Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Four minutes of brilliance in front of the world

Terry, Tara and Johnny / Candid, colorful, compelling.

"Along with Tara Lipinksi and Johnny Weir, I'm Terry Gannon, the one wearing the suit."

One of the joys of the Sochi Winter Olympics on TV for me has been watching the live figure skating competition, which airs here in the U.S. during the morning hours on NBCSN. At times, it's been outlandish and outspoken, but thanks to the candid and colorful commentary of Tara Lipinski and Johnny Weir, it's made for compelling viewing. And, thanks to Weir, every day we're rewarded with a fabulous fashion show, too.

If you've only been watching NBC's limited -- and heavily edited -- prime-time coverage featuring veteran commentator Tom Hammond partnered with choreographer Sandra Bezic and former Olympic champion Scott Hamilton, which focuses only on the Americans and the top skaters shown on tape hours after they've skated, you've been missing out on all of the fun.

The live coverage airing on NBCSN (NBC Sports Network), with the trio of commentator Terry Gannon, and Lipinksi and Weir, showcases each session from start to finish -- every skater from best to worst -- and the fun also includes getting to see Weir's flamboyant wardrobe come to life. It may be morning in the States, but in Sochi where it's nine hours ahead of New York and 12 hours ahead of San Francisco, it's night time -- and the stars are shining brightly, on and off the ice.

Weir, 29, who is openly gay, enjoys being free and open in sharing his opinion about what's happening on and off the ice -- including being critical of Russia's LGBT laws. The two-time Olympian's wardrobe choices have included a bright pink Chanel blazer for Valentine's Day that accentuated a lace top underneath and a gold brooch around his collar. Another day, he wore a Kelly green jacket with a matching tiara. Most days, he's the one wearing the most jewelry and sporting the loudest hairdo.

One day last week, Lipinski, 31, wore charming flowers in her hair, and for Valentine's Day, her attire featured a lovely blouse with little pink hearts. On some days, Lipinski and Weir coordinate their appearances. There's a wonderful spark between them. They're fun and energetic.

Meanwhile, Gannon is the one who is simply attired in dark suits and skinny neckties. And, sometimes, he's the one with the best throw-away lines. During Monday's broadcast, Gannon described American ice dancer Evan Bates' wardrobe by tossing out this pop culture gem: "That's the second puffy shirt from Seinfeld we've seen tonight."

Tara Lipinski and Johnny Weir
One thing that I've found refreshing about both Weir and Lipinski, who won an Olympic gold medal at age 15 at the Nagano Games in 1998, is that both of them are extremely knowledgeable about figure skating -- its history, its artistry and its social dynamics -- and they offer a fresh and thoughtful perspective as former champion skaters without being arrogant. An added bonus: They talk in a friendly, conversational tone of voice. Neither feels compelled to shout to be heard and they play off of each other well.

On the ice dancing rivalry between Canadians Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, who won the gold medal at the 2010 Vancouver Games, and their chief rivals and 2010 silver medalists, Americans Meryl Davis and Charlie White, Lipinski said: "Obviously, they have great respect for each other, but they're competitors." 

Weir knows all the competitors thoroughly, can anticipate what's going through their minds as they skate, and what it takes to win. "It's going to be such a showdown. Meryl and Charlie seem to have such an advantage. It's going to come down to what happens today."

Not since the legendary Dick Button has there been an American figure skating commentator like Weir, who's been unafraid to express his opinion -- even if it sometimes upsets the figure skating community.

Tara and Johnny /
A mischievous rapport.
The camaraderie and chemistry that Weir and Lipinski bring to their broadcast -- one critic described it as a "mischievous rapport" -- has been a joy.

"It's a Michael Jackson kind of night," said Weir, after the American ice dancing siblings, Maia and Alex Shibutani, became the second team to dance to a Michael Jackson medley during Monday night's free dance.

As much as I enjoy listening to the BBC's insightful and, at times, bubbly commentary offered by Sue Barker and Robin Cousins -- I've been listening to the British duo live online while taping Weir and Lipinski for later viewing -- I feel both Tara and Johnny have found just the right mix in offering enough technical expertise to educate their viewers in what they are seeing while also knowing the value of silence, something that Bezic, Hamilton and ice dancing analyst Tracy Wilson haven't learned or shown during NBC's prime-time broadcasts from the Iceberg Skating Palace.

After Virtue and Moir's elegant and heartfelt performance, a display of ease and unison skated to the music by Russian composers Alexander Glazunov and Alexander Scriabin, here's how Lipinksi, Weir and Gannon summarized it so succinctly:

Tara: "That was flawless. Their performance wrapped up their career so perfectly. It was effortless and smooth."

