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Jul. 20 2009 - 8:50 pm | 1,602 views | 5 recommendations | 13 comments

Why skaters aren’t friends

johnevanThis past spring Johnny Weir stated in an interview that he and Evan Lysacek decided to “bury the hatchet” and have formed “alliance.” (Are we playing Survivor?) The pair, who are direct competitors and haven’t always had the nicest of things to say about one another, have now proclaimed that they’re going to work together in order to knock down skaters from other rinks.

Sounds a little weird, right?

Skaters who directly compete against one another will never be in an alliance and they will never be close friends. When there are two equally strong competitors who are working towards the same prize, an alliance is the farthest thing from their minds.

Whether it’s Johnny and Evan, Sasha and Michelle, or Michelle and Irina, their relationships are all the same. They are friendly, but they are not friends. They don’t go out to dinner together the night before the long program and they don’t call each other up on weekends to discuss various training methods.

The dynamic of these relationships, and much of a skater’s mindset, comes from the extreme individualistic nature of the sport, particularly evident in singles skating. If a skater is having a bad day, there isn’t a team backing them up who can rally, push them through, or salvage their performance. Instead, it is just the skater, alone on the ice, having to compete and perform on their own. In a way, this can be a good thing. All the control is in the skater’s hands. They don’t have to worry about their teammate missing a clutch free throw or making a bad pass. But unlike team sports, where each player gets a ring after winning a championship, there is only one gold medal awarded at the end of a figure skating competition (unless we’re talking about the 2002 Olympic pairs event).

When it comes time to compete, the classic line skaters tell the media is, “I just want to skate well for myself.” This is a lie. Of course skaters want to skate well, but they are leaving out the small fact that just skating well isn’t enough–they want to win. This means making the most money, getting the most acclaim, and being the one who stands on the top of the podium at the end of the night, no matter what it takes. This me-first attitude makes it very difficult for a skater to form a friendship with a close competitor.

At an international competition, skaters competing in the same discipline are rarely assigned as roommates by the USFS. They generally don’t sit next to one another on the bus to the arena nor do they eat breakfast together in the dining hall. There a perpetual, invisible fence around each skater, and competitors tend to avoid their rivals at all costs.

There is no place where this separation and tension between competitors is more evident than the ladies’ locker room right before the final warmup. Walking into this small space is like walking into solitary confinement. There are no greetings exchanged between skaters–this includes skaters who may train, or have spent all summer touring together. Instead, a skater is treated to dagger-like stares when they enter the room, and their competitors look them up and down, as they silently critique their competition’s hair and makeup. This form of psychological gamesmanship can at times be more difficult than the competition taking place on the ice.

The unwritten code of the locker room directs skaters and coaches not to speak above a whisper, and the tension is smothering. Coaches sit huddled next to their skaters, whispering last minute advice to their pupils who keep blank, stoic faces. When a skater knows the person lacing up their skates next to them in the locker room is someone who can come between them and a gold medal, it’s extremely difficult an athlete to become friends or even strike up a conversation with that person.

If skaters were to spend time with their competitors, pushing competitive feelings aside, they would probably find that they actually have a lot in common. As much as they like to tell the media that they‘re complete opposites, underneath their exteriors Johnny and Evan are more alike than different. They both are hard workers, very funny, and share an intense love for fashion. That being said, this idea of them forming some sort of an alliance is laughable, and I can promise you that these two are not currently scheming up some master plan on how they’re going to take over men’s skating.

Instead, Evan and Johnny are training alone, on opposite ends of the country, each with the goal of becoming national and hopefully Olympic champion. This “alliance” is the last thing on their minds. Perhaps one day they will acknowledge their commonalities, because competition aside, I can see the two becoming really good friends. That being said, I don’t see a friendship blooming this year when they both know there is only one gold medal and three Olympic spots up for grabs.


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    I’d come across that interview, too, and it did sound odd – the first thought that crossed my mind was, “I wonder if he ran that by Evan before he announced it to the world”, because they just seem so different that I just can’t see them sitting down and having a real conversation about it.

    That being said, I’m wondering if it was more a comment on the media frenzy than it was on the rivalry itself. Sure, there’s a rivalry, but I wonder if the extra layer of media hype was more than a little annoying to one or more of its subjects, and if he was just giving them a little tweak, kind of a passive-aggressive in-your-face kind of a thing, a subtle “back off” message.

    Never mind – I just saw what I typed – Johnny Weir…subtle…no, that can’t be it.

