Skip to main content
Original Issue


Not long ago Elaine Zayak was just a skating bee in a kiddies' ice show. Now she's the champion of the world, and her high-flying style has the staid folks of figure skating all abuzz

From outside the car, looking through the windshield from just a few feet away, about the only thing that shows up behind the steering wheel is a mop of bright blonde curls. But from inside, from the front passenger seat, one can take in the rest of Elaine Zayak, all 5'3" of her, sitting up straight with her head thrown back so that she can see over the dashboard. She's driving expertly—if a bit too fast—playing the pedals with her tiny white cowboy boots while also talking in a high, chirpy voice, tuning the radio, gesturing, changing lanes and pointing out the sights of her hometown in New Jersey. See there? That sprawl of low buildings is the Paramus Park Mall. " 'At's where I do all my personal appearances," she says. She giggles. It's a trademark giggle that she uses as a form of punctuation. "Lotsa folks recognize me in the mall," she says. "Well, 'at's me. The Pride of Paramus."

Well, 'at's her, all right, but she's not just the Pride of Paramus. She's La Zayak, at 17 the reigning queen of figure skating and an athlete quite unlike anybody else in that benighted sport. She may be the pride of a vast world of fans outside Paramus—but she's the despair of a sizable group of folks who control figure skating. Imagine it. If that group, consisting of international officials and judges, had its druthers, it would still prefer Peggy Fleming, forever ethereal, wrapped in pastel gauze, a soft-spoken butterfly. Peggy Fleming was never a problem.

This attitude will be a crucial factor in the sport in the next 15 months—two until the national championships, three to the world's and then on to the February 1984 Winter Olympics in Sarajevo, Yugoslavia. For here is one of the gutsiest, get-it-down athletes in the land, a specialist in the fine art of come-from-be-hind victories, in a sport run largely by hidebound conservatives. On the one hand, the figure skating folks appreciate her—there's no ignoring Zayak on the ice—and yet they can't seem to get comfortable with her.

For starters, they squirm and roll their eyes toward the heavens whenever she speaks in that Ziegfeld Follies voice of hers. Ideally, for many American and most European executives of the International Skating Union, their queen, the world champion, would say, "My deahs. How lovely of you to come to our little competition. It was veddy, veddy difficult. And I'm sure you could not help but notice that I can do triple loops, most exhausting, devastating leaps, in which I spin around three times in midair, dahlings. Indeed, I could hear many of you gasp in amazement as I twirled dizzily over the ice. Well...."

That's the ideal. But here's the way it comes out when Zayak says it: "Well, like, I mean, I've always been a good jumper, you know [giggle]. I mean, I get up to speed and then I swing it like this [a saucy little body move here to show how she swings it], and then, like, I just sort of yank myself up off of the ice. And suddenly I'm spinning around in midair [giggle]. Lissen, I gotta shut my eyes to keep from gettin' dizzy [Giggle]. And I can hear everybody going oooooohhhhh."

Now that's terrific. Anybody who can make a sport come to life so plainly, without pretense, is a national treasure. She should not be buffed or polished, nor should she be banished to charm school by a band of people stubbornly clinging to a daguerreotype of skating the way it once was, the way they'd like it to remain forever. Zayak is the straight, undiluted stuff.

The Zayaks live at the very end of McHenry Drive in one of those California-style houses with several interior levels connected by short staircases, so that every room seems to be a mezzanine. Out in the backyard are a swimming pool and gas barbecue grill and a trampoline, and Jeri, Elaine's 42-year-old mom, has hung pots of flowers from the tree branches; one of the trees has been so overloaded that its branches bend almost to the ground. Right smack over the backyard fence is the Garden State Parkway with its steady, dull roar of traffic. Occasionally, heady clouds of exhaust fumes roll through the Zayak property. Like all moms in the neighborhood, Jeri used to tell her kids that the ditch just beyond the fence was loaded with deadly snakes and trolls and snapping turtles and Lord knows what all, so that the children wouldn't be tempted to wander across it and into the traffic.

