Bold athletic skating is more or less routine for the male competitors but for women it largely begins and ends with Elaine Zayak. Until recently, athletic women were expected to keep that condition well hidden behind a cloak of femininity. In the 1920s and '30s, three-time Olympic champion Sonja Henie didn't attempt so much as a double jump in competition, nor did she try any even in her later career as a pro (though she did plenty of single and half jumps); five-time world champ and 1960 Olympic gold medalist Carol Heiss did one double axel in her program. Peggy Fleming, three-time world titlist and the '68 Olympic winner, threw in a few double axels, and every senior woman since then has attempted more, tugged along by evolution. But nobody jumps like Zayak.
In the four minutes of freestyle skating that caps a competition, Zayak does at least 18 jumps, often at the risk of either injury or blowing the contest. Seven of these jumps are triples of one sort or another. Although triples aren't required for the freestyle program, all senior women are expected to trot out a few, just to show their stuff; but none risk as many as Elaine. "You really don't know how one's gonna turn out until you're way up in the air," says Zayak. "If you goofed on takeoff, you sometimes try to break out of it in mid-jump. But that never works. You're up there, you're spinning, and you're dead. And what happens is, the audience actually sees a crash getting ready."
In the language of the sport, doubles are just what you'd expect: In the course of a particular sort of jump, be it an axel, a salchow or whatever, the skater does two 360s in midair. A triple, of course, comprises at least three 360-degree turns. The toughest of the jumps Zayak does is the triple loop. "You get going backwards, like really fast," says Zayak. "And you kind of crouch down—but gracefully—and put all your weight on your right foot, with the left foot out in front. And then you push off and lift yourself up—just like somebody going up for the high jump—and your momentum whips you around three times in the air. You land going backward."
Zayak does one triple loop in her allotted four minutes, plus four triple toe loops—in which the takeoff comes with the left toe dug quickly into the ice and the right leg coming around in an arc to provide the lift. One of the triple toe loops is executed in combination with a double axel and another is combined with a split jump. She also does two triple salchows, second-toughest of the jumps—no toe digging, merely a quick takeoff from the edge of her left blade. What's more demanding is that the seven triples are interspersed with other difficult moves, including the split and the double axel, which involves 2½ turns in the air.
All of this burns up three and a half minutes of intense activity from one end of the rink to the other. "Now there's just half a minute to go and I'm dead already," Zayak says. "But here's where the judges look very closely at you to see if you're tired; you've got to finish big and not look the slightest bit out of breath." And indeed, she finishes at top speed, but it's illusory; all of the really tough stuff is out of the way. She concludes with a double axel, half loop, double toe loop, butterfly spin and finally a scratch spin, a dizzying whirl in which the skater goes ever faster and faster until it seems she'll take off into the rafters like a helicopter. In this spin Zayak twirls so fast, building up so much centrifugal force in the process, that her blood surges to the surface of her skin, filling and often breaking the tiny capillaries there, so that for about an hour thereafter she is covered with a bright-red flush.
Still, despite all the daring stuff that Zayak does, there's the danger of some other competitor catching up. Which can only mean she'll have to roll out the last weapon. It's the triple axel, 3½ turns in the air. Very few of the men skaters can do it, and none is attempting it in competition these days. No woman ever has. "There's something about that extra half-turn," Zayak says. "It takes such big speed and power to pull it off. And if you fall on this jump, you reeeellly get hurt."
But wouldn't you know it? Zayak can do triple axels. She did them at 13; and if she has to, she'll do them again.