the native tongues, not just of his coaches, but of his fans, especially the Russian ones. He’s obsessed with all things Russian. “I probably have too much fur,” he confesses to me. On his MySpace page he declares himself an anti-PETA poster child. That page also lists his hometown as Moscow. He wore Soviet Union-inspired apparel at the Olympics, and now is being trained by the woman who took Baiul and Viktor Petrenko to world titles. Johnny may be eccentric, but he’s also calculating and deliberate.
“Competing is exciting and it’s fun, you put on the costume and the makeup, but this is it,” he says. “This is ice skating, in practice rinks. In practice, we cry, we get pissed off, we kick walls, we spit, we punch things. But people never see that, because when we’re on the ice, we’re glittery snow angels.”
So can Johnny Weir finally get it all together? (And we don’t mean accessorizing Gucci — we know the answer to that.) He has become a celebrity, but based mostly on showmanship instead of athletic achievement — on his sheer brazenness in thumbing his nose (and other body parts) at skating’s stodgy establishment. Beneath all the sequins and smart-aleck remarks, one thing is clear: Johnny Weir wants an Olympic medal.