But all the Zayaks are too old for that now. Elaine is a high school senior and although her busy training and travel schedule allows her to attend Paramus High for only a couple of hours a day, she gets some help from a tutor and will graduate next spring. Ricky, the only son, is 20, an auto mechanic and a good one. Cindy, one year older than Elaine, graduated from high school last spring; she's working two jobs and saving her money to move to California. "Typical family," says Jeri. "You know, the kids always standing in front of the open refrigerator door, studying the contents while all the cold gets away. Cindy keeps a lock on her bedroom door so that Elaine can't sneak in and borrow her clothes. But still, we all get along." Jeri's husband, Rich, a 46-year-old with thinning sandy hair and a mustache, presides over the scene with the wry detachment of a guy who has been a bartender all his life. Rich and his mother are co-owners of Lou's Tavern in Hillsdale, N.J., just 10 minutes north of Paramus. It's not far from the old Erie Lackawanna Railroad tracks, a working-man's bar in the blue-collar, hard-hat part of town, where "every Sattidy and Sunday we got an argument over what to watch on television," Rich says. "I mean, one old customer wants to watch the football. And another regular says, 'Naaawwww, turn on the baseball game.' And maybe still another guy wants the bowling." Rich shrugs. "But when there's figure skating on—well, if it's Elaine, we watch the figure skating."

Think of it. This has got to be one of the great tableaux in modern America: small bar in Jersey; several guys in T shirts and workpants, some with their bellies spilling over their belts and with tattooed forearms resting on the bar. They're all raptly watching a tiny blonde girl in sequins swirl through triple jumps and double toe loops to symphonic melodies, and maybe they occasionally murmur to one another, "Sheeeesh! Did youse see dat move?" But that's the way it is at Lou's Tavern. (Lou, by the way, was the name of the guy Rich's father bought the tavern from 16 years ago.) The Zayaks' ancestors came from Czechoslovakia; in fact, Rich's mother was born in the old country. "But we're not Czechs," he says. "The folks were very fussy about that. We're Slovaks."

The present Zayaks are very fussy—and rightly so—about the pronunciation of their last name. "Once, a long time ago," Jeri says, "I had a message to call this ABC commentator. This was when Elaine was just getting started, before we all knew each other. So he answered the phone and I said, 'Hello, Mister Dick Buttons?' And he got really huffy and he yelled, 'The name is Button. BUTTON.' And so I yelled, 'O.K. Our name is Zayak, ZAY-ak, not ZIE-ak.' "

And now the Pride of Paramus herself comes clomping downstairs in her white cowboy boots. She's wearing tight designer jeans and a slinky black tank top and—a brand-new addition—half-inch-long fake fingernails. She sits down and admires them, holding out both hands and turning them this way and that. And she giggles. "When I first got 'em," she says, "the lady did 'em in this really neat color called Do The Town Pink. But this friend of mine, he's a hockey player, he said they made me look..." She consults her mother. "Do these make me look like a hooker?"

Jeri shakes her head. "Not if you keep them a nice, plain, natural color," she says.

Because figure skating is a sport with one foot firmly planted in show business, there's always grave and nervous concern among the competitors over appearance; everybody tries to achieve some sort of magic aura that will dazzle those who watch. Clearly, too much stress is placed on what one wears, on how one stands, how one's hair looks, on how to position one's arms and hands. The men included. Crazily, none of these things have anything to do with how one does on the ice. Ideally, all figure skaters should be made to do their free skating in identical black woollen long Johns with their heads shaved so there'd be no distraction from their performances. And as for the school figures, says Jeri, all competitors should execute them in the dark of night in an empty rink, leaving only their tracings to be judged the next morning.

