At 7:45 a.m. on a chilly November morning, the best male figure skater in the world is out on the Rockefeller Center rink minutes before a live performance on the Today show. Evan Lysacek drove all night from Lake Placid, where he had won a pre-Olympics competition called Skate America. He slept for two hours, then tugged on a black bodysuit designed by Vera Wang to look sleek rather than silly (even with ebony feathers at the shoulders and wrists) and took the ice. As Stravinsky's "Firebird" plays over the open-air speakers, he runs through his program. Wang is at rink's edge, looking soigné but cheering like a groupie whenever Lysacek lands a triple, which he does every time—effortlessly, one might say, except that the word belies the fact that Lysacek devotes his entire life to making it look that way.
He nails his routine. Wearing a U.S.A. down vest, he stood beside Meredith Vieira moments earlier for his interview, in which he also hit all his marks cleanly. Vieira mentioned the EVAN IS HEAVEN sign spotted at Skate America; Lysacek came back with how much he appreciates having loyal fans. She asked what it would mean for him to win Olympic gold; he said he's just concentrating on making his skating better. Score: 5.9, with a tenth of a point off only for visible exhaustion. Lysacek does seem tired, but also like someone who is so used to pushing past weariness that he's barely conscious of it. The modesty, the work ethic, the regular-Joe mien—all perfect. Lysacek is, in some ways, the guy American figure skating has spent decades waiting for.
Camera-ready champions like him come along only rarely, as do opportunities for the sport to burst out of half-empty rinks populated mostly by kids and middle-aged moms in snowflake sweaters. Every four years, the Winter Olympics create the possibility that skaters can enter that Michael Phelpsian mainstream of endorsements and SNL appearances and split-second name recognition. Vancouver might be that moment for Lysacek. Except for one world-class American figure skater who would very much like to be standing a head or two above him on the medal stand, and who, until two years ago, owned Lysacek. His name is Johnny Weir, and he is everything that the sweet, athletic, midwestern, all-American Lysacek is not—an outspoken, glam, sexually ambiguous, artistic renegade. Lysacek's fans think Weir is a brat. Weir's fans think Lysacek is a bore. It's Kris Allen vs. Adam Lambert. On ice. And it's a rivalry—part hype, part reality, and 100 percent publicity tool—that skating is very happy to have.
LYSACEK: "I'm trying to be wholesome!"
It can't be easy for a single 24-year-old in Los Angeles (he practices nearby in El Segundo) to live like a monk, but Lysacek's diligence and concentration border on the uncanny. "I want to know that I haven't left anything on the table," he says. "That there wasn't one night when I should have been doing cardio from eight to 10, but instead I was out with friends. So I live this lifestyle seven days a week, 24 hours a day. When I get home and say, 'Oh, I'm too tired, it's way too late for me to go out, I'm just gonna have my poached salmon and grilled vegetables and go to sleep,' my friends are like, 'Oh, poor guy!' But there's nothing in this world that makes me happier than pulling up to my house barely able to walk up the stairs and knowing that I could not have done one more bit of training that day."
A short while after the Today appearance he goes to IMG, his sports-management firm, to film promo spots for Smucker's Stars on Ice, the tour he'll join after Vancouver. I ask an IMG rep if that's a big deal. "Smaller every year," he says glumly. "This year, probably 40 cities. It used to be 60. Things are tough. But if Vancouver goes the way we hope, this could be a good year." Meaning Lysacek must win the gold. It's that simple. Handsome and lanky—at six feet two he's a full head taller than his competitors—he grew up in a small town outside Chicago loving the NHL's Blackhawks, skating to music from Top Gun, and wanting to be a Power Ranger. He is a Wheaties box waiting to happen. Likable and articulate, he has just enough edge (note the pubeward-pointing lightning-bolt tattoo below his waist) to avoid looking like a robot.
On camera, Lysacek runs through paragraphs of copy. He makes sure to say "Smucker's Stars on Ice" many times. He adjusts his warm-up jacket so that the sponsor logo is visible. When his voice slips into a kind of autopilot cadence, his publicist groans, "Terrible! Too artificial!"
