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Zayak makes national coaching debut

Former champions, celebs and VIPs will visit Carruthers at AT&T ice desk

Elaine Zayak at the Goodwill Games in 1994.
Elaine Zayak at the Goodwill Games in 1994. (Getty Images)

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By Lynn Rutherford, special to icenetwork.com
(01/18/2009) - Skating world alumni often return to the fold when their country's big event rolls around, and the 2009 AT&T U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Cleveland this week is no exception.

Many past U.S. medalists -- some of them now guiding younger generations of athletes -- will drop by AT&T's ice desk to chat with four-time U.S. pair champ Peter Carruthers, and icenetwork.com will be there to broadcast the reunions.

One skating luminary who may visit is Elaine Zayak, the 1982 world champion.

"I'm so excited to go to nationals," said the 43-year-old Zayak, who makes her home in Rivervale, N.J.. "I usually only go every other year, and I wasn't going to go because I went last time."

Zayak's plans changed when senior student Joelle Forte, who is also coached by Dmitri Gromov, won her qualifying events this fall and a former pupil, junior skater Kristiane Gong, returned to her tutelage.

Now, instead of sitting in the stands, the 1981 U.S. champ will be standing by the boards. And she's not afraid to admit she has a few butterflies.

"The [ladies event] is so hard to figure out this season, and Joelle is such an unknown," Zayak said. "But if she skates clean, she could be in the top five. She's really worked on her choreography and presentation."

Choreography and presentation were areas sometimes judged a relative weakness for Zayak. In her competitive heyday, she was the ultimate jumping bean, with three different triples -- toe loop, Salchow and loop -- in days when many ladies performed just one or two total in a free program.

The Paramus-born skater's athletic gifts let her rise swiftly in the skating world. She won the 1979 junior world title and placed 11th in her senior world debut in 1980. The following season, she climbed to second.

Then, in 1982, she climbed from seventh after the short program to take the world title at age 16 with a six-triple long, including four toe loops. Almost immediately, the International Skating Union created a rule to limit a skater to two triple jumps of the same type, with at least one of those triples done in combination. The change was quickly nicknamed the "Zayak rule."

The following year, an injured Zayak withdrew from worlds. Her career never fully recovered.

"All of sudden I got injured and [fellow American] Rosalynn [Sumners] was first at worlds," she remembered. "That pretty much bumped me out at the '84 [Olympics]. I felt I was really deserving of a medal for the time I put in and for all the competitions and challenges I did go through, but it didn't work out."

Zayak was 13th in the compulsory figures and fourth in both the short and long for sixth-place overall. Her U.S. teammates Tiffany Chin and Sumners were fourth and second, respectively.

"I was unhappy with my result, and now I'm kind of glad with the new judging system" she said. "It is much fairer. I was put down so far in the figures and at every practice I was perfect in the short and long. I trained for it but I didn't get it.

"Skaters who had mistakes were put ahead of me. Now, for technical content at least, it's harder for judges to do that. Now, under the new judging system, if you miss a jump no one is going to give you plus one or plus two [for execution]. In '84, if you missed a jumped, you didn't always seem to get [deductions]. You got what the judges wanted you to have."

Zayak also feels geographic considerations have declined.

"Sometimes [in the '80s] they felt they had to have three different countries on the podium -- [at the '84 Olympics] it was East Germany, America and Russia. It was only in '91 when three Americans [Kristi Yamaguchi, Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan] could place 1-2-3. Now, maybe, you might see two Japanese on the podium."

Still, like most champions of the past, she has mixed feelings about the International Judging System.

"There's no room for anybody to make an error at all; nobody can go out and do anything different," she mused. "That's sad. Years ago, I always looked up to Robin Cousins. He was my idol. He was so creative. Now there is very little room for creativity in the programs, except for the costume and music.

"I think as we get more and more into the new judging system it will be opened up a lot more. I think they've already done that with the spirals; I hope they add some creativity to the spins, so that everybody is not doing the same thing to get a Level 4. It still needs to be improved, it's too severe."

Neither Sumners nor Chin competed at the 1984 World Championships, and Zayak skated to a bronze medal. After that, she turned pro, but didn't always enjoy the touring life and after several years retired.

Seeking a challenge, she reinstated at age 28 and began training again with her coaches, Peter Burrows and Mary Lynn Gelderman. Her short and long programs - both including the tricky triple loop -- were among the emotional highlights of the 1994 U.S. Championships, and she placed fourth.

Today, Zayak takes as much satisfaction from her comeback as her world and national titles.

"When I was a kid, the coaches were really telling me what I could or couldn't do, or my parents were. You can't push someone into doing what they don't want to do.

"I did it all my way in '94, even though Peter and Mary Lynn were there with me, and I had great choreography from Philip Mills. I did it my way and I always let Joelle [Forte], who is 22, do it her way and feel it herself."

Married since 2000, Zayak and her husband John have a six-year-old son, Jack, who dons skates at least once a week.

"He's not doing it seriously; [New York area coach] Steven Rice has given him a lesson or two," she said. "He also does tennis once a week. I'm going little by little. I don't know if I want him to pursue it yet. He loves skating, but I'm not sure if I want him to have that pressure.

"[My husband] went into the corporate world after college. He knew that was what he wanted. I'm really not sure about sports for Jack. I want him to be athletic, but I also want him to do academics first. Sports put a lot of pressure on kids and only a small percentage really makes it."

Domestic concerns will take a temporary backseat in Cleveland, where Zayak will put Forte and Gong on the ice and no doubt relive a few memories.

"It's easier, being a past champion, to relate to them," she said. "That's what they want to be, champions. They know I did it, and I can tell them how I felt."