One of the ironies in figure skating is that image has become even more important to Zayak than to most of her competitors because she's a pure athlete thrown in among balletic types. In free skating, competitors are scored on two qualities, technical merit (how tough the program is) and artistic impression (how well it's done). And there are moments, painful to watch, when one can actually sense Zayak struggling to maintain that graceful flow of movement the sport has always demanded. Heaven knows, it ain't easy being a swan. Two years ago in San Diego, after winning the national championship at 15—typically striking from fifth spot after the compulsories—she confided to SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, "I do and I don't want to become a woman. You know, I want to be older so that I'm treated like a lady—but I want to look younger so that people will see me and say, 'Awwwww.' "

Well, there's no mistaking Zayak now. She's a sturdy young woman of 115 or so pounds, still carrying traces of her old chipmunk-cheek cuteness, but with a definite new, steely air of adult determination. So far it has been fun for her, a life of upset wins and jumping on competitors from out of nowhere, but now she's the world champion and the subject of even more critical scrutiny from the old guard. Cute can only get a girl so far; now she's a real target, and the toughest meets lie ahead. To keep the title, she says, "You've gotta want this really bad. Like I did when I was a kid."

To understand that determination one must go back to an accident that happened when Elaine was a kid, an episode many folks in the figure-skating world don't even know about. It never appears in the outpouring of publicity on Zayak, and the family doesn't discuss it unless pressed, and then only in the most general terms. Rich and Jeri adapted this attitude years ago, partly because the memory is painful, partly because they wanted to forestall any possible sympathy vote for Elaine. She would have to make it to the top on her own.

"It was when Elaine was 2½ years old," Jeri says. "Rich had just finished mowing the lawn—we had a ride-around mower—and he had parked it in the driveway and gone to open the garage door so he could drive it in. The mower was still running, of course. We had a strict rule that the kids weren't to be playing outside when Daddy was mowing the lawn, but just to make sure, he called to me to keep them inside. And just as he was calling at one side of the house, here came little Elaine from around the other side, running for her daddy. And suddenly she slipped and fell. There was a blade guard around the bottom of the mower, of course, but...her feet were so small that her left foot slid right underneath it. And the blades cut off most of her foot, diagonally, from the second toe angling back toward her heel." Jeri sighs, recalling the horror of that day. "I'll never forget Rich running into the house carrying Elaine in his arms. While I called for help, he laid her down on the kitchen floor and then whipped off his belt and made a tourniquet with it."

There was a long, painful recovery. Elaine had to learn to walk all over again, this time wearing a built-up left shoe, with padding where her three outer toes and most of the left side of the foot should have been. At first, doctors said that while Elaine might walk again, she'd always have a limp. But the Zayaks are a tough, resilient family and "in six months, by the time she was three years old," Jeri says, "we had her on skates. In a nursery school. Coloring books and hot chocolate and ice skating. She had tiny skates, the left one specially built. It was strictly for therapy, to teach her balance again. You know those Day-Glo orange plastic cones they set out in road construction to control traffic? Well, today's world figure-skating champion started her career by hanging onto one of those, pushing it around the ice ahead of her as she went."

Next thing anybody knew, Zayak was a skating black pussycat and then a bumblebee in those great revues, Tots on Ice, at Fritz Dietl's rink in Westwood, N.J. And from the moment she first heard folks actually clapping for her, Zayak knew what she wanted to do. "I just, like, got this thing into my head," she says. "I wanted to skate all the time. I went from lesson to lesson. I'd see big skaters make certain jumps and I'd copy them—keep doing it again and again. All by myself, falling and wobbling all over, until I finally got it right. My dad used to watch; his way of encouraging me was to bet me. 'Got a buck says you can't make that jump,' he'd say. And so, when I was just a little kid, I mean really small, I could jump like crazy."

But there's considerably more to it than that, of course, and if it weren't for Peter Burrows, Zayak might still be bounding around more or less aimlessly across the ice, a victim of her own exuberance. Burrows is to figure skating what Joe Paterno is to college football, with maybe the slightest touch of Woody Hayes thrown in. He's a transplanted Briton, a big, imposing guy, a purist, work-'em-hard, get-it-right coach, and if ever a couple of hard heads were made for each other, it's Peter and Elaine.

