Embracing the Starving Artist
My ankles swelled into a war zone of black, blue, and bloody red from the countless footwork passes I’d run through. My hip flexors were slack with overuse from millions of jumps and difficult spins. Every muscle in my body ached. Even my brain throbbed from an entire day of having directives in Russian hurled at me as rapidly and forcefully as machine-gun fire. In a temporary break from my regular training with Priscilla, I spent the summer of 2003 in a program with one of the world’s best Olympic coaches. During the insane, grueling summer camp for skaters, I subsisted on coffee and slept in a stranger’s extra bedroom—and I had never felt luckier.
I had been so disheartened by the fiasco at the National Championships in Dallas and my subsequent relegation to a skater’s no-man’s-land by the USFSA that I briefly considered quitting the sport altogether. I didn’t think I had the head for it anymore. Resting on talent alone, I had turned last season (when I should have proved myself Olympic-level material) into a total disaster. The skating world didn’t believe I had what it took to be a serious competitor, proving that with my new low ranking.
Their harsh voices berated me in my head until I came to my senses. I had never listened to those people before, so why would I now? I wanted to keep skating. I needed
to. After all my family had sacrificed, personally and financially, for me to pursue this dream, I couldn’t give up after encountering a bump in the road (even if the bump was the size of Mount Everest). Plus, I hated when people told me what to do. If the entire federation signaled that I should quit, then I would do the opposite—even if it killed me.
But if I planned on reviving my career after taking a blowtorch to it, a real change of pace was in order. Last year had been a failed experiment in stretching my wings, but the original impetus hadn’t been totally wrong. I did need to be away from Priscilla and my mom so that I could learn how to stand on my own two skates. I needed to be inspired.
That inspiration came in the form of a fur-swathed, Dior-toting Russian woman named Tatiana Tarasova. In the obscure town of Simsbury, Connecticut, the world-famous skating coach and choreographer spent summers training an elite group of athletes including Olympic champions such as Alexei Yagudin and Ilia Kulik and my friend, the skating star Sasha Cohen. After Sasha helped me get a foot in the door, I skated for Tarasova. Her only comment, to my mother, was, “Yes, I will take Johnny.” Normally she charged in the double-digit thousands for one program, but Tarasova let me train with her all summer for free since I didn’t have a penny to my name. Waiving her fee proved she believed in me and offered encouragement before I took even a single lesson. I had been given a second chance and resolved not to blow it.
At the International Skating Center of Connecticut, we skated for about six hours a day, so much more than I was used to, after which I would fall, practically paralyzed, into the bed in the bedroom I rented from a random woman. No matter how stiff or sore I felt, I hit the ice the next morning with the kind of energy fueled by inspiration. Unlike the University of Delaware’s crowded rink, here only five truly great skaters trained together.
In the classic Russian style, Tarasova taught us in groups, as opposed to one-on-one, so that we fought each other to be the best. The dynamic brought out the competitive spark still smoldering from my childhood. I definitely responded to all the skaters trying to one-up each other as we vied for Tarasova’s attention. The edge of my footwork got sharper and my jump technique stronger.
Entering the session late one day, she began barking in a choppy, aggressive Russian and finding fault everywhere she looked. Although I was far from fluent, I had taught myself enough Russian that I could communicate and understand when others spoke.
Suddenly Tarasova stopped and clapped her bejeweled hands together.“Umnitza,”
she said, which was Russian slang for “perfect boy.”
I had just come out of a spin in the new short program Tarasova had created for me and decided to extend my leg with a little more bravado than perhaps was necessary. At first I had no idea she was talking to me.
“You look like a young Baryshnikov,” she said, giving me a big smile before launching into a list of a million things I had done wrong.
Attracting Tarasova’s attention, I felt very special. And surprised. She had praised me for the kind of thing that Priscilla, trying to follow direct orders from the federation, constantly told me to tone down during my normal training life. Skate more like a man; watch your fingers so that they aren’t balletic; not so much movement in your hips, please!
