“Historically, the U.S. team performs very well when they’re at home – it’s really looking like a great competition in each discipline.” – Johnny Weir
“The American ladies are strong. Gracie, Polina, Ashley, they have the technical content… our American team has a chance to be on that podium, no doubt.” – Tara Lipinski
LEAH LUCHETTI: Good afternoon. Welcome to today’s conference call previewing NBC Sports Group’s coverage of the ISU World Figure Skating Championships from Boston. Live coverage begins one week from today on Wednesday, March 30, at noon ET on NBCSN and is highlighted by the ladies’ free skate on Saturday, April 2nd, live in primetime on NBC.
We’re joined today by two members of our lead figure skating commentary team, Johnny Weir and Tara Lipinski. In a few hours we’ll make the transcript of this call available on NBCSportsGroupPressbox.com.
We’ll begin with an opening comment from each of our speakers and then we’ll take your questions.
Let’s start first with Johnny.
JOHNNY WEIR: Hi, everyone. Good afternoon. Thanks for being on this call with us. I personally am so excited for the World Championships next week. The United States is always such a wonderful host to these big skating events, and historically the U.S. team performs very well when they’re at home, so it’s really looking like a great competition in each discipline. Men, ladies, dance and pairs all have strong title races, and I’m really looking forward to sharing it all with America and with my lovely partner Tara Lipinski.
TARA LIPINSKI: Off of that, I would say I’m very excited due to the fact that this will be Johnny and my first World Championships that we’ll do together, and to have it in the States is absolutely incredible. I think as a skater when I still look back, I had always hoped maybe an Olympics or World Championships would happen for me in the States. It never did. But, there is something that is so magical and exciting, and to actually be there watching this live is going to be quite a treat for Johnny and I and, hopefully, for the American skating public. Like Johnny said, the skating is at this point, you have these ups and downs in the cycles. You hope that by the time you get to the Olympic year, skating is at its best. We’re still quite a ways out from South Korea, and the level that skating is at now is just something that I’ve never really seen before. People are pushing the technical bar, and it’s just becoming more and more exciting as a commentator and hopefully for the viewers at home.
Tara, I spent the morning watching Mike Cunningham sharpen skates. I know he’s worked with you in the past. How important is a behind-the-scenes guy like that into your success and success of others that he works with?
TARA LIPINSKI: You cannot imagine. Very simply, there are so many people behind-the-scenes, off the ice that really makes these skaters who they are. From my personal experience, going to the Olympics, I brought my skate sharpener with me, and that was probably one of the first things I thought of. Your equipment is obviously crucial to your performance, and beyond someone maybe like a skate sharpener, you have a physical therapist, you have your coaches, you have sports therapists that you work with. There are just so many different people that are part of a skating team, even if it’s just one singular skater.
JOHNNY WEIR: It really does take a village to raise a child, especially in skating.
Tara, how about Mike especially, Mike (Cunningham) in particular?
TARA LIPINSKI: Well, I love Mike because he pretty much started me off, and he still fits my boots and my skates to this day and does my sharpening. When I started skating at University of Delaware at six years old, I can’t remember exactly when I started with Mike, but very, very early on. So to me, he was my go-to man.
Johnny, what will you be wearing to the Worlds?
JOHNNY WEIR: It’s all good. You know, a week out, I’m just now putting everything together. Tara and I both are, especially for that primetime hit. We really want to entertain people, and the clothes are really the smallest part of what we do, but we like to draw attention to our sport and to the real talent inside it, even if it is through our fashion.
You’d best believe I’m bringing my best to Boston. It’s the Worlds.
How about you, Tara? What are you wearing?
TARA LIPINSKI: Just like Johnny said, we text back and forth. We send pictures, and we sort of discuss this for weeks in advance. We do like to match here and there, and like Johnny said, it is skating’s biggest event of the year, so you have to come prepared. So definitely we have a good outfit in the bag for primetime.
Johnny and Tara, I’m curious on this Jason Brown situation and what you guys think of him petitioning and not being selected for the Worlds team or being put up as an alternate? I’m wondering if you can offer some insider or nuance as to that situation.
JOHNNY WEIR: Well, I was quite outspoken at the National Championships on the broadcast that if you want to be on and selected for an international team like the World Championships or the Olympics, you should be present at the National Championships. That’s something that I had to personally deal with in my career where I was very, very sick, and I wasn’t given the option of even petitioning for a spot on a team. They said, well, you either show up or we’ll see you next season. I’m from that old school of thought where if you want a spot on an international team, you have to compete for it, because there is an entire nation of skaters that have all prepared just as much and just as hard as you.
Jason Brown has never won a world medal. He has, of course, his Olympic team medal, but that, of course, was an entire team that helped him to that placement.
