Alexander Johnson is starting a new chapter in his life this spring. After a 9-year career at the senior international level, which featured two top 6 finishes at U.S. Nationals and a Challenger Series medal, Johnson is shifting focus from competitive skating to his first full-time professional job in finance and a budding side career in figure skating choreography and coaching. Johnson hasn’t closed the door on a possible return to competitive skating; but for now, his priority is exploring these new opportunities.
I recently had a chance to chat with Johnson before his appearance in Ice Crystals, the annual club show for the Colonial Figure Skating Club in Acton/Boxborough, MA. Johnson spent several weeks at Colonial this spring, teaching and choreographing for Colonial skaters and working with different coaches, including 1980 Olympian Sheryl Franks and 1992 Olympian Konstantin Kostin. During our chat, Johnson shared some thoughts on his work at Colonial, his approach to choreography, and his programs for Ice Crystals.
Q: Tell us about your new projects this spring, and your appearance here at Colonial FSC’s Ice Crystals show.
Johnson: I start a full-time job June 10th. And I’ve been coming here [to Colonial] to choreograph and teach. And now I’m back doing the show, which is awesome. It’s like all of the lessons that I’ve taught [the kids] in their day-to-day training, I’m putting it all together and showing them what it can be. So in a sense, there’s some pressure. I’ve told these kids, “Oh, you need to do this, you need to do that.” And now it’s like, “Okay, Alex, you’ve got to live up to your words!” (Laughs) It’s fun to be here. I’ve been performing a lot. I’ve been doing club shows, teaching. I choreographed Alexei Krasnozhon’s short and long programs this year. It’s so nice to finally be making money and paying my own bills! I start my job June 10th, and that’s going to be the focus for right now.
Q: Where will you be working?
Johnson: I’ll be at Lazard Middle Market, in Minneapolis. It’s an investment bank. I talked to Christina Gao a lot about this. While I was interviewing, she was my go-to person. It’s fun, seeing what everyone else is doing with their lives. I just texted Max Aaron yesterday. We were talking about careers, and what everyone’s doing. [Note: Christina Gao, former U.S. ladies competitor, has been working in investment banking at Credit Suisse in New York City. Max Aaron, former U.S. National champion, also works in finance.]
Q: But you plan to keep one foot in skating, so to speak, with choreography?
Johnson: Yes. Work will consume me for a lot of the time. But on the weekends, I’m going to need some type of outlet, whether it would be skating myself, or going in and helping a little bit. I have some kids at home that I work with regularly. And it’ll be hard to let them go, because it’s fun to see them progress and be a part of their journey, like [my] coaches were with me. I’m going to try to stay involved. I’m thinking about potentially becoming a technical specialist, on the side. I wanted to judge. But I don’t know if I want to give up my ability to teach, which is the thing you do when you become a judge. So that may be in my future. I definitely want to stay involved in skating as much as possible. Because I know that without it, I feel like part of me [would] be completely deprived.
Q: It’s been a big part of your life.
Johnson: It’s been my life. I don’t know anything else. Without it, I’m like, “What? Who am I?” It’s fun to have the time, though, to explore who I am outside of the rink, which I’m really enjoying.
Q: And who are you choreographing for at Colonial?
Johnson: I did Iris Zhao’s long program. Arianna Concepcion, I did her short and long [programs] this year. I did Philip Baker’s short and long. I did Annabelle Rie’s short program, and some of her long, too. [Note: Concepcion and Baker competed at U.S. Nationals in January in the Novice Ladies and Men divisions. Zhao placed 5th at 2019 Eastern Sectionals in Junior Ladies. Rie competed at 2019 N.E. Regionals in Novice Ladies.]
Q: Which coaches have you worked with at Colonial?
Johnson: Sheryl Franks is here, [and] I would collaborate with her. I’d be like: “Sheryl, how does this look?” And she’d say, “No, that was bad,” or “Yes, that was great.” It was fun. She’s the one that will be here, working with the kids every day.
