Episode #56: John Zimmerman

MAY 2012
With his partner Kyoka Ina, John Zimmerman  was three time US National Champion, 2002 World Bronze Medalist, and 5th at the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics. He’s been a Stars On Ice performer, a model, a coach, and is also (with wife Silvia Fontana) the founder of Karisma Sportswear. He talks about starting skating in an Alabama mall, his role models in Pair skating, and how much fun he had shooting Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. 45 minutes, 22 seconds

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Thanks to Fiona McQuarrie for transcribing these interview highlights:

On his most embarrassing skating moment:  I can clearly tell you right now. For me, it was 2001 Worlds. I was very excited, very hyper. Usually Kyoko and I went and did our own thing, just skated on our own, and I went — somehow I caught my heel on crossovers, fell and slid into the wall. On crossovers. Pretty humiliating. Just as we’re starting to vie for a position at Worlds. Pretty stupid [laughs].

On how he began skating: I started in a mall rink in 1976 or 1977. My mom was a skater from Michigan. They ended up moving down to Montgomery [Alabama], and on the weekends she wanted to go skating, so she took me to the mall.   I just took to it, I loved it. It kept me off the streets and gave me something to do [laughs]. And there was a game room in the mall so I’d go play games afterwards. It was just a fun-filled afternoon for me. By the time I was eight we moved up to Ohio, and I’d done ISI [Ice Skating Institute] competitions, and there I got into USFSA [US Figure Skating Association] competitions, so it got a little more competitive, and that’s where it really took off.

On starting as a pairs skater:  I remember seeing little newspaper articles from when I was about eight, with a girl, but we didn’t really skate pairs, we just stroked around a lot and probably argued [laughs]. I didn’t start skating pairs until I was 17. Most of the time everyone’s pursuing a singles career, and that’s the mentality I’m trying to change a little bit. I was 17, I enjoyed it, and it was an attractive idea, wondering if I could compete internationally now, instead of waiting until I got this triple jump or whatever.

On being coached by Peter Oppegard, while skating with Stephanie Stiegler: Peter was intense and he had a vision for his teams.  I loved it then, but I appreciate it even now. He still has a reputation for being an intense coach, and I think it’s great. Peter has a very good way of being able to draw your potential out with his ideas and his intensity, and as long as everyone’s on the page, these things work.

On working with Tamara Moskvina: She was a master of trying to make the most of things for the team, and she took responsibility for it. A lot of coaches just say, I’m trying to do this, I’m trying to do that, but if the team’s not up to par, she feels that she hasn’t done something. She hasn’t been creative enough, or she hasn’t figured out a way to get it to where we believe in it, or figured it out. I remember a couple of times at competitions, she took the blame for it, like, I have not done my job as a coach to get him to understand, or get her to understand. And I’m like, whew, the pressure’s off me [laughs]. But as a coach now, I mention that to my teams, but I don’t think I’m at the level yet to take full responsibility. I don’t know if I can handle that yet [laughs].

On pairs skaters changing partners: It’s kind of a delicate situation because you have to stay on the ethical side of things. Usually, like in everything, face to face dialogue and honesty is best. Having a clear game plan with the students, getting clear goals from them, getting them to understand your goals, and if something’s not being met, having that be addressed. And everyone needs to know that if it’s not being addressed, then there needs to be a meeting, and everyone has to decide which way to go, and everything needs to be clear. When you address another coach, you just go straight up to them and talk to them about it, maybe get US Figure Skating involved, but never to the student. If the student wants to talk to another student, to their friends, then that’s one thing to do, but I still think the best way to do it is from coach to coach.

On working with Tamara Moskvina, Igor Moskvin, and Artur Dmitriev during his partnership with Kyoko Ina: They harnessed me down a lot in my thoughts and my emotions, which for 90% of the part was great. Sometimes it’s good to let a little bit out, a little wildness in a skating program or in how a person goes about their practice or their competition. But they definitely taught me structure of thought, structure of competition and practice, and how to know my body, know myself and what to expect. And at high-level competition, to learn from each mistake and to know your body. Peter brought out a great artistic flair in me. Tamara got it to where I controlled it a bit more, and Kyoko is a technician. She was the go-to person on the jumps, she had extremely efficient skating. I had to work on that a bit more, I was a little bit of a bull in a china shop that way, but I offered a side of it that she didn’t have and that she could grow from.

Artur was my hero growing up, it was the reckless abandonment of skating, and he had the cool hair and he was big and strong [laughs]. The confidence in his face, and the care for the woman, their cultural way on the stage, in the presence of the audience, of handling the woman — it’s more than just skating pairs, it’s the whole look. And I aspired to be like him, I wanted to move like him and skate like him.

On being a cute boy and then a handsome adult in skating: Well, coming from Alabama, you know, you certainly weren’t regarded as a good looking guy, because I was wearing spandex outfits, and if I ever had any friends come to see me, they would make fun of me and think it’s silly, I’m lifting up my leg and moving my hand in a balletic way or whatever. I was humbled big time. And then I had a ballet teacher I worked with in Alabama, she was cute and I responded to what she wanted me to do. She was telling me I was looking good, and I was feeling the confidence [laughs]. It gave me confidence in a way I’d never experienced before. But I don’t think about looks or anything, I just enjoy doing what I’m doing. And if that portrays a certain look or whatever, that’s great.