Despite a petition and despite the fact that he is stronger internationally and more respected than an athlete like Grant Hochstein, you have to show up and compete, injured or not, sick or not. You have to compete for that spot, and that’s my personal opinion. But it is within his right to petition for that spot, of course.
TARA LIPINSKI: And I feel the same way. I obviously have a strong opinion on this. As I look back to my own career, and I know that at ’96 Nationals they had given Nicole Bobek a spot because she was injured, and I would never have made the world team. I think that really from that point on, I would never have won a Worlds medal or an Olympic medal in the short period of time that followed if that did not happen.
I believe in sports, it’s terrible, you have hard breaks, and as an athlete you’re constantly worried about injury, but that’s sort of what you need to expect. That’s what this is all about, and you go into a competition like Nationals every year hoping that everything is going to go your way. Injuries sometimes come out of nowhere, but that still doesn’t change the fact that every other skater is preparing for this event, and you go into it knowing, ‘hey, if I get first, second or third, I’m going to make the world team,’ and that’s something that I think should be preserved.
For both of you, do you think that any of the U.S. woman have the points in their programs that if they skate well, they can win a medal without having to have some of the other contenders really skate poorly?
TARA LIPINSKI: I think that the American ladies are strong. Gracie (Gold), Polina (Edmunds), Ashley (Wagner), they have the technical content. They’re doing the triple triples. Someone like Gracie, skating clean, skating lights out, adding the emotion, selling a program, I think a medal is not just a maybe, it should be. It’s hers to lose.
Obviously, the Russians are strong. The Japanese are strong. So everyone is going to put out their best, and it does sometimes come down to making a mistake, but at the same time I think that our American team has a chance to be on that podium, no doubt.
JOHNNY WEIR: I agree. I think mainly both Ashley Wagner and Gracie Gold, who have that international respect and the ability to skate well, make the Grand Prix final, they certainly have a chance to really ignite the audience. People often forget that the judges are the first row of the audience, and if the audience is feeling it, the judges will feel it, and up go the presentation and artistic scores.
Of course, they have to show up and compete. Polina also is in the mix for one of the spots on the podium just because she was so strong at the U.S. Nationals, but this is an entirely different ballgame.
Elena Radionova from Russia is so strong this season and has performed so well and has even won major titles with mistakes that she seems to be the clear frontrunner. Gracie Gold, Ashley Wagner, Polina Edmunds, they have made mistakes internationally and are not sort of held to the same level internationally.
I think that a great advantage for the American team is that this championship is happening in the United States, and that can lead many U.S. skaters. We saw it in the 2002 Olympics with how well the American team did. We saw it at the 2009 World Championships in Los Angeles where Evan Lysacek won kind of a blinding world title.
There really are opportunities for American skaters to do well because they will have that initial fan favoritism.
Should one of these skaters, one of these ladies, really skate perfectly and blow the roof off the building, the judges will be kind of hard pressed to go against the wishes of such a pro-American audience, and I think that that can lead to surprises in all of the disciplines. It can add to a higher placement for the men, where, in ice dance the favorites right now are a team from France. Should Maia and Alex Shibutani, with Boston roots and everything, really skate their amazing Coldplay free program, there could be an upset in dance. The U.S. audience is definitely an advantage to the U.S. team, but they have to show up and skate well.
I know you’re obviously going to be extremely busy, but is there anything you’re excited to do in your off time while you’re in Boston?
TARA LIPINSKI: Well, I love Boston. I’ve been there many times. The only thing that I would say is unfortunately we don’t get that much off time. We’re watching practices, we’re at the arena, we’re calling the events. Maybe, Johnny, maybe we’ll get out to a good dinner, but that is the only unfortunate part about going to a skating competition. You rarely ever leave the arena. But I kind of like that. It’s the Worlds, and I want to take advantage of that and be there as much as I can.
JOHNNY WEIR: I agree. When we go on these trips, of course Tara and I have the best time together making our Instagram videos and finding Starbucks’ wherever we may be, but we really are there for work. I’ve had so many people from the skating world and my friends that I’ve grown up with and they’re all going because it’s the World Championships on the East Coast, which is where I’ve been based my whole life. Everyone wants to see you and everyone wants to say hi, and they all know, of course, that we’ll be at the championships.
And I’m like, well, ‘if you can get past security and if you can get down to our little crow’s nest where we sit and watch everything, I’ll totally say hi.’ It’s just we’re definitely there for work.
But I do love Boston. I definitely will take a minute when I can get it and run over to Alan Bilzerian on Newbury Street. It’s my favorite shop in Boston. And hopefully we’ll have a couple good meals.
But for the most part we’ll be eating Craft Services and running for Starbucks’ every five minutes that we can get free.
