How Johnny Weir, Tara Lipinski became the breakout stars of Sochi
Ice dancers Meryl Davis and Charlie White earned gold in Sochi, so we’ll say the second best performance delivered by U.S. figure skaters at the 2014 Winter Olympics was Johnny Weir and Tara Lipinski, who joined play-by-play announcer Terry Gannon in the booth. The trio have since been named NBC Sports Group’s new lead figure skating broadcast team, which means they’ll be calling the action through the 2018 Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea.
We chatted with Weir and Lipinski to learn five secrets to their Sochi success.
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1. The fashion, of course.
Johnny Weir: When we were preparing [to leave for Sochi], I was of course running all over the place grabbing clothes and jewelry from different people that I was borrowing from, and Tara was doing very much the same thing. But we didn’t actually have a clear plan of attack as to how we were going to look on camera. I mean, we’re both pretty fashionable people, and the way we dress and the way we appear to the world is of course very important to us because we are entertainers after all. But once we were in Sochi and we had the adjoining rooms, we had the unpacking moment where we did the full rundown of what we brought—luckily our tastes are quite similar in certain ways, and we have things that would go together, match. We’d create a theme for each day and the whole fashion side—which I think was almost as followed as the skating and what we were saying on camera—was just by luck.
The pink day (pictured) was a really great day for both of us…Tara in her rose crown and the muted pink and me in the vintage Chanel. It shocked a lot of people’s sense because there we were both in pink and we were reporting on figure skating. Tara and I so respect the art of dressing. We also respect our hair designers and our makeup artists, so we were able to have fun every day with these masterful people getting us camera-ready. Now, we know that we have to deliver every time, so we try to prepare at least a little bit in advance. But in Sochi it was just God saying, “You kids will match today.”
Tara Lipinski: I don’t think that we’ve ever not matched. It was funny, [in October] when we announced our promotion, if you will, we were on the Today show. Johnny was traveling, and I was traveling, and we all of a sudden realized, “Oh, my goodness, in a day we have to be the Today show,” and we kind of thought through colors, but we didn’t speak about exactly what we were bringing. And I showed up, and I had to get a different dress, and he’s like, “I had to do a different outfit as well.” We unzipped the secret wardrobe and we both picked gray. I mean, just moments like that.
Weir: The way that good lady friends sort of line up with their menstruation cycle, Tara and I have the same fashion cycle. (Both laugh.) So we don’t really have to even talk about it, we just sort of show up in the same thing.
2. A shared goal.
Lipinski: We bonded because we were the rookies, and we had a lot to prove. Sometimes you meet a person, and you just know that you’re going to be fast friends, and it was just that feeling of comfort, just knowing that we were in this together. We wanted to impress NBC, and we wanted to impress the audience.
Weir: We love our sport, and I think both of us, our main objective going to Sochi and being live on national television every day of competition, was to bring figure skating back to people so that they could understand what they were watching. We both take it very seriously—because it’s what we dedicated our lives to, how we grew up, and we wanted people to appreciate what they’re watching—and we also had an obligation to entertain. So, just having that common mindset going in was so helpful because there wasn’t one-upmanship. There wasn’t us trying to push our own personal agendas. We both were all about the skating.
3. Trust in Uncle Terry.
Weir: Sometimes as skaters, we can get very intricate, and Terry had a great way of pulling it back even when I was just watching skating before I was on TV skating myself. I so respect Terry’s voice, and the amount of years he’s put into our sport, and the fact that he actually has learned what the world of figure skating is like and how we roll. Something that is hard for skaters, because the world is so small—and it’s the same in fashion or in film—is that you never really know who you can trust. Even when Tara and I first got to know each other—we didn’t know each other really prior, aside from like, “Hi,” “Bye.” It’s really hard to build that trust, and Terry certainly has had our backs since the beginning. He supported us 100 percent, and we don’t do our job justice if we don’t have Terry with us. Terrence is like “Uncle Terry”: He keeps us in check, and we talk about all of our issues and all of our problems. In Sochi, we were always trying to be better, and he was always there to offer advice and just let us know how he thought we were doing. Ultimately, I felt that I wanted to make Terrence and Tara proud with every day. So to have that relationship is very special and unique, and we’re going to hold onto that until we die.
