Q&A: Evan Lysacek

The gold-medal winner in figure skating at Vancouver's 2010 Olympics celebrates his sport in the current 25th annual Smucker's Stars on Ice tour, and looks forward to 2014.

 

Evan Lysacek appears with the Smucker's Stars on Ice 25th Anniversary Tour April 9 at the Webster Bank Arena at Harbor Yard in Bridgeport. For information on the show, call (203) 345-2300 or visit websterbankarena.com.

Do you get to Connecticut much?

Yes, I do. I have some friends who live in Greenwich so I've been there several times. And I've been to Bridgeport for Stars on Ice definitely twice, maybe even more than that. I'm looking forward to coming back.

And this time, it's going to be the last stop on the Stars on Ice tour.

I think it's the first year for that. It's the 25th anniversary tour, and the last show is always special, so I'm sure this will be a special celebration too. It always has to do with the crowd; we're looking forward to a great show.

Can you give us a preview of what the show will be like?

What makes the show unique is that the cast spans so many generations of skating. A lot of skaters are back after many years hiatus from touring. Kurt Browning is back,  Ekaterina Gordeeva, Dave Pelletier—it kind of reads like a Who's Who of champion skaters who have performed in Stars on Ice in the past. Scott Hamilton is even involved with the show again. And then, added to that mix you have all the stars from Vancouver, like Joanie Rochette, who was such a big story. Her mom passed away right before she skated, and she did a great job, shocked everyone and won a bronze medal. All in all, we represent just many many generations of great skating.

When you all get together in a project like this, do you swap war stories with each other?

Yeah, a little bit. We all make fun of each other. Skaters in general are a little bit self-deprecating. We share stories for sure, but what's cool is it's such an individual sport; so it's great to have a project where we all collaborate and bring something a little different to the table.

You're now the No. 1-ranked figure skater in the world, and you've just won a couple of additional awards, one from the U.S. Olympic Committee, and the Thurman Munson Award . . .

The latter is primarily awarded for team sports, so I was really honored to be included. They usually honor four to six athletes a year, depending on what kind of sports year it was . . . so for them to include me really meant a lot. It was fun to go and interact with different athletes in different sports. Right now actually, and I don't know when this piece is going to run, I'm also a finalist for the Sullivan Award, which goes to best amateur athlete in the country. That's a public vote, people can participate at usatoday.com. [Editor's note: He won.]

What is this tour like for you? I imagine there's pressure involved, but that it's a different kind of pressure than competition . . .

Yeah, there's a little bit of pressure, but it's only because the tricks I do are the ones I did when competing in the Olympics. They're difficult. It's physically just as demanding a program though it doesn't have as many tricks. It is very demanding and I want to do a good job for the crowd. I think what I bring to the table is that I'm fresh off the Olympics and can show the audience Olympic-style competition. It's sort of like bringing the games to them and letting them see them live. So I do put some pressure on myself, but luckily I thrive under it. And I've done quite a few other projects since the Olympics, so it's good to be back on the ice doing what I do best. I don't take that for granted; I appreciate being able to do that and skate every night.

What kind of schedule do you maintain now to keep fit?

My regimen is a lot different now than it was in the two-year run up to the Olympics. That was about four hours of working out in a gym every day, plus four to five hours on the ice. I'd start at 8 a.m.—my first workout was 8-10—then I'd practice on the ice from 11-4 or 4:45, then I'd be in the gym again from 5-6:45. It was a full day, extremely grueling, to log as many hours as any professional athlete. And now, it's very different—we arrive at the rink a few hours before the show, take a couple of hours of practice, but I try to make the show itself my main workout of the day, because I want to save as much energy as I can for that.

You haven't competed since Vancouver. Are you planning to compete in the 2014 Olympics?

My decision about whether I'll go back into competition has to be made by the end of this year. Three years seems like a long time to plan, but it's really going to pass quickly. I'm trying to make the decision and weigh my options. I just love to compete, and I miss it. I think at this point that's a good sign, that the desire is still there. As for the rest of it, I'd have to wait until I got back into training to see if I'm good enough.

