FLYING OVER THE ICE - part two
“Look at him. ”
Johnny watched every skating competition on TV. He watched his tape of the Olympics so many times it wore out. In the summer, he roller-skated on the driveway. He gathered his family for an audience, then pretended to skate a program and took a bow. He skated a second program, pretending to be a different skater. Then he became a judge and chose a winner. Johnny wore out the toe stoppers of his skates, and his mother had to keep buying new ones.
Most of all, he liked to jump. He taught himself to do several different, difficult jumps. “I made my dad videotape me at one point. I did what would be, on the ice, an axel and a double toe loop,” he said.
He kept riding as much as ever. Johnny and Shadow competed together all summer. But Johnny wasn’t progressing as fast as he had in the beginning. It was getting hard to go into the ring every day and just do the same thing over and over again, without getting better.
The next winter, Johnny’s parents gave him a used pair of dance boots and blades; Johnny’s parents didn’t know anything about skating but they had seen the skates at the local ski-and-skate exchange and they knew Johnny would love them.
A week of stormy weather had turned the cornfield behind Johnny’s house to a sheet of ice. The next day after school, Johnny went outside and put on the new skates. He stepped onto the field. The sky was gray and the air was very cold. The boots were stiff and squeezed his toes. The blades felt sticky on the ice compared to the smooth wheels of his roller skates. Johnny concentrated on standing up. Carefully, he started to stroke. Push with the right leg. Put the right foot down. Push with the left leg. Put the left foot down.
He was skating! Johnny stayed out until it got dark and his fingers were numb. Riding lessons were canceled that week because of the storms, and Johnny skated every day. He loved the quiet field and the dark gray sky.
From the kitchen window, Patti watched Johnny on the field, skating, jumping, turning and gliding.
“You’ve got to get that kid some lessons,” said a neighbor.
“He can’t skate and ride too!” said Patti. “We can’t afford that.”
“But… look at him.”
Johnny had never been inside a skating rink. It was crowded, echoing and noisy. The air smelled like Zamboni exhaust and rubber and frozen water. The other kids in his class were hanging onto the boards at the edge of the ice and looking nervous. Johnny skated out to the middle. The ice was smooth and slippery, not like the cornfield. He looked at the older kids doing complicated spins and jumps. I want to do that too, he thought.
The instructor taught the class some beginning moves: how to fall and get up, swizzles and sculls. For the next week, Johnny practiced hard on his roller skates, working on what he had learned in the class.
After his second skating class, during the free time, he started trying to jump. He hurled himself into the air and felt himself spin around. “I remember the day I landed my first axel,” he said. “There was no one around except Elizabeth (the instructor). She looked over and saw what I was doing. I jumped, and when I landed I was on one foot, and I was gliding, and I was so excited! I was like, ‘Did you see what I did?’ I didn’t know how many times I had turned. I thought I had done a triple! And she said, ‘You just did an axel.’ When I look back on it, it was such a huge moment for me, not that it was winning anything, or getting ovations, it was just pure excitement that I did something.”
Most people need a year or two to learn an axel jump. Johnny had taught himself in a week.
Elizabeth skated over to Johnny’s mother. “Mrs. Weir, Johnny needs private lessons.”
Patti laughed. “He already has four riding lessons a week. We don’t have time for more skating lessons!”
“Well, let me teach him once a week,” said Elizabeth. “Look at him.” Johnny was racing around the ice, trying one jump after another. “Let me show you what he can do.”
“Ok,” said Patti. “We’ll try it.”
After that, Johnny had riding lessons four times a week and skating three times a week. There wasn’t enough time for both skating and riding.
Johnny could hardly bear to think of selling Shadow. But he was learning exciting new things in skating all the time. Everyone said he could be a champion skater. One afternoon a riding magazine came in the mail and he sat down and read the whole thing. When his parents got home, he looked at them with tears in his eyes.
“I’m going to give up riding,” he said.
Johnny and Shadow rode in one last competition together. Afterward, Johnny undid the braids in Shadow’s mane and put him in his trailer, and then he had to say goodbye. Johnny put his arms around Shadow’s neck and buried his face in his mane. He cried for a long time.
Johnny Weir started private lessons around his eleventh birthday, and he learned fast. He passed the preliminary moves and free skate tests at the end of 1995. Five years later, he won the 2001 world junior title at the age of sixteen. He went on to win the U.S. National championships in 2004, 2005 and 2006. He finished fourth at the World Championships in 2005 and won the bronze medal in 2008. He competed at the Winter Olympics in 2006 and 2010.
The next day, his coach asked him if he was ready to learn a new jump. Johnny skated as fast as he could and hurled himself into the air.
“Try it again,” said his coach.
Johnny jumped again, and again, and again…
All text and art ©Sarah S. Brannen. May not be reproduced without permission.