Lipinski: Johnny and I have a very distinct way of commentating—it’s very conversational, which hasn’t really been done before in figure skating. If you look back over the years, we kind of do it much differently, and thank goodness people liked that, but it could’ve been an issue if Terry wasn’t easygoing and also so smart and could just sit and pull the best things out of what we were watching and how we interacted. We wanted to try new things, test the waters, push things as far as we could—but we should run it by Uncle Terry.
Weir: Terry would be able to tell us, “Oh, this is where you should kind of pull back a little bit more, and this is where you should just let them skate.” The great thing about our experience in Sochi was that we had hours of time [doing live commentary on NBCSN], so even in the same show, we would start one way and end a different way after we talked during commercial breaks. Because it was a cable network, and because there were such long periods of time to fill at times, we were given a lot more freedom than you would be given on a primetime broadcast. I think that freedom gave us the opportunity to really settle into what we were doing and settle into our styles as broadcasters. We just really started to be aware of the technique of talking over a live, beautiful performance with its own special moments and respect.
4. The cough button.
Weir: Our best friend while we’re sitting in the booth is the cough button. The cough button is like the mute button. When you’re on live TV and you have to cough, you hit this button so you can cough comfortably and then you go back on air. Tara and I both get slap-happy, so we would say something, and because we know each other so well, we would know that it was kind of an underhanded compliment or a well-hidden dis, and we would start laughing hysterically and we would have to hold the cough button down. Terry had to not laugh and cover us.
We were on the long side of the ice rink, and being the rookie team, we were in a small box and grouped in with all the other media. [Because of] our outfits and makeup, which we thought were pretty much just for the American public that was seeing us face-to-face on camera, we stood out apparently, and by day number three, people were taking candid photos and videos of us doing our job. I feel like part of the joy of our commentary was those hidden cameras in the building—us just reacting to things we said, and getting it back together, and then talking again like professionals and trying to be as respectful as possible.
Lipinski: Remember that one time? It was so long that I thought, “This is it, we’re getting fired.”
Weir: Tara and I were very lucky—and we will be very lucky—to commentate ice dance because it’s a beautiful sport. But there are funny words. “Twizzles” are kind of like a spin, but you travel while you’re doing it. You have to do side-by-side twizzles. We literally worked from morning until night every day in Sochi, so once you get tired enough, anything is funny. So I’m absolutely positive it was a twizzle moment that we had to hold the mute button for the entire performance.
I think maybe that’s the answer, that there is no answer. It’s just one of those, like Johnny said, it’s a perfect storm and everything coming together and having not just a working companion, but having a best friend. It’s rare.
Lipinski: I can vividly see that time that I came into Johny’s room, and it was probably the third day, because we got that text message, a flurry of emails, and then our Instagram followers were going up by the thousands. I’m like, “Johnny, what is happening? How did we get so many followers overnight? This is so strange.” So, it just happened very quickly. The Instagram cracks me up to this day because we really didn’t think anyone would ever see it. It was definitely for us. We had some free time on our hands before we actually were in the booth, so we were just being silly, and it’s just very funny that people started to catch on and follow us.
Weir: We certainly didn’t cultivate this to happen, and it just was a perfect storm. As soon as we started to see the likes on Instagram go up on our videos and our photos and our fashion choices, we knew we had the pressure of bringing it every day. But for the most part we totally took an athlete’s perspective and we went, we did our job, we went back to the hotel, we rested a little bit, and then we were back to work immediately. So, there was very little time to dwell on the fact that we were killing it.