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Interview with Paul Wylie

  

STILL SKATING AFTER ALL THESE YEARS

 

picture - Paul Wylieinterview with Paul Wylie

by William Gooch

published October 25, 2009

 

When I was first asked to interview Olympic medalist Paul Wylie and review the Ice Theatre of NY’s gala, initially I had difficulty placing figure skating in the same genre of the events that Stage and Cinema usually covers. Then I thought about all the great choreographers that have choreographed routines for skaters. Who could forget Debi Thomas’ Olympic “battle of the Carmens” routine choreographed by former ABT principal dancer George de la Pena, or Lar Lubovitch’s full-length version of Sleeping Beauty for Rosalynn Sumners and Robin Cousins?

 

Paul Wylie comes from that era when ice skaters employed major ballet and modern dance choreographers to create works of art. Though he doesn’t skate much these days, audiences cannot forget the beautiful spirals, precise footwork and clean edges of this Nijinsky on ice.

 

A couple of weeks before being honored by the Ice Theatre of New York, Paul Wylie talked with me about his life, his career and his love of skating.

 

Let’s talk about Albertville and your silver medal. Your silver medal win was considered an upset. All the media attention was on Kurt Browning, Viktor Petrenko and Christopher Bowman, but you gave incredible performance in the long program and won the silver medal. What was it like to win a silver medal and deal with all that comes with being an Olympic medalist?

 

Paul Wylie: I was blown away. I was so surprised to win the silver medal. In the press conference immediately following my win, reporters asked me if I was disappointed that I didn’t win the gold. My response was, “Winning the silver medal is so much more than I thought that I could achieve.” I had had a really checkered career. I always had the potential to do well but I had fallen way short at some really significant competitions. So, winning the silver medal in Albertville marked the end of my amateur career. It has been nice for me to be able to look back on my career and know that I had a kind of Cinderella story.

 

At the National Championships that year a New York Times reporter asked me what I was doing at the National Championships. There was a lot of disbelief that I was still skating because I had had a really rough year the year before, and I was 27 years old.  I made the Olympic team by 1/10 of a point, which caused some controversy. The International Skating Committee deliberated for an hour deciding if they should send me to the 1992 Olympics or Mark Mitchell. Looking back the whole thing seems almost biblical.

 

Now you were attending Harvard and graduated from there while still an amateur skater. How did you balance school and skating?

 

Paul Wylie: I thoroughly enjoyed my years at Harvard. Between Harvard and competitive skating I was on the go all the time. Harvard was a great balance to my skating. Although I didn’t have my best skating seasons while I was in school, it was great to not have my entire life wrapped around skating. I knew after my undergraduate years, I could fully concentrate on skating, so I just enjoyed being in both worlds.

 

Why did you go back to Harvard to get an MBA after skating professionally for seven years?

 

Paul Wylie: I was originally accepted to Harvard Law but after some serious thought I decided to do a joint degree, the MBA/JD. After my first year of business school I was chomping at the bit to get into the dot com wave, so I nixed the JD part of the degree and concentrated solely on my MBA. I thought more education would help me transition out of a full-time skating career. I was already in my thirties, so I knew I wouldn’t be able to skate much longer.

 

Why did you come back to the sport in 2004 and skate with Stars on Ice?

 

Paul Wylie: I had just had my first child and at the time it filled the gap financially for my family. It was really hard. One of the hardest things was that my body wouldn’t do what I wanted it to do anymore. I couldn’t rotate triple jumps effortlessly.  The hardest jump in my program was a double axel. It was a lot of work to get my body and mind ready for the tour. I had a lot of fun and I don’t regret it all. However, my skill set was so limited that felt I let the audience down.

 

You know, I am a little nervous about skating in the Ice Theatre of NY’s gala this coming week. You can’t pretend after all these years to get your arabesque lines back or your triples. Plus, your body image has changed. But, I am going to bring what I have, my artistry and love of skating. Some of the great dance artists like Martha Graham and Fonteyn and Nureyev paved the way by showing what a mature artist could bring to their craft by dancing past their prime, so to speak.

 

How has men’s figure skating changed since you were competing?

 

Paul Wylie: The sport is definitely more focused on the technical aspect than the artistic component. It was always really important to have the big jumps, but now you have to have intricate spins and footwork. It is really about how many points you can rack up. Now you have 8 jumping passes, two footwork sections and lots of intricate spin combinations to fit into a 4 and a 1/2 minute program. Even the artistry is calculated to get bonus points, so there is little room left for creativity and artist’s expression. However, the new system is a lot more fair, so it is kind of a two-edged sword.