Burrows has a record of producing winners who demonstrate technical mastery as well as artistry, most notably Dorothy Hamill, the 1976 U.S. national champion and Olympic gold medalist. Zayak was a first-year novice (one of the competition classes in figure skating), 12 years old, when Burrows spotted her in a meet at Lake Placid. "She was, right then, the gutsiest kid I'd ever seen," he says. "I could tell that she was going to go all the way, that she would leave her own mark on figure skating."

Says Zayak: "Up until I signed with Mister Burrows, I thought I had been learning—but I had just been playing on the ice. Jeez. He's just like my dad! I mean [giggle], he can go from a normal voice to a scream, just like that. And he made me work. If I'd do something wrong, he'd pull my hair; just grab a pigtail and yank me around. If I'd fall on a difficult jump, he'd yell for me to get up and do it over again. 'Jeez, Mom, this guy's pulling my hair' I'd say. 'He's just doing it to help,' Mom would say. And there was no back talk, ever. If I'd fall out of a jump and lay there, trying to sort out how badly I was hurt, sometimes he'd skate over and kick me—not with the tip of his skate, but with the flat side, like this. 'Do it over!' he'd yell. 'Concentrate! Work. Get it right!' "

"Yeah, old Burrows is tough," says Rich. "He won't permit any—what do you call it?—petulance from his skaters. Me and Peter, we play a little racquetball now and then, and if he happens to miss a shot, sometimes he'll bang his racquet on the court. So I tell him, 'Ah-ah-ah. Don't kick the ice.' "

And then one day in 1978, Burrows called Elaine over and said casually, "Mmmmm, I think we might do well in the junior division next year." This was the first utterance of what was to become a code between them: "we might do well" means roughly: Let's sink the Bismarck. So in 1979 Zayak lined up the North Atlantic, the Eastern, the national and the world junior championships, all in a row—and won every one. And for their next act in '80, Burrows mused, they might even do well in the senior women's division, skating out there with the big ladies, despite the fact that Elaine would be only 14.

"And that," Burrows says now, "is when world figure skating began to change. Zayak has brought a new spirit of athleticism to it. It's the same in figure skating as in other sports today; each new wave of kids is better and stronger. The only thing I did was to seize the opportunity to put her athleticism into perspective. And the proof, of course, is in the reactions. When Elaine first appeared, there was a tendency to say, 'Cute, but all she can do is jump.' But now, you'll note, all of the senior women are jumping to whatever extent they can, following Zayak's lead."

Zayak was about this big—4'11", actually—in her first appearance as a senior, at the nationals in Atlanta, which also served as the Olympic Trials. She piled on some lipstick and rouge and combed spangles into her hair—which didn't fool anybody—and made a run at the ladies. It was a historic evening. In her four-minute free-style program, Zayak spent about three minutes in the air in various leaps. When it was all over she had won a standing ovation and a clutch of high marks and had scared the senior women half to death. She also had moved from ninth to fourth spot. She just missed making the Olympic team, but she was awarded by popular demand a berth on the U.S. world team.

Zayak's career since then—not always on the upswing—has been fueled by a phenomenon that often occurs in track and field; she draws her energy from the crowd. It's a bit like Mary Decker Tabb being carried along on waves of applause to a women's world mile record in Paris last July or like triple-jumper Willie Banks standing at the top of the runway at any meet, soliciting cheers. Zayak glides to her starting spot near the center of the rink, takes a deep breath and looks into the crowd. And at that moment she gives off a sort of charge, an impish air of boop-boop-e-doop. The rest of it is an exchange of energy. "Remember, there's no finish line in figure skating," says Mary Lynn Gelderman, a former skater who now works as an assistant coach to Burrows. "It's being judged subjectively, and Elaine is controlled by the way the crowd reacts. She must compete; she's driven by the urge to win. And if there's still a feeling abroad that perhaps Elaine came on too fast in this sport, it wasn't really our plan that she become world champion this soon—it's just that she couldn't be denied."