"I'm trying to be wholesome!" he says, grinning. "How's this? 'We're all busy working on our programs—just for you! Are you wet with anticipation? Because we are!' "
The thing is, Lysacek actually is wholesome. The red-outlined beginning of a Greek Orthodox cross on his left biceps and a taste for extreme sports—he'd like figure skating to incorporate something like the half-pipe—are as badass as he gets, though he'd go further if he could. "Our sport is so steeped in tradition," he says, "and most of the judges are 55-plus. So you can't skate to Kanye West or Jay-Z, or skate wearing a wife beater. But why not?"
Lysacek's detractors used to write him off as a machine, long on power and short on style. A few years back, when Weir was wiping the ice with him, he says, "I got to a point where I was elite technically, but I was finishing third and second and third and second. I was like, 'What do I have to do to get to that top step?'"
The answer: Adopt some of Weir's theatrics and flair, if not his perceived excess. Lysacek promptly went to work with a world-class ice choreographer, educated himself about classical music and the emotional expressiveness of dance, and enlisted Wang, the noted dress designer, to costume him. "There are definitely skaters who are more graceful than I am," he says, "but I'm proud of taking a big step outside my comfort zone."
WEIR: "You know, the diva bitch whore from hell."
Twenty-five miles and several light-years from Rockefeller Center, Johnny Weir is in the Ice Vault, a modest rink in Wayne, New Jersey. The banners above the empty bleachers trumpet local hockey teams like the Jersey Hitmen and the Mahwah Thunderbirds. It's hard to tell whether this blue-collar suburb even cares that it has a three-time U.S. champion in its midst. Weir took the title in 2004, '05, and '06, then lost to Lysacek in '07 and '08. Last winter, he finished fifth at the nationals and didn't even qualify for the worlds. Then he had to watch Lysacek win the world championship, something no American skater had done in more than a dozen years.
"It was very rough," Weir says. "I felt like I wanted to quit skating because I had no support." He has always had a testy relationship with the U.S. Figure Skating Association, a conservative group that hasn't taken to his streaked hair, his outrageous costumes (even for skating—they provided the inspiration for Jon Heder's look in Blades of Glory), and his tendency to speak his mind. "And I had no energy or drive. You know, it's not easy waking up every morning feeling like an 85-year-old man in a 25-year-old body." But Weir wasn't ready to accept a narrative in which Lysacek was the ascendant king of the sport while he, a mere year older, was yesterday's news. After losing to Lysacek in a squeaker in the 2008 nationals, he remarked to a reporter, "I just don't like him," and later mocked his tan, his height, his X-Games vibe, his "big white teeth." Lysacek, who has little taste for trash-talking or even discussing Weir, sneered back, belittling those who think "dressing up is like having glitter all over you—to me that's just such a joke."
Since then, Weir's answered in the way that counts, physically and psychologically reconditioning himself. In December, he was one of six male skaters in a Grand Prix event in Tokyo, a competition for which he barely qualified. Lysacek won, but Weir skated flawlessly (some suggest better than Lysacek) and finished third. Now it's full steam ahead to the nationals, which will determine if he, Lysacek, or both make the Olympic team.
But today Weir looks grim. His formidable coach, Galina Zmievskaya (mother-in-law of the great Russian champion Viktor Petrenko), is stationed on the ice, barking commands at him in Russian. Weir, stone-faced, replies in Russian (he's fluent). Because he looks lithe and almost wispy on television, the raw physical strength with which he jumps is startling to witness. (If you doubt what it takes, just try lifting yourself in the air and spinning around three times before you land on one leg. Now do it on blades—100 times.) Weir falls hard, more than once. Tersely articulated Slavic phrases fly through the air.
"You came on a bad day," he says amiably while changing in a tiny closetlike space where other skaters dump their gym bags. "She kicked me off the ice this morning." Weir is, by his own admission, a "headstrong, indignant" guy who is comically aware of his rep as "you know, the diva bitch whore from hell," but his coach is "very much the boss. I need someone stronger than me—someone to whip me into submission." It's not always easy. "I'm a 25-year-old kid, basically. If I was normal, I'd be having sex and experimenting with drugs and drinking a lot and just enjoying being a young person. But I have to be very responsible. I've been drug-tested since I was 12. I've been on a diet since I was 15." As for sex, "if you come in and even look like you had it—even if you haven't—she'll call you on it. She'll say, 'No sex, not even with your hand!' It's crazy! If one person in Russia lost a competition in 1902 because he had sex, it'll filter down to me. Because skating never changes."
