I enjoy reading memoirs – uniquely personal experiences with universal truths. I especially looked forward to the recently published autobiography “Welcome to My World” by Johnny Weir, a world-famous figure-skater, three times U.S. National Champion and twice Olympian. I won’t pretend to be unbiased. I am a fan of his masterful skating. I have always been amazed at his capacity to push the boundaries of his sport and bring people from different countries and cultures together in appreciation for what he is and what he brings to the skating world. I longed for a quiet weekend when I would snuggle with the book and make my world stop while I was in his world. Johnny Weir’s autobiography promised much needed food for the mind, heart and soul (and a big plus, for a change, it didn’t include the word “brain” or “neuro” in the title like all of my recent reads). I am happy to say, it didn’t disappoint.
Known for his honest, direct, and witty way of delivering messages, Johnny Weir stayed true to his style in his quarter-life memoir, as he likes to call it. He is a skillful storyteller. His keen eye for detail and visual effects that so many of his fans appreciate in his skating programs translated into the vivid and lively language of the book. You don’t just read about Johnny Weir’s life, you actually see it unfolding in front of your eyes as if on a movie screen. Like his skates on the ice, everything moves fast in a delightful swirl of dialogue, characters, and places. The book is another proof that whatever it is Johnny Weir decides to go after, he goes full force, lighting the path with sparkly rhinestones.
We witness his quick transformation from a quiet and focused child with an active imagination and wise outlook on life to an awe-inspiring skater and artist. He took his first steps on ice not on a suburban skating rink but on the ice-covered cornfield patch behind his house in a small place of Quarryville, Pennsylvania, after his parents gave him a pair of used black leather skates as a gift. “I definitely caught the skating bug that winter afternoon,” he writes. “The feeling of speeding from one place to another so quickly was amazing.” Yet, his future at the time appeared to be in horseback riding – he was close to making the national team. Competitive and determined even as a kid, when his trainer suggested he should work on his posture, he went home and sat “perfectly straight for two hours” until his back was shaking. Then, amidst his equestrian training, he took a group skating lesson – another gift from his parents – and to the instructor’s surprise, he landed an axel, a jump that usually takes someone two years to learn. The decision had to be made, and an eleven-year old Johnny chose to become an Olympian in figure skating.
I don’t know how many parents would be ready to move multiple times and endure all kinds of financial and emotional pressures to give their son an opportunity to pursue an Olympic dream, but Johnny’s parents did just that and continued to provide love and support through all of the tribulations of his athletic career. And those were many. “Everything changed as I climbed the ranks of competitive skating,” he writes. “My body, my technique, my ability, my emotions, my surroundings, all in turmoil and flux.” From his rapid rise to the Olympic level, Johnny Weir emerges as a person who is not afraid to accept, love and nurture the opposites in himself, which makes him an outspoken contrarian, adored by his numerous global fans, but also distrusted by the skating establishment. A tender-hearted fighter, a disciplined artist, an ornery gentleman, a witty intellectual, an athletic fashionista, a quiet entertainer, one thing we know for sure, he is never boring. Neither are his costumes: “Much like A-List actresses who won’t hit the red carpet unless they’re dripping in five million dollars’ worth of diamonds, I can’t skate unless I feel beautiful.”
He aims for perfection in everything he does – from his sport to his wardrobe and the lines of the carpet at his home, perhaps, reinforcing the structure he needs to anchor his exuberant creative expression. But while perfection is his goal, he never pretends to be perfect. He is brutally honest in this “feel-free-to-hate-my-guts” kind of way when he talks about his own lapses of judgment, like faking injuries and withdrawing from competitions. But you can’t be mad at him for long because he doesn’t give himself a break and certainly doesn’t expect it from others: “My stupidity and hubris had landed me in skating purgatory, cast our from the mainstream and any kind of official track. I knew I earned my karma and deserved everything that was happening, but that didn’t make it any easier to deal with.”
Every setback and disappointment, however, becomes a learning opportunity and a springboard to propel himself forward. He may be known as a “swan” for his signature 2006 Olympic short program, but he is also a “phoenix” when it comes to his signature life programming. The phoenix is a symbol of renewal. The mythical bird is a fire spirit with a colorful plumage and a tail of gold and scarlet (not unlike the colors of the book cover). According to ancient mythology, it builds itself a nest of twigs that then ignites, and a new, young phoenix arises from the ashes. From each career dip, Johnny Weir appears better and stronger: “…nothing matters but the moment. Whatever happens at an event, good or bad, dissipates when you train on a clean slate of ice.”
The book is an emotional rollercoaster that will make you laugh, cry, sigh and cheer as Johnny Weir takes you into his world of competitions, travel, fashion, and romance. The issue of Johnny Weir’s ‘coming out’ in the book has been much discussed in the media recently although as he and many others see it, he has never been ‘in’. He was six when he realized there was something different about him while watching Richard Gere in Pretty Woman: “Seeing Julia Roberts get swept off her feet by her rich and handsome client, I wanted to be her so badly because he did something special to me. Kissing seemed like a weird think to do, but I knew if I were going to do it, it would be with Richard Gere.” When he turned eighteen, he told his mother he was gay: “Suddenly it felt like I was sitting in the room with a stranger, and this was my mom, my best friend. The energy around us dropped as she started to cry.” He continues, “I fell sorry for my mom and wanted her to know that everything was going to be all right.” She replied, “I don’t really care, Johnny, as long as I know that you are going to be happy.” His love story is sweet, lyrical, poignant, and humorous at the same time. It will resonate with anyone who has a heart and a body. His experience is personal and unique, but the truths behind it are universal.
Johnny Weir lives a passionate life. His passion for his sport gave him the dream, the purpose, and the strength to pursue his goals despite obstacles and disappointments and remain true to himself. The book reflects his complex and multifaceted personality that bursts through whatever boxes anybody tries to put him in. His story inspires us to find our own passions and strengths within and challenges us to rise above our labels.