Ice Network

From A to Z: Zakrajsek dissects Grand Prix season

Coach sings praises of students Zhou, Aaron for taking risks
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Tom Zakrajsek was proud of how Vincent Zhou (left) and Max Aaron acquitted themselves on the Grand Prix circuit this season. -Getty Images

Tom Zakrajsek is the coach of former U.S. champions Mirai Nagasu and Max Aaron as well as reigning U.S. silver medalist Vincent Zhou. He is keeping a season-long blog for icenetwork.

I am often asked what it's like to coach in the Grand Prix Series. The answer is a simple one: It's fascinating. I have coached Grand Prix skaters since 2001; those athletes have won 14 medals, including three gold and six silver. Even though the travel is tedious, the excitement and unpredictability of the competition makes it worth it. One common misconception in our sport is that once a skater reaches the top of the sport, he or she achieves perfection. As we saw throughout this season's Grand Prix Series, this statement proved true for some and not so much for others.

On the singles side, it was a strange Grand Prix. There were some amazing performances, while some top skaters -- including Patrick Chan and Yuzuru Hanyu -- did not compete at two events, therefore making them ineligible for the Grand Prix Final. A rash of injuries also negatively affected skaters like Evgenia Medvedeva, Ashley Wagner, Hanyu and Boyang Jin. Despite these misfortunes, the Final still proved to be highly entertaining.

While everyone seemed to be talking about the Russian ladies' dominance on display at the Grand Prix and Junior Grand Prix finals, it should be noted that the U.S. men did quite well at those events, too, with Nathan Chen winning gold at the former and Alex Krasnozhon taking the title at the latter. My junior charge, Camden Pulkinen, finished second behind Krasnozhon.

When I attend these competitions, I watch the practices and warm-ups for all of the singles events. It is very interesting and educational to observe the different and unique processes each skater uses. And one thing is for sure: No two are alike.

With skaters traveling at speeds of up to 15-20 miles per hour, attempting triple-triple combinations, triple axels and quadruple jumps, and carrying heavy expectations from the media to execute each element PERFECTLY with a positive Grade of Execution, you really get a sense of the amount of risk and courage it takes to be one of the best in our sport.

So when the top men risk three or more quads in the free skate, or if you're Mirai Nagasu -- the only woman in the world to attempt the triple axel in both programs -- it is truly amazing to see these athletic elements completed successfully, especially in the context of an artistic performance.

As I sat in the Tokyo Narita airport traveling home from the Final, I had a chance to reflect on the season to this point. I feel so privileged to have coached at four Grand Prix events with such talented athletes, including Max Aaron, Nagasu and Vincent Zhou. It is truly a blessing and a coach's dream.

To witness Vincent take such huge athletic and artistic risks in his Grand Prix debut makes me even more determined to help him reach his goals. His thoughts about his performances can be felt in his thoughtful Twitter post that caught the attention of the media.

Instead of resting on his junior laurels, he showed all the young skaters around the world to keep reaching until you become the very best. Carry on, Vincent!

Max gave a career-best free skate performance at the Cup of China en route to his fourth Grand Prix medal, which was totally exciting as well.

His complete commitment this season, on and off the ice, to improving both technically and artistically is evident and admirable. Now, after graduating from college magna cum laude a few days ago, he has one goal left for the season.

And Mirai? What more can I say that I haven't blogged about already? To help her overcome her doubt and land a clean triple axel in her short program at the NHK Trophy while achieving a season's best score was such a rewarding coaching moment. And while I know she did not win a medal after finishing fourth, the improvement in her total score in two weeks by nearly 17 points is a testament that figure skaters truly live by the motto, "We get up."

While all three of these skaters know they still have more work to do, it is important as their coach to acknowledge the steps they have taken along the way. After watching their training the last three weeks, I can hardly wait until San Jose! It's called the "Road to PyeongChang" because it is long and winding. It also makes me think of the famed Beatles song.

Figure skating is an individual sport at the Winter Olympics, but there are many reasons why functioning as a "team" is useful for singles skaters on their road to PyeongChang. First and foremost, the camaraderie and competitiveness associated with training together makes the hard work more enjoyable, while also making everyone better at the same time. Think of Nathan Chen, Adam Rippon, Ashley and Mariah Bell. Or Vincent, Mirai, Max and Camden.

The phrase "It takes a village" or "Teamwork makes the dream work" comes to mind, too, since each skater's coaching team consists of a variety of experts who manage jumps, spins, strength, choreography, mental training, etc.

Every skater has a U.S. Figure Skating club or a local "team" they become part of, which can eventually lead them to Team USA. Once they become part of the international team, it is no longer solely about individual goals. They now represent their federation and are an ambassador for their country. Their focus broadens from reaching their personal goals to making their country proud. What bigger team is there than that?

In August, at the Team USA Champs Camp, I witnessed firsthand how a team is built when Olympic team leaders Mitch Moyer, Tina Lundgren and Jenny Mast created a shared teamwork experience built on unity. The "team around the team" of coaches, officials, administrators and off ice specialists (nutrition, strength, packaging, etc.) worked together to help each skater improve.

Finally, for the 14 skaters who will be named to the U.S. Olympic team in San Jose, the "Olympic family" will be waiting for them upon arrival in South Korea. They will share an even greater sense of team when they compete in the team event at the Olympics. As I wrote in my first blog, the Olympics serve as one heck of a party, where athletes come together with coaches and officials from every sport from across the globe. Yes, many of them are there for individual glory, but all of them are there for a shared experience.

I always tell my athletes and parents, "Success is for everyone." With a few weeks left until the 2018 U.S. Championships begin, I often think of legendary coach John Wooden's definition of success:

"Success is peace of mind, which is a direct result of self-satisfaction in knowing you made the effort to do your best to become the best that you are capable of becoming."

Here is wishing everyone peace and love this holiday season. We all should enjoy this precious time with our families because the time spent away from them is the one real sacrifice everyone on the road to PyeongChang makes.