It is hard not to love Weir, in part because he is so completely uninterested in being loved by America's sports-industrial complex. He's just all wrong. Although he grew up in Pennsylvania and Delaware and is close to his family, he is completely "obsessed with the mystery and romanticism" of pre-Soviet-era Russia and is passionate about Russian ballet; he even wears a red-and-white RUSSIA warm-up jacket. Lysacek wants to be Roger Federer; Weir stars in his own Sundance Channel reality show, Be Good Johnny Weir, skates to "Poker Face," and reports delightedly that he has now met "the Gaga." Lysacek practices morning to night; Weir puts in four, maybe five hours a day, saying bluntly, "I don't want to spend my life on an ice cube." Lysacek is monomaniacal and disdains multitasking: Weir lives on his cell phone and tweets and loves fashion and music and lists his favorite films and bars and boutiques and jewelry on his web site.
Oh, one more thing: Lysacek, who used to date skater Tanith Belbin, still wears the ring an ex-girlfriend gave him, and although Weir ostensibly keeps his sexuality under wraps, really, it's a mystery only in the sense that if JOHNN WEIR IS GA were a puzzle on Wheel of Fortune, it would still, technically, be unsolved. As inspiring as Lysacek's preternatural concentration, poise, and humility are, Weir's defiant, witty, "I am who I am" stance is a welcome finger in the eye of every homophobe who has ever decided that skating needs butching up. As he saunters into the Ice Vault's snack bar after practice, clad in full footballer's-wife regalia—shiny gold boots, purple leather gloves, a calf-length fur coat that draws the wistful caresses of a female Russian Olympic hopeful, fur earmuffs, and oversize Jackie O sunglasses—'s like David Bowie as the Man Who Fell to Jersey. Three spotty teenage boys by the video games look unsure whether they should beat him up or ask for his autograph. "I love walking through this place looking like this and scaring the hockey people," he deadpans. "Although I do get called 'Ma'am' more often than I'd like."
THE RIVALS: "We've been pigeonholed."
Men's figure skating has always attracted gay men, and it has always been a target of South Park-style homophobic derision. This has led to a battle between those who think the sport needs to lose the frills— be de-gayed, if you will— those who believe that the style and artistry of skating are just as important as the horsepower required to land a quadruple jump. So The Evan and Johnny Show has become The Dude vs. the Diva, and even though both guys get that gimmicks sell, they take pains to say that whatever's between them, it isn't personal, let alone a battle of the sexualities. "I think we've matured," says Weir. "We both understand that hating on somebody isn't going to give you what you want." In December, when Weir arrived in his Tokyo hotel room for the Grand Prix, the door to the next room opened and there was Lysacek—"Sir Lysacek," as Weir tweeted. "I'll try to keep it down," Weir told him. "We speak," Weir says. "I mean, we're fine. I accept all of his weirdness and he accepts mine. I think."
"You know, I get it. I'm the flamboyant, sparkly one over here," Weir adds. "And he's the hardworking American over there. And that's how we've been pigeonholed. But I'm more than that, and he is too. He has this sweet and endearing side—I mean, to be 13 feet tall and a figure skater, you have to work your ass off! And he does."
"I used to complain all the time, 'Why can't I be short like all the other guys?' " says Lysacek, laughing. And he's willing to give credit where it's due: "That rivalry," he says, "made me look at every aspect of my skating and say, 'I don't just want to beat him. I want to beat every one of these guys. Now, how am I going to do it?' "
The clock is running on The Evan and Johnny Show. Both men know they are aging out of the sport, so Vancouver is likely their last really big moment together. At the national championships, held in mid-January in Spokane, Washington, Lysacek, who skates his long program in a costume that makes him look like Black Spidey, finishes second, and Weir, in a costume that makes him look like a Rockette in a corset, finishes third. But both take care of business—they make the U.S. Olympic team. After the competition, Lysacek vows in a Facebook status update that he's going to "lock myself in the rink until Vancouver." Meanwhile, Weir tweets "Vancouver here I come. Thank God . . . I promise to show better skating at the Olympics!"—but his Facebook picture is now a poster for Be Good Johnny Weir, with a shirtless Weir striking a pose in stiletto heels and sequined capris with the slogan "Bad has never been so good for skating's favorite drama queen." In other words, Lysacek is Lysacek, and Weir is Weir. And the real question is whether figure skating is big enough for both of them.