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      Thanks for your comment. I agree that the media promoting their “rivalry” was slightly overdone. Like I said in my article, the two are friendly towards each other, and I hope they are able to develop a true friendship once their competitive careers are over. However, this season I can’t see them working together when they are both focused on winning.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
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    I remember a couple of years ago when Johnny skated in Nationals in the final group and he had a terrible skate. I think he crashed into the boards and couldn’t continue to skate. Anyway, I read in a skating magazine that Evan came up to Johnny and said don’t worry about it you are a great skater. Then Johnny replied that no matter what that meant a lot to him that he would say that. I don’t know if that is true or not, but I thought it was a nice thing to say. I think skating is such a individual sport and sometimes lonely.

  3. collapse expand

    What an excellent article. I applaud the realism. Jennifer, I love how you are bringing the reality of single skating to the world. Am I pretty enough, skinny enough, are my jumps high enough, are my spins to slow! People see the beauty of the sport when they turn on the T.V. They have no idea however, how evil it is behind the curtain. They don’t understand the stress put on skaters to “win” at any cost. Skating is truly a lonely sport and out of all the rinks in all the cities only 1 skater gets the gold! Again,You are doing an excellent job
    in your writing and I look forward to your articles. Kudos Jenifer!

  4. collapse expand

    You have opened this world to me in a way I never knew. For me, watching Olympics figure skating has always been about the on ice drama, judges and Dick Button. Now, you’ve taken me behind the scenes. I can’t wait to watch the winter Olympics with a whole new perspective about the sport. Thank you for taking me inside this elite sport. I’m a dedicated member of your T/S audience.

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    It’s great that you can peel back the curtain on the reality of elite athletic competition. I competed at the national level as a saber fencer in the mid 1990s and, while I was friendly with the local women I fenced against to get to nationals, by the time I was on the strip at nationals, with direct elimination the zero-sum end of a year’s training, you simply saw the other women as annoying obstacles in the way of your goal, to win. People who have never been there have no idea, so this is really cool.

    • collapse expand

      It is true that during a competition it’s hard not to see your fellow competitors as obstacles in the way of your goal. Sometimes it’s even difficult to shut that mindset off when the competition has concluded, and I think this is one of the main reasons why it takes skaters a few years away from the competitive scene to become friends with a close competitor. Thanks for your comment!

      In response to another comment. See in context »
  6. collapse expand

    This is really interesting story. Thank you for the nice article. I’m from Japan. Since figure skating is hot right now and both Johnney and Evan are very popular in Japan, Japanese figure skating fans may want to read this. Would you mind if I introduce this article in Japanese in my blog?

  7. collapse expand

    These two friends? Don’t think so.

    I am a competitive ballroom dancer, and I am not friends with any of my competitors. I am superficially friendly, but do not feel any warmth towards them; in fact, I do not trust any of them. I used to think I could be friends and competitors, but I found out quickly that this was not the case; too many of my competitors stabbed me in the back.

    What keeps people apart is the nature of competition, especially at judged events, where everything can be subjective and political. Ballroom dancing judging is very subjective and political; there aren’t a set of technical standards as in figure skating. For example, there are not certain moves or jumps dancers have to achieve and are judged on as in figure skating. Judging in ballroom dancing is very much like the way ice dancing used to be (and probably still is) judged–until the World Champion retires, nobody moves ahead. There is technique involved in ballroom dancing to be sure, but at some point, with everybody technically and artistically equal, it becomes a political game.

    I disliked my competitors for a long time and wished they weren’t around. It wasn’t until I got away from ballroom competition that I realized that I need my competitors. My competitors made me a better dancer, made me try harder. I could learn from them. Without others to compete against, there’s no motivation to improve or get better.

    I don’t believe for a minute that Evan and Johnny are friends, but they do respect each other as competitors. The media makes too much of rivalries–one has to see the “Battle of the Brians” or the “Battle of the Carmens” as evidence. If there isn’t an actual rivalry, the media creates one. If there is a rivalry, the media over-inflate it to the point where people get tired of hearing about it.

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    About Me

    I’m originally from Boston, living in LA, with a passion for the world of figure skating. During my career on the ice, I was a world junior champion, a five-time U.S. national medalist, and a three-time world team member. Since retiring from the sport, I have dedicated myself to attaining my college degree with a major in broadcast journalism. I’m looking forward to sharing my views on the ins and outs of the skating world, along with my opinions and thoughts on various issues coming from the ice. I welcome you to my blog!

    To contact me: Jeki815@gmail.com

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    Contributor Since: June 2009
    Location:Los Angeles, CA