But Tarasova appreciated everything that made me me, including my artistic side. She liked my body, which mimicked those of Russian ballet dancers, and provided choreography that enriched the way I moved on the ice. “Umnitza,”
she applauded me throughout the summer, nurturing the healthy side of my ego and transforming Simsbury into a special hideaway where nothing was too artistic, nothing too over the top. With Tarasova I found my first opportunity to express myself fully and freely.
Not eager to leave this incubator, I didn’t take any breaks from the group’s training regimen apart for a necessary one to compete in a little local event back in Delaware. It was July and I had been training with Tarasova for less than a month when Priscilla told me at the last minute that I was expected at the Liberty Open at The Pond Ice Arena in Newark, Delaware. The call instantly dealt my ego, which Tarasova had been vigorously massaging, a brutal blow.
In the skating world, there’s an unspoken standard: once you compete in the National Championships on television and fight for a spot on the World Championship team, you don’t participate in small, local open events like the one in Newark. Those were the competitions where I blew everyone away at the juvenile level when I was just starting out at twelve years old. My entering the event at The Pond was as if Madonna were to try out for American Idol
. But when Priscilla asked the federation how I could fix my reputation and get things back on track after last season, they responded firmly that I had to return to square one and prove myself all over again. “We need to make sure he’s training,” an official had told Priscilla, “and doesn’t do anything like he did last year again.”
So it was I found myself outside the small rink, steeling myself for a humiliating trial. The worst part was that I didn’t even feel prepared for this tiny event. July was extremely early to compete. I had just started working with Tarasova and the new short program she created for me was still in process. Meanwhile, we had been so focused on the new choreography that I hadn’t yet started doing run-throughs of the long program that I intended to hold over from the previous season.
With my heavy equipment bag slung over my shoulder, I registered myself at the foldout card table near the entrance and after writing my name, the elderly woman distributing the makeshift badges looked up from my signature with her mouth in a little shocked O.
In the skating world I was famous, for good and for bad. So my appearance turned heads in surprise as people wondered why I was there.
After changing into a simple gray and white costume, still a tight onesie that unabashedly showed off my thin frame but reflected my humble status in its lack of adornment, I waited near the ice. The other low-ranked senior level skaters with no chance at a national title sneaked furtive glances in my direction.
“Well, well, well, Johnny Weir,” said a judge in a Team USA windbreaker, hair dyed a slightly bluish tint. “What the hell are you doing here?”
The tips of my ears turned red with shame. I stared straight ahead and muttered, “Skating,” thinking about how much my mother hated when my brother and I mumbled as kids.
“Oh, you’re going to skate for us today?” another judge said, sipping from a large Dunkin’ Donuts coffee that smelled sickeningly of blueberries.
“Did you hear? He’s training with the great Tarasova. Well, I can’t wait to see this. That is, if he can stand on his skates long enough.”
The judges cackled mercilessly while I burned with my own thoughts. Before the cruel comments, I had felt deeply embarrassed. Now I choked with rage.
Training with Priscilla had been all about the problems with my skating; ours was a nuts and bolts operation. Whenever I headed out onto the ice during an event, I concentrated on my mistakes, which I knew well from hours of having them pointed out, and implored myself not to make them. Although the stage in Newark was tiny, this was the first time I had competed since the Dallas National Championships, the culmination of every single mistake I had made thus far in my career. My history weighed heavy.
But in this small place and moment, something shifted. After the announcer unceremoniously called my name and I took to the ice, the problem child found himself replaced by another one: umnitza,
perfect boy. Tarasova’s voice played in my head, egging me on to remember the art and beauty and forget the pettiness of scores. The power of an Olympic coach telling me day in and day out how good I was fortified me. Just go out and skate,
I told myself.
And I did. Cleanly, beautifully, perfectly.
Afterward, I took off my skates, changed into my regular clothes, and left without waiting to see my scores print...