I worked with Konstantin Kostin’s kids. He’s an Olympic caller, so he knows his stuff. When I was doing the footwork, I would be like, “Konstantin, is this right? Is this going to get the levels?” It was a really good learning process, to have an Olympic-level caller there while I was choreographing [and] trying to follow the rules. You have someone to help you interpret them. The rules–they’re supposed to be black-and-white. But they still are not. Especially with footwork. They limit what you can do choreographically so much. I follow the rules, but then bring as much ingenuity [as possible]. Because otherwise, the footworks all look the same, and it’s so boring, and you’re like, “Okay, there’s going to be a cluster here, and a cluster there.” That was a challenge for me, but I like that part of it.
Q: Constraints can be challenging because they impose limits. But do they also help in other ways?
Johnson: They can guide you. But in skating, it’s becoming less and less of a guide and more and more [that] you have to do all of these things. It’s constraining. It helps and it doesn’t; there’s pros and cons to everything. We’ll see how the programs progress over the season. Like with [all] choreography, I’m interested to see what will change and what won’t. As the season goes along, things work; things don’t. It’ll be fun to watch–I’ll have some people that I can root for.
Q: You talked about how programs change over the season. What’s your approach to choreographing? And when you complete the choreography, how do you record it? Do you film a final version?
Johnson: Yes. Generally, I would have an idea of the layout. The [skaters] would give me their elements. And all of them came to me with the music. So I luckily didn’t have to spend time doing music research, which can be pretty consuming. So we would have a general layout. And then I would figure out transitions, figure out opening [moves]. I’d ask if they wanted to just go right into their jump, or take some time. There’s some strategy involved with trying to get the elements in the second half [i.e., bonus section]–what jumps they can do well when they’re fatigued. You don’t want to put something in the second half if they’re not going to do it [well]. So there’s a lot of talking with the coaches and the skaters about what works for them. Then, I’ll put on the music. I’ll just start moving to it, and do some steps, and whatever feels right. And I’ll have them try it, and see if it looks good. It’s a collaboration, which I think is healthy. Yes, you can mold people, or teach them different styles of movement. But ultimately, it has to be comfortable for them, because they’re going to be doing it day in, and day out. We’ll film it, look at it, see if it looks good. And then [at] the end, we’ll film it. And hopefully they’ll watch those videos, and remember everything that we did.
Q: They’ve been keeping you busy here at Colonial.
Johnson: Yes, it’s been fun. I enjoy it. But now I’m having hip surgery on Tuesday. I’ve had a torn labrum for, like, five years, and I’ve needed it fixed. And now I have the downtime to get it fixed. So I figured, why not? I’ll take a month before I start working and recover. [Note: Johnson had surgery on May 7, a few days after this interview.]
Q: So you’ve been competing with a torn labrum all this time? How much pain was it causing you?
Johnson: It’s one of those things that you know is there, but your focus is on the task at hand. You just accept it. But now that I’m not training all the time, I notice it a bit more. So I just want [to get] it taken care of, because I don’t want to get a hip replacement when I’m sixty. I talked to Mirai [Nagasu] a lot about it, because she had the same procedure done. She’s one of my best friends. It’s nice to be able to take care of myself now.
Q: What programs are you going do in the Ice Crystals show?
Johnson: The first number is “Boom” by X Ambassadors. I went this spring to Shae-Lynn Bourne to work with her on a show program. I loved working with her last season on my short and long [programs]. For me, it’s like an investment in my teaching, if I can learn from people [like Shae-Lynn]. She has so much knowledge and so much experience. So I thought, “I’m going to have her do a show program for me.” It’s different. And then the other one is my short [program] from last year. It’s fun and showy.
Q: I went to Stars on Ice recently, and it was great seeing some show programs there.
Johnson: Yes. You can do so many things that you don’t do in competition–stuff that you don’t normally see. That’s why shows are so great. It brings out the side of skaters that’s so hidden. That’s part of why I wanted to go to Shae [for his new program]. I said, “I want to do a show program where I don’t have to think about anything but just having fun.” She’s like: “Well, what [elements] do you want to do?” And I said: “If we put a jump in, it’s okay. But if we don’t, I’m not upset.” And that’s fun to do.
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