There's some strategy involved in skating now that the judging has just sort of changed. You can physically plan a program numerically at least and see how it stacks up to what the other guys are doing. Watching this year's world championships will be very telling. [Ed. Note: At this time, an announcement regarding the rescheduling and relocation of the World Championships, originally planned for March 21-27 in Tokyo, is still pending.] I think I'll just kind of watch and see how I would have fared had I competed, and if I can get better than I was. Because the sport will definitely progress and move forward, in what ways I'm not exactly sure. But I have to make sure I can keep up.

At the 2010 Olympics, an issue arose concerning the quad jump. Is there more pressure to include that as a technical part of the competitive program?

The quad itself is really dangerous, but as far as difficulty goes, it's really not that much more difficult than the other elements that we do—it's a half-a-turn more. But it's just very dangerous. For me, I mean, it was very dangerous because I broke my foot training it and that was  an injury that never really healed for me. It wasn't necessarily a calculation to not do it, more of a health risk I didn't want to take and risk ruining my whole Olympic game. Now, they've increased the value of it to appease certain countries that were pushing very hard for that. But this season, it still has not been a determining factor for those that win and lose. So I don't really see it as being more important than it was in Vancouver; I think it'll have the same level of importance it did there.

If you were a painter who could represent in painting the way that you skate, what would it look like?

I do paint sometimes; I have some of my own work hanging in my house. It's all very minimalist. That's kind of my style and my taste. It's the kind of movement that I appreciate; it's something that's three-dimensional and interesting, but not in your face. That's actually been a challenge all my career, to appeal to people who appreciate subtlety, because I don't think my choreography and my programs and my style —I wear pretty simple clothing on the ice—are what people normally identify with figure skating.

Tell me about this new documentary you're in, Rise. When and how will it be released?

The movie had a one-day nationwide release on Feb. 17, with a big premiere in New York City. Many theaters sold out, and the ticket demands were so overwhelming for them that they had an encore presentation March 7. It will be released on DVD; you can check out rise1961.com for more information.

What was your role in it?

The film commemorates the 50th anniversary of a tragic plane crash that pretty much wiped our entire sport out. It was the single most devastating accident in sports history; it didn't just wipe out athletes but also took the lives of all the coaches and our governing body in skating. Suddenly the entire sport was gone, in the United States at least. The movie talks about that, but then shows the rebuild. Because of a couple of story lines in the film, you can see that my win made the 50-year story come full circle. I do have a link through my coach, Frank Carroll, directly to some of the victims of the plane crash. So that's touched upon, as well as my own success in Vancouver and my relationship with my coach. I also did all of the skating involved in the film; there are scenes that are edited and cut with footage of jumps and spins and blades.

How was your coach linked to the crash?

His coach, teacher and adoptive mother, Maribel Vinson-Owen—he lived with her and her two children—was killed in the crash, as were her kids, so he lost what was, to him, his family.

You've done a little acting. Is that something you'd eventually like to pursue?

So far, the only acting I've done has been what comes to me. I've lived in Los Angeles long enough to become a little bit jaded about acting, because everyone there seems to be an actor. But it is a great art form, and something that I enjoy and appreciate very much. I like movies a lot. There have been many sleepless nights in Italy or Japan—wherever I'm traveling—when I just watch movies over and over again and start to memorize the lines. From that, the media has turned it into "I love acting." But I really do appreciate it a lot, and something I've thought about pursuing or studying a little bit further.

What are your favorite movies?

Anything Quentin Tarantino has directed I like a lot. And I was fortunate enough to meet him during the Oscars last year, because it was right after the Olympics. I got his take on skating, which was very interesting. I like Wes Anderson's films as well. I like a lot of dialect and a lot of character study, maybe because it's more emotional to watch. It's more enjoyable to watch that kind of film than a big blockbuster.

Do you think there's ever been a skating movie that really captures the sport?

No. It's really a brutal sport, and misunderstood quite a bit. That's easy when you only see four minutes of it. We're so well-prepared we make everything look easy, because that's the only way we can win. What goes into it is not really accurately portrayed. But I did enjoy the film Black Swan. That, to me, was really accurate and close to portraying what it means to be an individual athlete. Ballet is a very different sport from skating, but I saw a lot of similarities and I wish someone would do a film kind of like that. Show the harsh realities and honest truth of what we go through—the fear and insecurity, the desperation, the fact that there isn't room for anything but perfection.

Maybe it hasn't been shown because we rely on sports movies for inspiration and uplift.