On competing at the 2002 Olympics: We wanted to know what kind of emotions we were going to have walking into it. We had a four-year plan with Tamara, and we worked out the placements we wanted to get. We had good performances and we had moments where we looked like we had two left feet, but the second year we placed seventh [at Worlds]. The third year, we placed seventh again, so we were duplicating that, which was devastating, because we needed to be fifth. So we hit a couple of Grand Prix finals, we did okay, we were there, which was the most important thing. But replicating the seventh place was so bad that we had to go back home and work that much harder. So that last year, in my mind, we worked hard, US Figure Skating gave us great support financially and with anything we needed to be the best. But also, the way we went into that last year, it was like, this is it. This might be the only Olympics I get to go to, and I really dedicated myself.  It was intense, but it was so long, it was like ten months. I wanted to be a vegetable on the couch at the end of the day, knowing that I could not have done any more. I was sick of going to competitions and being nervous. So I wanted to go and enjoy myself. And when I was at the Olympics walking around, one of the first days, I was thinking, I’m healthy, I’ve never been in better shape, and here I am at the Olympics representing my country.

[The judging scandal] I don’t know if it affected our results that much, but it really comes down to feeling you’ve done the best you could. A month later, we got the bronze medal at Worlds, but we didn’t skate that well, and I don’t even hardly remember that performance. The crowning moment of my career was the Olympics, what it meant, and the way we skated. You have a four year plan, and you go four years later and you know exactly where you are. That was cool. But what really irritated me about the whole judging scandal is that there are people who have their own political purposes, and they’re using all of us for pawn pieces, you know, from chess, and it does make me sick to think — I come from Alabama, I skated in a mall rink, my dream was to be in the Olympics, and these people don’t know that if that little boy had that dream, he could have had the misfortune from someone else’s decisions and their political games, and that’s kind of unfortunate. Even if it’s 13th or 14th place, with the sacred Games that it is or it’s touted to be, it’s a placement and it should hold a lot more sanctity, I think.

On skating in Stars on Ice: It was phenomenal. All of us who were on it, it was our dream to be on these tours. The camaraderie and the ensemble work, it’s just cool. It was the best, great lights, great music, intimate setting on the smaller ice. That first year, it was with Katarina Witt, Tara Lipinski, Gorsha Sur and Renee Roca, Jenni [Meno] and Todd [Sand}, Kurt Browning, Scott Hamilton, all these great skaters. Your jaw is dropping, thinking, I can’t believe I’m with this group of people, I’m from Alabama, this doesn’t make any sense [laughs]. But you feel intimidated, so the thing you’d better do is keep working, and I loved it and wanted to keep on that job. And what cooler job can you have than ice skating and making money doing it? So we always would work really hard to be more capable and to figure out the direction that would keep us unique.

On working with his wife, Silvia Fontana: We’re together 95% of the time. The only time we’re apart is if she’s off doing a show in Italy or something or I’m off doing a show. We love it. We coach every day together. We respect each other as athletes and as people, and we learn from each other every day, and make each other laugh. There’s no other place I’d rather be than by her side, anywhere.

On being on the Queer Eye for the Straight Guy TV show: When I got the call, they called my agent, I wasn’t sure, I was like, isn’t this the show where they cut the guy’s hair off all the time? No, thank you. I wrote that in the contract, can you believe that? Yeah, you can do the show but you’re not going to cut my hair [laughs]. I didn’t know what to expect with those guys, it was a four-day taping , and it was like a hurricane. They come in, and you’re supposed to only interact with them on camera, because everything has to be spontaneous. So we could be in different rooms for two hours, setting up the scene, and then meeting and being spontaneous [laughs]. Oh, wait, can you make that reaction again? Burst in the door and be surprised [laughs]. But we enjoyed the show, we got a ton of things out of it, great exposure, and we loved the guys. We still see Carson [Kressley] every once in a while.

On being on the Skating with Celebrities TV show: It was cool, but it was intense. Since I had already been on one reality show, I figured it was going to be staged. It wasn’t, and it was a lot more competitive than you’d imagine. Especially Lloyd [Eisler] and I, coming down to the wire in the end, we were doing a lot of these crazy moves that we shouldn’t have been doing with people who hadn’t really skated [laughed]. I did the same kind of show two years ago in Russia, Night on Ice. I got to skate with Leo Tolstoy’s great-granddaughter, which was kind of cool, but it was four and a half months long, 15 episodes, which was like forever [laughs].

On running the Karisma sportswear line: It’s been a lot of fun, and it’s certainly a direction I never thought I would go, women’s sportswear [laughs], but . . . Silvia started it a few years ago. She was teaching in Italy when I was teaching there as well, and she gave a present to a skating mother over there, it was a little skating dress, and they talked about starting their own company over there, which they did [laughs]. They wanted a nice, upscale, very beautiful Italian representation for figure skating, something that looked classy and elegant, and cute, and something made with the best materials in the world. So we have a very good line that has some great interesting textured fabrics, and every kid will ooh and aah once they touch it, and the colors really pop. And it’s been three years and we are selling all over Russia and Japan and Europe. It’s a lot of work but it’s a lot of fun.

On the state of pairs skating in the US: There’s some classical-looking teams there that look unique. I think another year or so and we’re going to have some depth to it. It’s important to me. I’d like to have good access for all the kids in this country looking for teams and looking for partnerships, and getting more boys. If we’re going to be competitive with the world, we need to get more guys around 14 or 15 thinking of pairs right away. That’s going to be the hard part, because it’s a commodity, in a way, it’s rare to find a good guy.

About the Author
Yup, I’m a skating fan. But I’m a skater too. I compete nearly every year in the U.S. Adult Figure Skating Championships, and am always thrilled to see my other skating buddies there. In my real life I work in marketing for brands that make positive changes in the world, and a mom of two rambunctious boys.

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