I wanted to turn for a moment to the U.S. men, and with skaters like Hanyu and Chan and the Chinese and Ten and Fernandez, it’s going to be very difficult, I think, for the U.S. men to bring home three spots and to place in the top five or six. How do you see Adam Rippon’s placement being affected on whether he can hit a clean quad in his program?
JOHNNY WEIR: Well, like I said about the previous question, about the ladies and the fact that this is American championships being an advantage. Adam is so artistically evolved and so strong artistically that should he land that quad, and I think the majority of that arena will be waiting for a quad from Adam, he could blow the roof off of the building and really make quite a statement.
However, it is an international competition. There are a lot of vying political parties in figure skating and at the World Championships. Everyone is fighting for the maximum number of spots for their country for the next season, and for the United States, the men and the pairs are the current weak spot, and Adam could really carry the torch. The difference between landing one quad versus a Boyang Jin, who isn’t as strong artistically but landing four quads, it won’t be the same as the U.S. Nationals where Adam was able to overtake Max Aaron and Nathan Chen, who both landed multiple quads. It just won’t happen at a World Championship, being the U.S. champion or not. It won’t really make a difference in such a strong men’s field.
TARA LIPINSKI: Yeah, I agree with you there, Johnny. I think Adam does have the ability to hit that quad and blow the roof off, and when he does skate clean, he is electrifying, and again, we’re in Boston, so this could be such a great moment for him. This could also be that next step that he has to reach to really compete on a world level. Like Johnny said, in the States it’s a different story. Once you get out on a world stage and you have guys putting three quads as if it’s nothing, that’s like a triple to them, you see that there is a big difference and that a lot of room needs to be made up for these American men to really compete with the best of the best.
JOHNNY WEIR: It will be quite a distance to overcome for the U.S. men. If everyone skates their best, including the favorites, Yuzuru Hanyu, Patrick Chan, Javier Fernandez, Han Yan, Boyang Jin, Shoma Uno, the list goes on and on, and that really puts the United States men looking at a top 10 finish almost as if it would be like winning a medal. That’s kind of a shame to say, but it is true, just internationally speaking and kind of handicapping it from the season and the season before. The U.S. men just are not as strong as the rest of the world and could even get locked out of the top ten if they don’t have their strongest skates.
Johnny, you have been a good friend with Hanyu since he was a junior skater, and I’d just like to hear your opinions of how he developed and became the skater he is today. Did he exceed your expectations?
JOHNNY WEIR: He definitely has exceeded my expectation. You never can tell when somebody will completely change the face of their sport or their occupation. I always expected him to do great things, but nothing like he has been able to do. He constantly shocks me with his work ethic.
Recently, I was in Japan performing just after the New Year, and he had already created that world record at the Grand Prix final and then he won another Japanese title despite making a few mistakes.
Most people would get so run down and so tired and really want to protect their body, especially if they were just preparing for a show, but Yuzuru was at 9:30 in the morning attempting quad lutzes, landing quad loops, quad toe loops, quad salchows, performing the quads in the shows. He has no fear, and I think his fearlessness is really what helps him to create this image that he has in the sport.
It isn’t that he’s unbeatable, because with mistakes and with great performances with other skaters, there could be an upset, but Yuzuru has just raised the bar so high, and that really comes from the work ethic, his fearlessness, and his ability to allow himself to make mistakes.
Once you achieve a certain level in sport, it’s very hard to try new things because you’re afraid you’ll make a mistake and shatter the image that you have made for yourself through great performances.
Yuzuru is not afraid of that, whether it’s through his costuming, his music choices, the jumps that he’s trying, he really is pushing himself in every direction, and that’s why he’s able to maintain this level and be such a great champion. He is the man to beat in Boston.
Wondering how you think Boston is going to be for a host city for the Worlds and what you’re looking forward to.
TARA LIPINSKI: I am definitely looking forward to the crowd in Boston. I remember touring Boston for many, many years and always having such a warm and welcoming, loud crowd. I also think that any skating fan loves the World Championships, but if you are a skating fan that lives in Boston and you get to go watch this live, I think it’s just going to make it that much better. The excitement you’re going to feel in the arena is going to be palpable, and I feel for the American skaters – this is a moment that they’ve been thinking about all year long. Nationals is a big event for them, and usually when you talk with skaters they talk about Nationals from the start of the season, but it seems that some skaters were even skipping thinking about Nationals first and thinking ‘what if I got to Worlds and could skate on home ice in Boston?’
I think all around, it’s going to be a treat for the skaters and for a live audience.
