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Zakrajsek named PSA Coach of the Year

Trainer of Abbott, Flatt, Mroz and Bradley honored by PSA

Coach Tom Zakrajsek (middle) stands with Brandon Mroz (left) and Rachael Flatt (right).
Coach Tom Zakrajsek (middle) stands with Brandon Mroz (left) and Rachael Flatt (right). (Jo Ann Schneider Farris)

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By Lynn Rutherford, special to icenetwork.com
(05/20/2009) - Anyone can have a bad day at the office, even if they've just been named best in the country at their job.

"When I got the call, I was kind of having a rough coaching day, so it certainly brightened things up," said Tom Zakrajsek, who will be named the Professional Skating Association's Coach of the Year at the organization's annual conference in Orlando, Fla., Thursday evening.

"When you are honored by your peers, it's very special. The group I was nominated with -- Frank Carroll; Igor [Shpilband] and Marina [Zoueva]; and Natalia Linichuk and Gennadi Karponossov, and the two synchronized skating coaches -- did amazing work."

Zakrajsek had a season for the ages. Jeremy Abbott, who began training with him at the pre-juvenile level, became the coach's first senior national champion. Brandon Mroz capped his first senior campaign with the U.S. silver medal. Zakrajsek's first-ever student, Ryan Bradley, who began skating with him at just five years old, placed fourth at the 2009 AT&T U.S. Figure Skating Championships.

On the ladies side, Rachael Flatt, who started with Zakrajsek as a preliminary lady, won her second consecutive U.S. silver medal and placed fifth at her first senior worlds. 2008 U.S. junior champion Alexe Gilles won bronze at the Junior Grand Prix Final.

Zakrajsek's success isn't limited to the senior level. Joshua Farris took the U.S. men's novice title, and 2008 U.S. novice ladies champion Marissa Secundy, 2008 U.S. intermediate ladies bronze medalist Lauren Dinh and 2009 U.S. juvenile ladies bronze medalist Jessica Pfund are also in his stable.

"It's been a unique year," said Zakrajsek, who also won PSA Developmental Coach of the Year honors in 1999.

"To have three men on the [national] podium, and my very first senior national champion, and three skaters on the world team [Abbott, Mroz and Flatt], I don't know how often that can happen. You only have your first national champion once, so it's kind of special. As I was going through it, I kept saying, 'Let's enjoy this.' I'm just grateful for the great group of athletes I work with, who also work so hard for me."

Zakrajsek had high praise for his fellow professionals in Colorado Springs.

"[2008 PSA coach of the year] Dalilah Sappenfield said, 'I think the torch is going to pass from me to you this year,' and that says lot of great things about World Arena and the Broadmoor SC.

"Becky Calvin is a terrific coach and we have a really special working relationship. Jill Trenary Dean, the former world champion, helped all of my elite kids on the international team while I was traveling. And [choreographers] Lori Nichol, Tom Dickson and Catarina Lindgren worked with a lot of my athletes. So much about our sport is really related to those program component scores, and those three deserve special recognition."

Skating has dominated Zakrajsek's life since he took to the ice as a seven-year-old back in Cleveland, Ohio. Under the guidance of several coaches, including the late Norma Sahlin, who also trained 1978 world champion Charlie Tickner, he competed at the U.S. Championships six times: as a junior man in 1983, senior man in 1985-1988 and in senior pairs (with Sheila Nobels) in 1985.

Skating even figured into his courtship of his wife, Susan, whom he calls "the glue that holds the family together while I'm traveling so much." The couple has two children: Madison, 7, and Dylan, 5.

"My wife wasn't a competitive skater, but she went through the basic tests," Zakrajsek said. "On our second date, we went skating, and she got out there and did forward and back crossovers and some Mohawks. I was so impressed. I thought, 'Hey, maybe this will work.'"

Zakrajsek credits another woman, Bradley's mother Barb, for giving him his start as a coach after he retired from touring with Disney on Ice in 1991.

"Barb was the president of the St. Joseph Figure Skating Club [in Missouri] when I started there. Becky and Ryan were my first students. Then, I think about seven years later, when Christy Krall left [U.S. World Arena] to take a job with U.S. Figure Skating, I was hired to coach here.

"I brought maybe five skaters with me [including the Bradley siblings] but really built my student base from the Learn to Skate program, right up to the national level."

Part of Zakrajsek's success lies in his acceptance and embrace of the International Judging System.

"Of course it's not perfect, but I still think it's a much better system than 6.0," he said. "There's greater opportunity for skaters from all nations to break into the sport and make names for themselves. And that is really unprecedented.

"Things can be improved but ultimately, most of time you can go, 'Yeah, that's pretty much how the results should have come out.' Judging based on name and reputation is occurring less in the sport. It makes it more fair to young skaters coming up and to the audience who is watching."

Zakrajsek was a natural choice for this year's honors, said PSA President Kelley Morris-Adair.

"Tom has been a member of PSA for 20 years, and we're so proud to have him as a part of our association," she said.

"He is absolutely phenomenal with all the success he's had at the sectional, national and world level."

The award itself is a joint effort between PSA and U.S. Figure Skating, Morris-Adair explained.

"Working with U.S. Figure Skating, we get a list of all world and national coaches who have had several athletes [at events] and their successes throughout the year. After the [synchronized skating] worlds, the [awards] committee is sent a list of coaches, and the competitors at different levels they have trained.

"We review the list on a conference call and go over all the athletes' successes. From there, we nominate six or seven coaches. This year was one of our largest ballots, because we felt there were so many deserving coaches."

Zakrajsek is joining august company. Recent winners include not only Sappenfield, who coached Keauna McLaughlin and Rockne Brubaker to two national pair titles, but ice dance great Shpilband, who has won twice; Pam Gregory, the former coach of 2006 world champion Kimmie Meissner; and Vicki Korn, who recently announced her retirement after 25 years coaching synchronized skating at Miami University of Ohio.

Icons of the sport including Carroll [three times], Ron Ludington, John Nicks and Carol Heiss Jenkins have also been honored.

Zakrajsek will receive his prize at a banquet Thursday evening. Other awards, including Developmental Coach of the Year, Hall of Fame inductees and Choreographer of the Year will also be presented.

"It's humbling to even be included among all these great coaches," Zakrajsek said.

"But you know, I don't think any of us coach to win awards. It's an exceptional honor, but it isn't motivation. You coach to have an impact on young skaters' lives and to help them reach their goals. I get a lot of satisfaction out of the daily grind."