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Originally published January 16, 2010 at 10:00 PM | Page modified January 17, 2010 at 6:28 PM

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Steve Kelley

Figure skating's flamboyant Johnny Weir must be taken seriously

To say that figure skater Johnny Weir is flamboyant is as understated as saying Usain Bolt is fast, or Jay Leno is done.

Seattle Times staff columnist

SPOKANE — Johnny Weir walked into the post-skate interview area Friday night wearing his corseted hot pink and black costume with a pink tassel hanging off his left shoulder and invited a reporter to rub the fabric that he called, "oily Lycra."

To say that figure skater Weir is flamboyant is as understated as saying Usain Bolt is fast, or Jay Leno is done.

In many ways, Johnny Weir is everything that figure skating is trying to escape from. He is a gender-bending showman, who has vamped for cameras in high heels and short skirts. He dressed like a swan at one competition, wearing one red glove to symbolize the beak.

Weir is a remarkable athlete, with mad hops, but he also is the guy who recently starred in the documentary "Pop Star on Ice" that featured a scene with him soaking in a tub with a male friend.

Let's put it this way: There won't be much of a crossover audience with NFL fans today when Weir competes in the championship finals at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships.

For a sport that is trying to attract a larger mainstream male audience, selling Weir, 25, is their greatest challenge.

He is every cliché about his sport that everyone who dislikes figure skating clings to. He isn't all about the sequins, but he is about the sequins. His costumes may not be as important to him as his triple jumps, but they are important.

Weir is as close to being Will Ferrell in "Blades of Glory" as a figure skater can get and still be taken seriously. But Johnny Weir also is very good and is as dramatic on skates as he is in his costumes.

Ranked eighth in the world, Weir combined an old-school artistry and a 21st-century athleticism to finish third behind Jeremy Abbott and defending world champion Evan Lysacek in Friday's short program.

"I'm so excited with all the hard work that I've done these past few months," he said. "I was able to put that product on the ice and show everyone that I'm in shape. I'm healthy. I'm prepared, and I'm rocking my pink tassels with abandon."

Last year, after a poor performance at the national championships in Cleveland, Weir came close to quitting. He was sick at that competition and lacked focus, a criticism Weir hears often. After Cleveland, he dropped deep into depression.

"The world was absolutely falling down on me last year," he said. "I bring a lot of things on myself and, as I get older, I completely realize that. But in no way am I ashamed of it. I just have to work a little harder than someone who flies under the radar."

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After much soul-searching and encouragement from his mother Patti, Weir decided to come back for one last attempt at an Olympic medal. And on Friday night, the response from the fans in Spokane Arena, including a gaggle of members of his worldwide fan club, "Johnny's Angels," told him he'd made the right choice.

"When you have an audience standing and screaming the entire way through the short program and cheering every element you do, whether it's footwork, or spin, or a jump," Weir said, "to have that kind of emotion coming at you from every direction in the building, it's the most amazing sensation you can get as a sportsman.

"I'm in such a unique wonderful sport that can combine real emotion. You can really connect with the people who are beholding what you are trying to do. It made me regret even thinking of not even trying this event."

Make no mistake about it, Weir is as much a world-class sportsman as he is a showman. For all the sparkle and spangle of his outfits, he also is a legitimate medal threat next month in Vancouver.

"Comparing this year with last year, there is no comparison other than the fact I was on the ice in a sparkly costume," he said. "I'm in a completely different place, mentally, physically, and all of those things are paying off. I'm really feeling now like I can do this. I can go to the Olympics. I can challenge the top skaters in the world."

In a sport that has become increasingly uptight, Weir is refreshing. He celebrates his outlandishness. He is real in a "this-is-who-I-am, deal-with-it" kind of way.

While figure skating tries to become more mainstream and looks for some love from the NFL-loving fans, while it tries to "masculinize" its sport, it shouldn't forget about athletic showmen like Johnny Weir. He is too good and too charismatic to be ignored.

"I wear pink," he said. "To sum up my idea of on-ice costume fashion sense, it's probably that too much is never enough. But I have no problem with where my sport is. To make my sport mainstream would be to categorize it in a way that it shouldn't be categorized. Figure skating is theatrical. It's artistic. It's elegant. It's extremely athletic. And there's a very specific audience for that.

"I can say I don't watch football games, so I don't understand why a football fan would have to watch figure skating. You watch what you like. And I hope that if people see my skating they can relate to me or relate to what I'm doing on the ice and they will continue to watch."

Johnny Weir wears tassels. So what? The kid can skate, and isn't that the name of the sport?

Steve Kelley: 206-464-2176 or skelley@seattletimes.com

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About Steve Kelley

Steve Kelley covers all sports, putting his spin on matters involving both the home team and the nation.
skelley@seattletimes.com | 206-464-2176

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