FLYING OVER THE ICE - part one
From 2004 to 2006, Sarah Brannen spent extensive time interviewing figure skater Johnny Weir, his family, his coaches, and his training mates.
Flying Over the Ice is an unpublished children’s book about how Johnny first learned to skate. It won the runner-up Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators Work-in-Progress grant in 2006. The following is an excerpt from the book.
Johnny Weir sat alone, behind a door in the dark. He didn’t know what to do. He couldn’t feel his left leg from the knee down. His foot had hurt so much a few hours earlier that he knew he couldn’t land even one jump on it, let alone a do whole figure skating program. As a last resort, the American team doctor had injected it with lidocaine. Now Johnny felt as if he didn’t have a left foot at all.
On the other side of the door was a sheet of ice surrounded by thousands of people, all watching forty-two men compete for the title of 2005 World Figure Skating Champion. Johnny could hear the music playing as the skater before him went through his program.
I trained all year for this, thought Johnny. I trained for nine years for this. And now it’s going to end without a medal, without anything. Earlier in the day he had decided to withdraw from the competition. He knew he couldn’t possibly skate well. But it was the World Championships, the year before the Olympics, and he couldn’t quit.
It was time. He got up and walked through the door, into the glaring white light of the arena. The previous skater finished, to polite applause. People saw Johnny and started to clap and shout his name. The applause grew as people cheered for him. Johnny took off his skate guards and stepped on the ice. He stood at the boards, looking down, breathing deeply, in and out.
“If you want to do this, you can,” said his coach. “Your body is perfectly trained. It will know what to do. You can trust it.”
Johnny didn’t believe her. But he had decided to skate, no matter what. He turned, looked at the crowd, and skated onto the ice.
All his life, Johnny knew he would go to the Olympics some day. Until he was twelve years old, he thought it would be as an equestrian, riding a horse over a course of jumps.
The Weirs lived in the flat, open farm country of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. Johnny’s parents, John and Patti, had grown up together in the same small town there. Johnny’s grandparents boarded and trained several horses on their farm, and John had taken care of them and ridden in shows as a child. Johnny loved the horses. As a baby, he stood in his crib and watched the horses running in a field behind his house.
When he was older, Johnny’s father built a ring of small horse jumps in their back yard. Six-year-old Johnny used to invite friends over and hold “competitions.” Everyone, including his little brother and the family dog, took a turn running around the course and leaping over the jumps. Johnny always won. “I was extremely competitive,” he said. “I always imagined I was in the Olympics.”
When Johnny was eight, he was finally old enough for real riding lessons on ponies. He was so small that he couldn’t even reach up and put the bridle over the pony’s head, but he loved his first lesson and he couldn’t wait to go back. He was a natural rider, and he soon started learning to jump. “I liked the speed of jumping,” said Johnny. “Your hair’s flying, and you just fly up in the air.”
It was hard for the family to afford Johnny’s expensive lessons, but Johnny’s parents wanted their sons to have every opportunity and they gave up whatever was necessary to pay for his riding. Johnny competed in his first horse show, in Appleton, Pennsylvania, just a few months after starting to ride, and he won. From then on, he went to shows every two or three weeks.
"It was dead serious,” said his mother. “His goal was always the National team and the Olympics. ” When Johnny was nine, his parents and his grandmother bought him a dappled gray pony named My Blue Shadow. Shadow was “green,” meaning he was still being schooled and learning how to compete. He and Johnny took to each other right away. Shadow was not very well-behaved with most people, but Johnny could get him to do anything.
Johnny went to the riding ring every day after school. Every other weekend, he braided Shadow’s mane and tail and washed his hooves. In the morning, the whole family left before dawn and drove to the show where Johnny and Shadow were going to compete. Afterward, Johnny gave his little brother Brian his ribbons and boosted him into the saddle before he led Shadow to the trailer. Brian, always called “Boz,” loved going to horse shows and cheering for Johnny, and he liked to ride on Shadow’s back at the end.
When he wasn’t riding, Johnny lived in a world of his own. “I was crazy,” he said. “I did things my own way. I was always running around pretending to be a boat or an animal or something.” He used to pretend he was speaking in foreign languages, babbling in made-up words that no one else could understand. He liked to play alone, just as he liked the individual sport of riding.
As far as Johnny and his family were concerned, he was going to keep riding until he was grown up, and his ultimate goal was the summer Olympics. It had never crossed their minds that Johnny’s destiny lay on a skating rink, not in a riding ring.
In the winter of 1994, it seemed that everyone in the country was talking about a strange and terrible incident at the United States Figure Skating Championships. The national champion, Nancy Kerrigan, had been hit on the leg by an attacker who wanted to keep her from skating. No one knew if she would recover in time to compete at the Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway. Johnny and his mother were fascinated by the drama and all the kids at Johnny’s school were talking about it. Nine-year-old Johnny couldn’t wait to watch the Olympics on television.
On the big night, Patti let Johnny stay up late to watch. He made a nest of pillows on the floor and curled up in front of the television, wrapped in an afghan. He was fascinated. “I thought it was a glamorous world of people who wear sparkles and pretty costumes and skate around and jump really high in the air and spin really fast. It was intriguing,” he said later.
Early the next morning, Johnny tiptoed down to the basement in his pajamas, looking for his roller skates. He put them on and imagined that he was standing in an ice rink in front of a big crowd. He tried to spin. He could glide on one foot, so he tried lifting one leg up high in a spiral position. He tried a jump. He loved it.
The roller skates were so heavy that his legs flew up over his head when he fell. Johnny was tiny and skinny, which is actually perfect for a figure skater, although he didn’t know that yet.
“Flying Over the Ice” continues with Part 2.
All text and art ©2009 Sarah S. Brannen. May not be reproduced without permission.