Tara Lipinski and Johnny Weir Are Ready to Rule the Winter Olympics Again

Tom Weir@@tomweirsportsFeatured ColumnistFebruary 10, 2018

Johnny Weir and Tara Lipinski will be NBC's lead team for figure skating at the Winter Olympics.
Johnny Weir and Tara Lipinski will be NBC's lead team for figure skating at the Winter Olympics.Elsa/Getty Images

Tara Lipinski and Johnny Weir have had such instant impact as figure skating analysts for NBC that it's easy to forget the two broadcasting rookies were no more than a B team when they stole the show at the Sochi Olympics four years ago.

NBC had promised to air all of the figure skating live, and because of the time difference between the U.S. and Russia, the network needed a daytime crew. Those backups would handle the live action at midday, while the regular crew put together the prime-time package.

Little did anyone realize that NBC was about to hit the broadcasting lottery.

They had instant comedic harmony, with their casual chatter and humorous asides playing amazingly well against the staunch and exacting backdrop of figure skating, where obsessive coaches and choreographers leave no detail to chance.

They also had a great bottom line, generating the 10 best weekday daytime audiences in the network's history. That performance earned a promotion to prime time for this month's Pyeongchang Olympics.

"Some commentators stand on opposite sides of the booth, and they don't even look at each other," Weir says disdainfully. "Tara and I sit in each other's laps."

Lipinski also exudes the glamor and charm that helped her capture Olympic gold way back in 1998 as a 15-year-old dynamo. Weir, a three-time U.S. champion, has a sky-high bouffant and a wardrobe that makes NBC's multicolored peacock logo look comparatively drab.

But their pairing wasn't a stroke of genius from some NBC executive. As odd as it sounds now, NBC originally didn't even plan to have the two on the air together at Sochi.

Both were to work separately with anchor Terry Gannon, with Lipinski assigned to the ladies' event and Weir to the men. But Lipinski and Weir came up with a better plan as they got to know each other at pre-Olympic events.

"I think the moment when Johnny, Terry and I sat down, something magical did happen and there was this instant chemistry," Lipinski says. "We found this banter that was very conversational, and we started to realize that was working. We were laughing. We had the chemistry. We just wanted to be a team, so we went to NBC and said 'hey, can we try this?'"

NBC consented, and the way was cleared for their mix of spontaneity and eccentricity. The budding friendship also tightened because Weir was going through a messy divorce at the time, and he leaned on Lipinski for support while in Sochi.

"I can look at him and immediately know what he's thinking and finish his sentences," Lipinski says. "It's one of those things that I think makes for a seamless broadcast and makes it lot of fun, to be able to work with your friend."

That kinship, they both say, is seldom seen in the often bitterly competitive world of figure skating.

"We don't trust easily, coming from figure skating," says Weir, who often clashed with skating officials as a competitor. "We're all sort of in it for ourselves and our own gold medals, and to work as a team is something that isn't natural for us. But Tara and I got very lucky."

Lipinski and Weir understand that 99.9 percent of their audience doesn't want a lecture on the difference between Lutz and Salchow jumps. They keep the forensic analysis of leaps to a tolerable minimum but welcome the chance to address their sport's gossipy nuances, like ever-present politics and questionable judging.

Says Lipinski, diplomatically, "We love and respect our sport, but you know there are some quirky things that go along with it, and if you don't point them out it's not as fun."

Weir is more direct, saying, "There are going to be uber fans of certain skaters who don't skate well, but you really can't put lipstick on a pig."

Weir strives for TV ratings as intensely as he once vied for high numbers from judges.

Lipinski and Weir have taken their offbeat style to the Kentucky Derby.
Lipinski and Weir have taken their offbeat style to the Kentucky Derby.Gustavo Caballero/Getty Images

"We're in the age of reality television, and everyone has their own reality show, and kids today grow up with reality TV," Weir says. "So if you lie to your audience, they'll just click to another channel where they can see a Kardashian getting a wax of some sort."

They have picked up additional NBC assignments at the Super Bowl, the Kentucky Derby and the Oscars. They get adjoining hotel rooms so they can easily confer on each day's fashion choices. Except for a no-fur rule, anything goes, especially for Weir.

One of the rare times Lipinski took issue, Weir says, was when he dressed like "a patent leather cocoon."

At 35, Lipinski is only two years older than Weir, yet their skating careers never intersected.

Weir was 12 when he skated for the first time on a frozen cornfield in Amish country in Pennsylvania, an incredibly late start for someone who rose to world-class levels.

Lipinski quickly moved on to professional ice shows after winning her gold and was long gone from Olympic-style competitions by the time Weir won his first U.S. championship in 2004.

Weir missed out on the temporary boom skating enjoyed after the Nancy Kerrigan-Tonya Harding saga and feels lucky to have a continuing career in a sport whose popularity has waned.

"Skating is very much like fashion. It comes in and out," Weir says. "There are so many skaters from my era who are in a no-place town at a no-place rink teaching skating, and that's really the only opportunity there was for them."

It's safe to say Weir is the only Olympic analyst to show up for work wearing a hot pink Chanel blazer. But he readily admits his broadcasting style is a knockoff of how Dick Button famously critiqued the sport for a half-century. As a competitor, Weir was always filled with reverence and fear as he waited to hear Button's reviews.

"I have so much respect for him, but he could get snarky, and he could get nasty," Weir says. "And it would hit you right in the heart, because you want a little softness from the commentators that are calling the most important moments of your life.

"But if you weren't good, Dick wasn't going to give you the softness you were looking for. He was keeping it real and honest about the mistakes you made, and what was ugly and what was beautiful. I try and do the same thing."

Their sometimes brutal straightforwardness has already earned them some critiques, but count Button as a fan. On a recent teleconference with Olympic reporters said, "I think both of them are excellent."

But staying true to form, Button added: "I think Johnny Weir is very bright. He does not overstep his bounds. Tara Lipinski might talk a little too much."

Lipinski is indeed the chattier of the two, but they both have the good sense to stay silent when a skater is on an elegant and error-free roll. Weir also has a gift for creating strong mental images with concise statements.

Referencing the lesser role that the man has in pairs skating, Weir will say, "He is the stem for her flower."

Pointing out that European pairs are smart about continuity and form partnerships that last forever, he'll say, "They're like penguins."

And being like penguins also describes what's happened with Lipinski and Weir, who figure to gracefully waddle side by side for many Olympics to come.

           

Tom Weir covered eight Winter Olympics as a columnist for USA Today.

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