At her first world meet, in Dortmund, West Germany in 1980, Zayak advanced from 22nd spot in compulsory figures to 14th in the short program to, finally, 11th overall. The next year she won the U.S. championship and, pouncing from fifth, seized the silver medal at the world meet in Hartford, Conn., behind Switzerland's willowy Denise Biellmann. And then came the heady events of this year in which, as much as at any time in her life, she showed the guts that make her go.

First thing, at the nationals in Indianapolis in January, she lost her U.S. title. Nobody ever does that. Not only did Zayak lose the championship to a lithe young skater named Rosalynn Sumners of Edmonds, Wash., she dropped to third place. No excuses; it wasn't a case of we wuz robbed by unfair judging. Indeed, it all proved what everybody has always suspected about judging, says Gelderman: "If you're very very good, they can't stop you. Ah, but the first time you goof, they can really hurt you. It used to be that the reigning champion was somewhat protected by her title; only a drastic error could take it away. Now I don't think you'll see people hanging on to their titles for long stretches as they have in the past."

Zayak lost her title when she committed not one drastic error, but a series of them. In fact, she blew it across the board. She stepped out of a double salchow jump in her short program. She fell three times in the long program. Thus she arrived at the world championships in Copenhagen in March, like a pug fighter with the stumbles, down and presumably out. "Like, there's all kinds of pressures," says Zayak, "but, jeez, I think skating from behind is the worst. But I couldn't quit. See, you just can't ever show 'em you can't take it."

This was the scene in Copenhagen: There were 34 senior women from 21 countries. Not all of them were threats, by any means, but Zayak could expect fierce competition from Katarina Witt of East Germany, the defending champion, Claudia Kristofics-Binder of Austria and, of course, the new U.S. champion, Sumners. After the compulsory figures, Zayak was fourth; not good, but certainly not unusual for her. The compulsories count for 30% of the total scoring. And then came the freestyle short program—another 20%. For Zayak this was two minutes of disaster. Somewhere in the middle of a triple toe loop she lost it and came down: kuh-rash. She scrambled up and pushed on. "I never cut anything," she says. "If I fall on a triple and I got four more coming up, you think that I'd play it safe and cut them out? Uh-uh. No way." When the music and the scoring had finally ended, she was in 10th place in the short program. Zayak's combined scores in the two events put her seventh overall.

Let's face it, trying to come from seventh to win in the long program is an almost hopeless proposition. And in the moments before she went on—Zayak was out of the top seed and was assigned to skate 11th from the end—the following things happened:

•She momentarily went to pieces. Not in front of everybody; she closed herself in a small room with Burrows and just went blooey, screaming and crying. Burrows leaned against the door and let her yell it out. "You just can't put that kid down," he says. "I could actually feel her sense of fear, of being alone out there. But about the only thing I could do was to let her know that she was the best and not to worry."

•Hearing the yowling, Jeri came to the door and pounded desperately to get in. "Go away!" barked Burrows, bracing against the wall with one foot holding the door shut. "But I'm her mother!" Jeri protested.

"And I'm her coach!" Burrows yelled.

The door stayed closed.

•Along came, of all people, old Fritz Dietl of Tots on Ice. He got in the door. "So what are you afraid of already?" Dietl asked the former skating bumblebee.

•And then Rich showed up with that wry smile of his. He got in, too. "You don't have to be afraid of anything in this whole world," he told Elaine. He put a little Paramus pause in there. "Well, except me," he said.