 

There seems to be less professional competitions now, why is that?

 

Paul Wylie: Professional competitions were a competitive showcase for artistic skating. They were not so strict in terms of the rules, but they were very competitive and skaters brought their egos and best artistic programs. Scott Hamilton didn’t want to lose to Brian Boitano and Boitano didn’t want to lose to Viktor Petrenko. And, I didn’t want to lose to anybody. [Lots of laughter] The skaters always skated to their strengths. I brought more choreography and someone like Boitano always brought his consistent triple axel. All these elements made the professional circuit very interesting.

 

The International Skating Union (ISU) took over the professional competitions, and then promptly shut them down. They wanted control over the whole skating world. They turned some of the professional competitions into pro/am competitions judged by judges from the ISU, implementing rules from the ISU. Anyway, within a year the professional competitions were phased out.

 

Were these competitions phased out because they weren’t lucrative ventures?

 

Paul Wylie: No, the professional competitions, by and large, were sold-out competitions. Dick Button engineered and ran a lot of the competitions and as long as he was in charge, they were profitable. The professional competitions gave audiences an opportunity to see household skaters continue to compete after they went professional. It is so unfortunate that the professional competitions no longer exist. Amazing performances came out of those events.

 

You now work as a coach in North Carolina, what is that like?

 

Paul Wylie: Coaching is day-to-day work and can be very challenging. It is up to the students to follow instructions and deliver the performance. As a coach all you have is your ability to demonstrate correctly and coax good results out of your students. I find it very interesting work. Sometimes students and parents don’t understand that you don’t get good results without lots of hard work.

 

How much dance training did you get as a figure skater?

 

Paul Wylie: I had what you might call remedial dance classes. [Laughter] One of the life-changing experiences I had was to study with John Curry when I was ten years old. We worked on nothing but classical lines, arms and stroking the ice. Once I had worked with him, I had an understanding of how better to present my body. I did take some ballet and jazz classes but I would not call myself a trained dancer.

 

What is your association with The Ice Theatre of NY?

 

Paul Wylie: I have hosted several of their galas and skated in some of their concerts and performances. I have known artistic director Moira North for years. I debuted a Bach piece choreographed by Lar Lubovitch in one of Ice Theatre’s concerts.

 

What advice would you give to young skaters or young artists?

 

Paul Wylie: Know your basics and study the masters. Just because you have a trick that can wow the audience does not in any way mean that you are an artist. Know your craft; know the history of your sport or your creative endeavor. I try to instill that into my students. You can’t take short cuts, it always come down to the quality of your work.

 

Do you have any predictions for the upcoming Winter Olympics?

 

Paul Wylie: Although Shen and Zhao are returning, I really think the Germans will win the pair competition. All eyes will also be on 2006 Olympic gold-medalist Plushenko, who is also coming back. We will see him for the first time at the Cup of Russia Grand Prix event in a couple of weeks. Sasha Cohen is also coming back. I think it will be hard for her under the current system to medal. But Shen and Zhao, Sasha Cohen and Plushenko will bring back some of the polish that is now missing from the sport. The artistic score is now fifty percent of the component score, so that will help them. I believe Yu Na Kim is the frontrunner for the ladies competition. With World Champion Stephane Lambiel coming back, I think the men’s event is going to be a nail biter level.

 

Are you doing any commentating for the Grand Prix events or the Olympics?

 

Paul Wylie: Yes. I am doing commentary on the Cup of Russia Grand Prix event for the Universal Sports channel. I will be doing radio commentary for all of the events at the 2010 Winter Olympics for Westwood One radio in partnership with NBC.

 

The Ice Theatre of New York’s Annual Benefit Gala takes place on October 26, 2009 at 7pm. The Gala performance will feature Ice Theatre's ensemble in works by major modern dance choreographers, such as Jacqulyn Buglisi, Elisa Monte and Alberto del Saz, along with a re-staging of "Tilt-a-Whirl" by Lar Lubovitch. ("Tilt-a-Whirl" was originally skated by John Curry and Peggy Fleming.) Also featured will be a new work by skating choreographer, Douglas Webster in memory of young skater, Will Sears.

In honor of Sky Rink, long-time member of Ice Theatre, Kenny Moir, will skate a humorous piece entitled "In A Nutshell."Our honoree Paul Wylie will also debut a new piece of choreography! For more information, go to icetheatre.org.

 

williamgooch @ stageandcinema.com

 
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