JOHNNY WEIR: And like Tara, it’s a wonderful opportunity to compete in Boston. It was where my first senior National Championship was. Of course, I performed there touring and then Tara and I got to attend the National Championships in Boston before the Sochi Olympics. The audience is so knowledgeable in the greater Boston area. There are so many wonderful skating clubs in the area. Boston and Massachusetts really do so many great things for figure skating with the ‘Evening with Champions,’ the Jimmy Fund show at Harvard, there’s the Colonial Figure Skating Club in the springtime, so every club has its own club show and they invite star skaters from all over to perform for them.
Massachusetts really is a skating state, and with that said, the audience is always so boisterous. From just local Boston sports fans to skaters from the far nether regions of Massachusetts, really everyone comes together and support the sport there. That makes it very exciting for us as skaters to know that the World Championships are in Boston where the audience will certainly look out for the skaters and for us as commentators having to scream over a very loud audience to get our point across to the rest of the country who are not actually in the building. It’s really exciting.
I’m just looking at a little bit ahead to 2017 and Nationals heading to Kansas City. I’m wondering if either of you have ever skated there, and if not, what sort of excitement is arrange a Nationals in a new city for figure skating and challenges it might present, too.
TARA LIPINSKI: I have skated in Kansas City on ‘Stars on Ice’ when I was touring, and I loved going there. I mean, Kansas City is a great little place, and I always have wonderful memories looking back on that.
But, I think any Nationals, especially figure skating nowadays, you get repeat cities. You’ve been to North Carolina several times. You’ve been back to places that the public knows about skating, knows that there’s been a Nationals there, is aware and expecting it, and is a great audience and a great host city. I feel like there are always challenges when you go to somewhere new that really the city has never done this before. It is going to be new, but I think that also adds to the excitement of it, and I feel people will be excited to get into that arena and watch some figure skating.
JOHNNY WEIR: I also have performed in Kansas City. I was there with ‘Champions on Ice’ back in the day, and the audience really got into it. They may not have known exactly what they were watching, but the audience definitely got into it. I remember specifically because we had gone through a lot of the upper Middle West and Middle Western cities, and Kansas City was one really to look forward to. I think that they’ll host a great championship, and I really am excited that U.S. figure skating is taking their national championship to a city where not a lot of skating has happened.
We all watched it with Spokane, Washington – they’re now calling themselves a skating city because of their great hosting of National Championships – and I believe that Kansas City will do the same.
I wanted to turn for a moment to the pairs’ competition. It seems that this season more than any other there’s just an embarrassment of riches in pairs. There’s a new German pair, certainly the Russians, Chinese, the Canadians. How do you see that championship sort of shaping up? Who would you say is the favorite team going into Boston?
TARA LIPINSKI: Well, I would say the reigning Olympic champions in my mind are on a different level. They have the air. They have the confidence of Olympic champions, and when they take the ice, they grab your attention. They have class. They have style. So to me, they are in a different league, so if they skate well, it’s theirs in my opinion.
But, like you said, the talent in the pairs’ competition, it’s sort of like what’s happening in the men’s event. The technical bar is being raised every single year. You have the Chinese team, you have the Canadians pushing the limits, whether it’s throws, twists, side by side triple triples. I feel like the competition is going to be so strong. It really does come down to who’s going to make that small mistake and who’s going to skate the cleanest and with the most energy and grab those judges and say, ‘I know there’s a lot of talent out here, but we’re the best today.’
JOHNNY WEIR: The pairs’ event is actually what I’m most looking forward to at the World Championships simply because the title really is up for grabs, and I have to disagree with my little lady, but my favorites going into the event are Ksenia Stolbova and Fedor Klimov from Russia. They were so strong at the Grand Prix final. Of course, they missed the European championships due to injury, but the class of both programs, the choreography, the costuming, everything has them on such a special level. While Volosozhar and Trankov are so strong, and of course reigning Olympic champions, they do command the ice when they’re on it, but they have been prone to making little mistakes here and there. I think their free program, the music is a little bit downtrodden, the Dracula. I don’t think it’ll give the audience that up and inspired feeling at the end of the program to make them all stand up, no matter how well they skate.
They are fantastic, and that is the wonderful thing about the pairs is that the top teams are all pretty fantastic.
The German team of Savchenko and Massot have really showed incredible strength for such a new team competing on the World level for the first time. Despite all of her past experience and all of his past experience, they’ve really molded together and become something really special, and I can go on and on about the teams down the list.
But, the pairs definitely will be a high flying, high twisting, crazy competition that’ll just be a constant state of one upmanship, so it’s really exciting.
LEAH LUCHETTI: Thank you all for joining us. As a reminder, our coverage starts Wednesday, March 30th, a week from today, on NBCSN and is highlighted by primetime coverage Saturday on NBC.
Visit NBCSportsGroupPressbox.com for more information.