But Elaine already knew all of that, and it is now a matter of skating legend that, when the tears had dried, she went out and blew their doors off. It was a wild, free program, full of flourish and with seven triple jumps (see box), only one of them the least bit wobbly. One of Europe's respected figure-skating critics, Alex McGowan, described it in the British magazine, Ice and Roller Skate: "Elaine Zayak...surely gave them something to shout at. A rare combination of youthful dynamism, technical strength and cheeky energy pervaded her performance. Let's hope the critics, especially in the U.S.A., will lay off her and her coach, Peter Burrows, and, instead, be proud of this gutsy kid who brought them a world championship."

That last comment was aimed at ABC in general and Peggy Fleming in particular. As color commentator for the network, Fleming, the three-time world and 1968 Olympic champion, whose most risky move as a skater was a modest double axel, tells viewers what is and isn't good. She has never liked athleticism. And even when Zayak came roaring out of seventh spot to win the world title, Fleming still wouldn't let the kid up. Nice, but as far as style goes she has a long way to go, Fleming said.

Well, whatever it is the kid may or may not have to learn, let's hope it doesn't change her. Paramus would be shattered, for one thing. The hometown girl came back to a triumphant welcome—sheesh, everybody was there, the mayor and all. The Zayaks were met at the Paramus city line by cops and sirens and escorted royally to the Paramus Park Mall for a gala reception. And the good old Paramus Bowl—you know, the place where Chris Schenkel broadcasts ABC's Pro Bowlers Tour show—put this sign on its marquee: WELCOME HOME, WORLD CHAMP ELAINE ZAYAK. And believe us, the folks there know how to pronounce it.

And now starts the final countdown. After all, a girl can't do this sort of thing forever; the life expectancy of a figure-skating champion is about that of an NFL running back, three or four good years. And in the style of most women skating champs dating all the way back to Sonja Henie, Zayak hopes to turn pro for big money after the '84 Winter Games. She sees the life of a pro as fantastically glamorous and exciting. She sees herself in swell clothes, tooling around in a bone-white Mercedes 450 SL convertible with real leather seats and her own personal license plates. And she sees herself in an ice show, skating to easy numbers in which she whips off maybe three triple jumps at the outside. The rest of it is all easy, uh, Peggy Fleming stuff. Although she sometimes talks about a place in Hollywood, Zayak expects to buy herself a house in Paramus—who'd really want to live anyplace else?

Nice. But first come a bunch of lesser competitions and then the three big ones: the national championships Feb. 1-5 in Pittsburgh, the 1983 world meet March 8-13 in Helsinki—and finally the Olympics.

They'll be the toughest meets ever. As luck would have it, after a sort of slack period, the level of world competition has improved vastly and Zayak is now being chased by a number of chargers. She is also coming off an injury—a lateral ligament strain in her left ankle. Her left foot is the takeoff foot for all her jumps. She's building up slowly for the long, hard campaign ahead.

"We're going to try to counter them with different and new stuff," says Burrows. "We're putting together a new program that'll carry Elaine through the Olympics. There'll be more difficult combinations. Maybe even one more triple jump."

Zayak rolls her eyes and looks resigned. "More triples?"

Burrows shrugs, ever tough. "If a woman can have a baby, she can do triple jumps," he says. "And if we work hard and do all of this correctly, I think we might do well."

Elaine flashes her grin. " 'At's me," she says.






A multiexposure photograph dramatizes Zayak's athleticism as she does a triple toe loop, one of the more difficult jumps in her freestyle program.



When Elaine does loops on the tube, Rich and the guys at Lou's drop football for figure skating.



Hometown girl makes good: The Pride of Paramus poses with the largest of her many trophies.



Although Zayak does most of her schoolwork with tutor Pat Burke, she still talks shop with Rich Russel at Paramus High.



Out behind the Zayak house is a ditch where, Jeri once told her children, dwelt deadly snakes and trolls. Now the only beast at home is four-month-old Baron.



Burrows is polishing Zayak's form for the tough competition ahead: nationals, worlds, Olympics.



One year after she lost half of her left foot in a lawnmower mishap, Zayak, then three, was skating.



Zayak was only 15 when she won the nationals at San Diego.