FAIRFAX, Va. -- The Fairfax Ice Arena doesn't look any different from your average neighborhood rink. Local kids pull on their skates one at a time just like everywhere else. The cool air is thick with their hopes and dreams, and the ice doesn't give much when they come back to earth.
It is different, though. That much becomes evident when Michael Weiss, 20, settles gently back to the ice after a perfect triple and the ice rink moms -- who apparently moved indoors after soccer season -- burst into spontaneous applause.
They look at Weiss and envision their own children 10 years on. And, if they really know their sport, they see a young man who could be on the verge of conquering the skating world.
Weiss is one of the top male figure skaters in the United States. He won the World Junior Championships in 1994 and took the gold medal at the World University Games in '95. He has medaled in several other international competitions and has built a solid reputation around the globe, but he has yet to stand on the victory platform at the senior level here at home -- a situation he hopes to rectify starting Thursday when he begins competition in the U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Nashville.
"I'm feeling very confident," said Weiss, who grew up in Silver Spring and has lived the past seven years within minutes of the Fairfax Ice Arena. "I'm skating the best I've ever skated. I feel very comfortable. I just need to put it all together."
If only it were as simple as it sounds.
The senior nationals are the most important competition of the year and this is the most important year of the Olympic cycle. The top three finishers in each category earn a place on the U.S. team that will compete in the world championships at Lausanne, Switzerland. The 1998 Winter Games await only a few months beyond.
"If he goes out this year and nails it, people shouldn't be shocked or surprised," said Audrey Weisiger, who has coached him since he was an awkward 10-year-old, clinging sheepishly to the boards to stay on his feet. "I think he's ready for the U.S. nationals. Ready to emerge on the world scene."
Weiss had hoped to break through as an 18-year-old, but finished sixth after a disappointing short program. He skated better at last year's senior nationals, but so did the competition. He finished fifth, yet went away confident that he was moving in the right direction.
"I skated average for me at the time," he said. "I think in a normal year, I would have made the top three, but the top four skaters skated the programs of their lives. Now, even on a bad day I'm better than I was on an average day then. That puts me in better position."
The moms and the coaches watch him glide smoothly through the first minutes of his afternoon practice session and acknowledge -- as he performs another flawless jump -- that there is something special in the air.
A family affair
The Olympic spirit runs in the family. Weiss' father, Greg, competed in the 1964 Olympics in gymnastics. His mother, Margie, was a nationally renowned collegiate gymnast at the University of Maryland. They met during Christmas break one year in the gym at College Park and the rest is genealogy.
Michael's oldest sister, Genna, was a world junior champion in diving. His sister Geremi, skated competitively, and -- in a sense -- gets credit for Michael's entry into figure skating. It was at her training sessions that he first pulled on a pair of skates and inched his way along the boards. The memory of that day is still fresh in the minds of his mother and his coach.
"He was just this kid hanging around with Geremi," Weisiger said. "I can still remember him hanging on this wall, his legs going all over the place."
Most top-flight skaters start younger than 9, but Weiss had a head start athletically. His parents run the Gold's Gym in Fairfax and he spent much of his boyhood there. He was doing flips before his friends were riding two-wheel bikes.
He set out to be a competitive diver like his oldest sister, and was good enough to win a regional diving championship, but narrowed his focus to figure skating and appears to be on the threshold of achieving his dream.
The family's athletic roots are in gymnastics, but it is no accident that none of the Weiss children reached a high competitive level in that sport. Margie Weiss and her husband decided early on that their children were not going to be Olympic gymnasts.
"We didn't want any of the kids to be gymnasts," she said. "Don't get me wrong. I think gymnastics is one of the best sports for kids, but it's just too hard on the body at the higher levels. The likelihood of injury -- at the same level of talent as other [individual] sports -- is just so much greater.
"Also, Greg didn't want Mike to be a gymnast, because Greg was an Olympic gymnast and he wanted Mike to be his own person."
Given a real choice, Weiss says that he might have pursued the usual team sports like his friends, but the gymnastic gene pool didn't leave him a wide range of options.
"My dad is 5-foot-5," he laughs. "I knew pretty early that I wasn't going to be playing in the NBA."
Tackling a stereotype
Michael Weiss definitely is his own person. His early bio sheets list ice hockey and football as his favorite hobbies, both rough-and-tumble sports that aren't usually mentioned in the same paragraph with world-class figure skating.
He still plays roller hockey, another extracurricular activity that has to keep his coach up at night.
"I just tell him that I don't want to know," Weisiger said. "I have a little bit of the mom in me, but you can get killed walking across the street. He's probably a little unusual. I guess it belies his multi-athletic talent. A lot of skaters can only skate."
Though he is not self-conscious about his chosen sport, Weiss is very conscious of the stereotype that has been affixed to male figure skaters. He is part of a new wave of world-class skaters that is changing the image.
"My fiancee will tell somebody what I do, and the first thing they'll say to her is, 'Is he gay?' but I try not to fall into that stereotype," Weiss said. "We're not all going out there in pink tights. There are a lot of guys in jeans and tank tops skating to Led Zeppelin, and I think the judges are getting more accepting of that."
Weiss skates to some unconventional music, but it is not meant to be a statement against the sport's classical standards. He, and other young stars such as world champion Elvis Stojko of Canada -- who holds a black belt in karate and clearly plays to the women in the crowd -- are simply illustrating the diversity of the new figure skating world.
"I'm not trying to make it a macho thing," Weiss said. "The beauty of the sport is that you have someone skating to 'Swan Lake' and someone else skating to Van Halen, but I do want to show there are different personalities in figure skating. If I was wearing pink and skating to 'Swan Lake,' that just wouldn't be me."
Next stop, Nashville
Image isn't everything. Weiss has established his on-ice persona, but his focus has never strayed far from the ultimate goal -- an Olympic medal. He knows that a big performance at the nationals will be a giant step in that direction.
"Right now, the goal is to win the nationals and make a world team," he said. "I've proved myself internationally, but have not skated well at the nationals, so I haven't gotten to compete in the worlds. I want to skate well at the worlds and set myself up for the Olympics."
Weiss stumbled at the nationals in 1995 and finished sixth. He skated better last year, but finished fifth. He has stepped up in international competition and appears ready to challenge top-ranked American Todd Eldredge this week, but all those years of work can unravel in just seven minutes -- the total time that a skater spends on the ice in a major competition.
"Figure skaters that reach this level have to have a tremendous sense of self-esteem," Weisiger said. "You're all alone out there. Name another sport where you're out there for that amount of time, with no other competitors and no teammates, and everything riding on what you do."
That may be where all those years of football and hockey will pay off. Weiss is known as a very aggressive skater who doesn't leave anything in the dressing room. If he doesn't finish in the top three and make the world team, it won't be because he didn't go for it.
"I think he has to," Weisiger said. "At his age, you've got to be willing to lay it on the line. He is at the highest level of competitive figure skating. He wants to be an Olympic champion. You can't be conservative."
Pub Date: 2/10/97