I agree with that very much. And when you have a small window of opportunity as athletes to talk to the media about your experience, you always want to highlight the positive. But there have been some attempts in movies and reality shows to capture skating, but the problem is that they've chosen the personalities that are the loudest and the most like those who are parodied.

A few years ago there was a reality show—I don't remember what network it was on—that depicted a few girls trying to make the Olympic team; it showed some of the struggle that they went through, and a little bit of the financial crisis their families faced. But they didn't dive deeply enough into it, and they didn't have athletes who were realistic contenders for the team. There's so much focus and it's so secretive, what goes into it, that those athletes at the top would never really let the cameras into their lives to show that stuff. But I think it's an opportunity to show something really interesting. I'm glad you brought it up. It's a project I'd somehow like to figure out how to develop.

Would you be comfortable being the person spotlighted in such a reality show?

That I don't know, because I've never really allowed it before. It's not like what I do is so secretive, but I've never allowed even a little bit of it to be shown. And it's not something that I've talked about that much. I'd have to think about it—it'd be an adjustment for the third time in competition if I let someone in.

You're involved with a number of charitable organizations, particularly involving kids. I wonder if there's one that's been most meaningful to you.

Figure Skating in Harlem is particularly special because it's very relevant to my life. I get to work with kids who are really bright, really ambitious, but also love skating. That's cool for me.

Ronald McDonald House is great because it's something I can do in my spare time: drop by and hang out with the families who are staying or living there. This year, I've worked with Help USA; that has become really important to me because of the current unemployment situation in this country—it's a different organization, not just providing meals and shelter but also life-training to help those who have sort of lost their way to re-enter the real world and regain their ability to stand on their own two feet.

 Similarly, Figure Skating in Harlem really seems to be about helping young women develop life skills through skating . . .

Girls start at different points in their lives; most start pretty young. The program takes them out of one of the absolutely worst school systems in the country and gives them private tutoring. It combines great teachers and great classes together with skating lessons on the ice; they learn to skate as a team and individually as well. What they learn from skating is discipline and persistence. The education they're getting at the same time is impeccable; something their own school system could never compete with. Most of their households could never afford to send them to private schools, but through this program, some of the girls end up getting high school scholarships to the most elite private schools in Manhattan and graduate to go on to work at Merrill-Lynch, prestigious law firms and finance companies. Almost all of them go on to university, some at Ivy League schools. The success rate is incredible.

One of its biggest annual events, "Skating with the Stars," takes place April 4 at Wollman Rink in Central Park. It's a big skating party; the girls perform for everyone. A lot of alumni and celebrities attend. Tickets are available at figureskatinginharlem.org. I wouldn't miss it.

Every time my family sits down to watch figure skating on TV, we all laugh at how terrible we ourselves were as skaters. As kids, our skates weren't laced properly, they never fit, and so on. How do you help people deal with these issues, doubts about their ability?

Well, I was the same as your family when I started: I had no natural ability on the ice, and just wasn't coordinated. For me, it came in time, but it was a lot of hard work. I try to help girls with their technique, but the main way I can help is just encouragement and relating to them. I tell them, "You're way ahead of where I was at 8 or 9"— they laugh at me, but it's true. If you really work at something, technique really isn't the main factor. It's just determination.

What about fear of the ice? People have to grapple with that, too, right? A fear of falling.

Sure. And it's hard to get back on the ice when you've had a really bad accident. That's something that doesn't necessarily go away—the fear of it. When I'm working on a quad or triple Axel and I fall 10 times, then it's hard to get back to that trick the next day because I remember how badly it hurt the day before. Or if you fall on your triple Lutz in competition, then no matter how hard you try during the rest of your routine, it's in the back of your mind that you fell. The fear factor is very much a part of the sport; it just shows itself in different ways.

Finally, I've wondered how you would deal with this question, because it's still a belief some people hold: What would you say to someone who finds male figure skating "unmasculine?"

It kind of gets back to what we were talking about before: In the media, the sport gets portrayed in an inaccurate way. People can only judge what they see and what they think they know. That's why I just wish someone would show what the sport is really like. I've trained with other professional athletes in L.A., the Lakers and the Kings, and I've never heard comments like "skating is a girl's sport" or that it's "not hard." Because they all understand and we have a mutual respect for each other. If you don't see that side you don't know, all you see is every four years is the music and costumes and the trappings that are hard to look beyond. You think that's what the sport is.

Q&A: Evan Lysacek

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