Johnny: "It was impeccable. The whole arena was silent soaking it all up. It was a beautiful, pitch-perfect moment. Their performance painted a beautiful picture."

Terry: "Their 114.66 is the best score we've ever seen."

Sometimes, letting a figure skater's performance talk -- as Gannon, Lipinski and Weir did during Monday's ice dancing final when they remained silent for four minutes during both Virtue and Moir's beautiful free skate as well as the impeccable and energetic gold medal performance by Davis and White -- speaks volumes.

As they took the ice, Gannon very tersely set the scene for Davis and White's free skate as the cameras zoomed in close on the Americans, who've skated together 18 years: "They've been dreaming about this moment since coming together as kids on ice growing up in Michigan."

Then, Davis and White exuded a dramatic tension of love and escape in skating to "Scheherazade." They engaged the judges, the fans and, just as importantly, a world-wide TV audience.

After Davis and White concluded their four minutes of brilliance in front of the world, culminating in the first gold medal by an American ice dancing couple, here's how Gannon, Lipinski and Weir described what had just happened:

Terry: "Four minutes to gold and it's over; not in their hands right now."

Tara: "Terry, when you think about it, Torvill and Dean are the most famous names in ice dancing. But, Charlie and Meryl are going to carry that same weight with what they're doing for U.S. ice dancing now. That program was pure perfection. ... So much pressure."

Johnny: "The pressure was so intense and they handled it beautifully. They fought the whole way through that performance. You could see it in the last minute. Charlie doing those very expressive stop and spins, stop and spins. ... "Whew! It was breathless. When you go for a gold medal, you fight for it."

Terry: "Three times Americans have medaled at the Olympics in ice dance. In 1976, then it wasn't until 2006 with Belbin and Agosto the silver, and in 2010 Davis and White with the silver medal. This right now, was it a gold medal performance? The number they need to win is 112.11. There's only one time that they haven't reached that moment."

Tara: "Every moment of their program was so precise. From the finger tips to the toes, the emotion telling the story of 'Sheherazade.'"

Johnny: "When you're a team, this is what you're all about. You're all about this moment. It's hard to explain to people that haven't been there. That amount of pressure. Four years of your life down to four minutes in front of the world. If one little thing goes wrong, then you completely lose the last four years of your life. (Davis and White) owned it. They fought from top to bottom."

Tara: "You have to stay in the moment." 

After a brief pause, the scores for Davis and White are finally announced to the crowd at the Palace and to the world-wide audience tuned in. They scored 116.63 points, for an overall score of 195.52. The crowd erupts in thunderous applause for the winners. Hugs for all in the kiss-and-cry box.

Terry: "A U.S. ice dance team will stand atop the podium. Meryl Davis and Charlie White are the gold medalists.

Tara: "They're Olympic champions."

Johnny: "They were stunning. They deserved it. It wasn't a political weirdness situation that we've come to think of when we come to ice dancing. They earned it. This night was so special. I can't remember the last time I sat through a whole free dance -- and I loved it! I loved every second of it. They entertained, they wowed us. We marveled at the lifts and the spins and the beauty. It was just so enjoyable."

During a recent USA Today interview, Weir wore his feelings for figure skating on his sleeve. "We take great responsibility for what we say and how we teach people about the sport," he said. "Honestly, as a broadcaster, all I want is for people to skate so well that we're struck dumb, that we're unable to speak. But when it's called for, I'm not afraid to explain the judging system or why somebody beat somebody else. That's who I am.

"My job is to help bring skating back, and to help educate masses about what's going on in skating."

A postscript: In a New York Times column Wednesday, "Amid Blunders on Ice, Only a Few Signs of Grace," dance critic Gia Kourlas wrote:

"The only sure thing left is off the ice: the sparkling commentary of Tara Lipinski and Johnny Weir, who, along with the sportscaster Terry Gannon, call the daytime live broadcast. They make it possible to suffer through wretched performances, not because they make fun of bad skating -- though you can usually count on priceless giggles at just the right moment -- but because they take it so seriously.

Tara and Johnny /
Always fashionable.
"While never short of opinions, they're generally quiet during performances. While they get to the nitty-gritty of technique -- pointing out when skaters are flat on their feet, or why they fall out of synchronization -- they also have information about more obscure aspects of skating, like how ice temperature affects a performance (speed skating requires harder ice than figure skating) or how male ice dancers have been known to build up their heels for extra height.

"It helps that Mr. Weir is a champion of inspired one-liners. While watching several near collisions during a men's warm-up, he blurted, 'It is Nascar out here in the world of rhinestones.' "

Screenshot images via the internet courtesy of NBCSN.

No comments:

Post a Comment