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American figure skater Johnny Weir has visions of gold

By LINDA ROBERTSON, lrobertson@MiamiHerald.com

627-OLY_FIG_Weir_Threats_sff_embedded_prod_affiliate_56 VANCOUVER, British Columbia -- His name is Johnny Weir. The D is silent.

Weir has heard the joke, and laughed at it. If anyone is true to himself and his eccentric personality, it is Johnny Weir.

He is more than just a figure skater, for he has outgrown that small and sparkly, kiss-and-cry subculture to become a worldwide celebrity.

He is a beacon, a bright light of honesty and individuality.

He will be on stage again Tuesday, competing in his second Olympics, and the show he performs in his short program will be one of the best of the 2010 Winter Games. He skates to I Love You, I Hate You, and it's pure Weir, attitude and artistry wrapped in sequins and chiffon and tied with a pink corset.

No fur, though. Weir has decided to change costumes for his long program on Thursday, throwing out the one that featured a piece of white fox fur on the shoulder after he was threatened by the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.

Weir is a long shot for a medal because he does not have the repertoire of jumps so heavily rewarded in the sport's points system that has turned skaters into ``robots,'' as Weir says, frantically counting seconds and adding numbers in their heads as they cram one element after another into their programs. The system favors a skater like Russia's Evgeni Plushenko, France's Brian Joubert or Canada's Patrick Chan.

But you never know with Weir. He aims to surprise, even if he has clung stubbornly to his interpretation of what figure skating should be.

``I want people to be taken away to another planet when they watch me skate,'' he said. ``Like a performance in the theater. I want them to be transported into a dream world.''

A dream world. That's where Weir imagined himself to be as a child in rural Quarryville, Pa., a one-stoplight town in Lancaster County, where he grew up with Amish neighbors. His parents worked at the Peach Bottom nuclear plant.

Weir used to roller skate in his basement, humming his own music, and pretending he was a figure skater in the Olympics. His first love was riding horses, and his Shetland-Arabian pony, My Blue Shadow, won lots of ribbons in shows.

When Weir was 12, an ice storm hit Quarryville. His mother, Patti, bought him a second-hand pair of ice skates and he went behind the house, into a frozen field and skated among the corn stalks.

``We tried soccer, baseball and hockey but Johnny never liked team sports,'' Patti Weir said. ``Then, he just took to the ice. He was so shy and quiet. But on the ice, he came alive. It was OK to be himself.''

By 14, he was a junior champion.

From the roots of his small, conservative, conformist town, grew a flamboyant, outspoken, one-of-a-kind athlete/artist.

``If I'd grown up in New York City, maybe I'd be completely different,'' he said. ``I always knew I had something different in my soul. I'm still a country boy to the core. People who perceive me as a diva don't know me. They make a lot of incorrect assumptions. I love being barefoot in the grass, drinking chocolate milk, eating a giant tomato.''

Weir, 25, almost quit last year after finishing fourth at the national championships and failing to make the world team. He was depressed. He felt the sport had passed him by.

``I'd fallen off my cloud,'' he said.

His mother talked him into going for one more Olympics.

``I didn't want him to have any regrets,'' she said. ``He had bottomed out but he's a competitor at heart.''

So Weir is back and that's a huge plus for the Olympics. He had a chance to win a medal in 2006 until he bailed on a jump in his long program and turned it into ``a little hippy-hop like a bunny.'' He said, ``My aura was black.'' But who could forget his swan costume, with a red glove representing the swan's beak? Weir has invented other wild ones, which he described as ``Care Bears on Acid'' and ``heroin chic.''

If Weir was not a figure skater, he'd be a Russian fashion designer. He loves the novels, music and ballet of Russia and speaks to his coaches in Russian. He's got his own reality show, Be Good, Johnny Weir, on the Sundance Channel. He's adored in Asia, where they make Johnny Weir dolls. He listens to Lady Gaga and Edith Piaf.

He does not have a phony bone in his body.

``We taught our kids to have opinions and stand up for what you believe,'' Patti said. ``Sometimes he's had his feelings hurt but if you put yourself out there you have to be strong enough to take it.''

Weir has been unafraid to express his feminine side, and while that may threaten some people's sense of order, he has been great for the sport of figure skating, even if the sport has not always known what to make of him. He has been great for anyone searching for his or her identity.

``I don't believe in perfect role models,'' he said. ``What is a good masculine sporting role model? I don't claim to be a role model for everyone. Maybe for people who feel they are freaks or people who have something to express deep inside and can't get it out.''

Caption: American figure skater Johnny Weir is hoping to emerge from a group of solid contenders. Elaine Thompson, File / AP Photo


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