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Make it or break it: Can Johnny pull out all the stops?

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Johnny rocks the tassle in the men’s figure skating short program on day 5 of the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics at the Pacific Coliseum on February 16, 2010. Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images.

Scoring 82.10 for his short program (view here), Johnny is currently in 6th place. Tonight, he skates second to last…right before Russian rockstar and defending gold Olympic medalist Evgeni Plushenko.

Despite having skated a clean short program, Johnny knows he’s not the favorite, at least not by commentators and judges. Even NBC’s coverage of the games couldn’t make that more clear; they produced two interstitial pieces featuring Evan Lysacek and Jeremy Abbott…but there wasn’t one featuring Johnny. With the top three competitors (Plushenko in first, Lysacek in second, and Daisuke Takahashi of Japan in third) only several tenths of a point away from each other, his nearly nine point difference from Plushenko’s 90.85 seems impossible to beat.

It’s obvious that the solid execution of the quad jump and various versions of the triple are what placed five people above Johnny. However, these same elements are what took U.S. National Champion Jeremy Abbott down to 15th place and four-time French Champion Brian Joubert down to 9th place.

And, yet, Johnny relishes being the underdog, the opportunity to prove people wrong and make a comeback: “I’m not intimidated, not by anything. Not by a flowing mane of blond hair (Plushenko). Not by a tanned face (Lysacek).”

And he has no regrets:

“I knew coming in here that a medal was pretty far-fetched for me. Not just through the public’s eyes but just through peoples’ eyes in general I haven’t really been a contender for a couple of years now, so to be let out of that 10 that people were thinking could challenge for a medal, I have no problems with that. I’ve accepted it. I understand it. I did the best I could.”

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Showing attitude in his short program. Photo by Yuri Kadobnov/Getty Images.

No American skater has matched persona with performance the way Johnny does, a strength rooted in presentation and artistry. But is it enough to medal? Most of the top competitors in Vancouver will do quads in their free skates; Abbott, Plushenko, Joubert, and 2006 Olympic silver medalist (currently in 5th place) Stephane Lambiel will all attempt one tonight.

Two-time Olympic gold medalist (unmatched since) for men’s figure skating and commentator Dick Button is critical of the new scoring system and says its preference to award for jumps more than anything else is unlikely to inspire the kind of innovation he brought to skating. “They’re doing the same moves over and over and over because that’s what they get the points for,” Button says. “And there isn’t enough emphasis put on … the performance level, the [elegance] level, the music, the interpretation.” Button complains that the pressure for more points prompts younger skaters to skimp on fundamental techniques like edging and simple, graceful gliding on ice. The very things that Johnny seems to excel at, things that elevate figure skating from mere sport to an inspirational art form, are the very things that no one seems to care about…

With nothing left to lose and in the twilight years of his career, Johnny toys with the idea of adding in a quad to his free skate tonight impromptu: “What do I have to lose? I’m not a favorite for a medal here. If I feel like doing it, I will do it.” Johnny trails third-place Takahashi by only 8.15 points. If Takahashi blows his quad and Johnny skates another clean program, he’s in medal contention. According to the blogosphere, he’s practiced and landed numerous quads today…and despite all of that, many say that he’s more focused on being a performer over a competitor.

Perhaps the theater of skating is Johnny’s way of relieving pressure and communicating his love for the sport: “I can say four years ago I was skating more for a medal than I was for the actual performance. But now I’ve been around long enough and can see the way things have gone throughout my career with all the ups and downs, the different dramas throughout my career, I’m here to perform and to compete as well as I can.”

Dedicated athlete. Over-the-top showman. Bad boy. Beloved skater. In the end, Johnny insists that he is being faithful to himself:

“Every step of my life it’s been one thing my parents had preached to my brother and I. You must always be yourself and always enjoy what you are doing and take no prisoners. You can’t care what anyone else thinks because really there is no basis for that in your life.

“You have to live your life for yourself. So even when I was little I was playing on a soccer team and running the complete opposite way pretending to be a zebra, an ostrich or something. So I have always been like this.

“My goal for this whole competition has been to show people my heart and take them on a journey with me. I want people to feel like they are doing this with me, regardless of where they are from or who they are rooting for. I want them to feel like they are out there on the ice with me.

“I want to go out there and skate like there is no one in the building. Skate beautiful and enjoy myself like I did [Tuesday].”

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A thankful Johnny. Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images.

Be sure to view exclusive photos, behind-the-scenes video, and webisodes from BE GOOD JOHNNY WEIR.

From the rink to his wardrobe, read what Johnny has to say about being a fashion icon on ice. Get more on the good, the bad, and the ugly from the world of men’s figure skating at Full Frontal Fashion.

Own a piece of Johnny by getting his official warm up jacket.

Follow Johnny leading up to his free skate program by checking out his Twitter feed.