Tales of the Blade: Elaine Zayak - Transcript


Transcribed by Becs (@becsfer), Tilda (@tequilda) and Andrea (@starryyuzu)

Kite: Welcome to In The Loop - Tales of the Blade, where we dive into the fascinating and often humorous history of figure skating. Let’s introduce this weeks hosts:

Yogeeta; Hi I'm Yogeeta. I know nothing about this week's topic, which is great because I didn't do any work for this episode whatsoever. You can find me on twitter at @liliorum.

Kite: Hi, I’m Kite, and I’m squeezing in one last episode before disappearing to Asia for three weeks. You can find me on Twitter @mossyzinc.

Kite: So today is gonna be our second episode of Tales of the Blade, which is a new series where we're gonna dive into the history of figure skating. So the catch here is that one of the hosts is going to be teaching topic of the episode and the other host does not know anything about the topic that is about to be taught to them. So this week we are going to be talking about Elaine Zayak, who has the dubious honor of having one of the best known technical rules named after her. We do have to warn you before getting into this episode that there is going to be some mention of eating disorders, so if that is particularly upsetting to you then please refer to the time stamps for where to skip in the episode. So let's get right into it! Yogeeta can you tell me what the Zayak rule is?

Yogeeta: Oh god, I'm sure I could have told you this when it wasn’t relevant. Yeah so Elaine Zayak, from what I recall of my five minutes of researching what the Zayak rule was when I first started watching figure skating, she won Worlds or the Olympics or something by like just repeating the same jump over and over again. And so the rule was enacted after that so you couldn't more than two of the same type of triple or quad in a program.

Kite: Yeah so that's basically the gist of it. So prior to 1982 there were no set rules on what jump layouts had to be in a figure skating competition. And afterwards the ISU adopted what is colloquially known as the Zayak rule, which states that skaters cannot repeat any jumps more than twice in a program and if they do choose to repeat a jump one of them has to be in combination or sequence. Which is where our best friend +REP comes from.

Yogeeta: Ah yes, my good old friend.

Kite: So the Zayak rule has undergone some revision since it was first introduced. The most current version which was enacted at the ISU congress last year states that skaters, primarily men, cannot repeat more than one type of quad in the free skate, and skaters can't repeat more than two jump types in the free skate. Which was already part of the rule before the ISU congress last year. So the rule is intended to encourage skaters to show a wider variety of skills, but it has met with some criticism and concern that it can cause skaters to risk their health or safety in attempting hard jumps that they might not yet be ready for. And although I feel like most figure skating fans who watch somewhat regularly are aware of the existence of the Zayak rule and possibly that it's called the Zayak rule but they may not know where it came from and the story of the skater behind it. So this is what I am going to be teaching Yogeeta and all of you today!

Yogeeta: Exciting!!

Kite: So brief intro into Elaine Zayak, she was born on April 4, 1965 in Paramus, New Jersey, to Jeri and Richard Zayak. She actually began skating at the age of 3 as a form of physical therapy, because she lost 3 toes in a lawn mower accident.

Yogeeta: Oh my god! What?

Kite: And her doctor recommended that she start skating to ensure that she didn't develop a limp.

Yogeeta: Is this all one foot? She lost three toes on one foot?

Kite: Yes!

Yogeeta: Oh my god!

Kite: Yeah.

Yogeeta: How did she balance?

Kite: So she had to wear a specially-supported boot to accommodate for the fact that her foot was shaped differently. By the age of six, she was training with Peter Burrows, who was also the coach of Dorothy Hamill and with Marylynn Gelderman, who coached Sam Cesario who won pewter medals at US nationals in the past couple years. And so basically from the age of six she was training with the intent to be a figure skating champion. Her dad would drive her from their home in New Jersey to New York every day for practice and would give her a dollar for every perfect jump that she landed and she landed up to 50 a day.

Yogeeta: Oh my god that's insane.

Kite: Yeah and [at] that age too.

Yogeeta: She's just six at this point, right?

Kite: Yeah, well this continued it seems like into her later career but at the age of six was when she really started taking skating more like as a career than as a hobby. Her dad was pretty gung ho about her becoming a ladies champion. We'll get into that too. So background on the ladies field that Elaine Zayak was competing in. So prior to her, there were really no female figure skaters who were consistently competing with triples. Dorothy Hamill actually won the Olympics in 1976 with only doubles. And although all the triple jumps, aside from the triple Axel, had been landed in competition by women by 1978, the the mentality towards them was that they were more jumps for “men.” But Elaine’ Zayak's father told her, “Just because the guys are doing them doesn’t mean the girls can’t do them.” And so what they really saw it as was if she could master a triple jump, then she would be able to win without much of a problem.

Yogeeta: Wow Elaine Zayak's father would get along really well with the Russian lady coaches.

Kite: (laughter) And before 1980, the scoring system did not necessarily favor skaters who had a wide repertoire of jumps. Because compulsory figures were still in existence. So compulsory figures were basically when the skaters would go and just trace like figure eights and other patterns on the ice and judges would score how clean their patterns were and how well they used their edges and so it really favored skaters who had more experience competing and by definition were older. So when competitions were composed of compulsory figures and then a short program and a free skate, the raw scores for each segment was tallied before the ordinal rank was determined. And so since there was a wide range of scores possible for the compulsory figures portion, it was possible to take such a large lead after compulsory figures as to effectively win the competition regardless of what happened in the Short Program and the Free Skate. After 1980 was when the more familiar 6.0 system was established. So the skaters were ranked ordinally after each segment. And so this followed the diminishing of how much the compulsory figures counted towards overall score. So Elaine actually came of age at a time where it became more and more beneficial to demonstrate technical skill. And she was the first lady who really had an arsenal of triples that she was landing consistently in competition. Elaine won Junior Worlds in 1979, three years after the event was created. Which I actually did not know that Junior Worlds was such a young event.

Yogeeta: Ah so what did Juniors do before ? Did they just go straight to Seniors ?

Kite: I think that there was not an age restriction on skaters competing in Seniors back in Elaine's day.

Yogeeta: I guess that would make sense.

Kite: But yes she actually moved up to Seniors the following year, competed at Senior Worlds where she placed 11th. And then the next year after that she was second at Worlds.

Yogeeta: Oh wow!

Kite: So pretty big jump up obviously for her. She was like 15 when she won the silver medal at Worlds. So definitely considered a bit of a prodigy in her time. And the finally, in 1982, she won US Nationals at the age 16 and became world champion that same year. She landed six triples in her free skate, but four of them were triple toes. And so the ISU acted pretty swiftly. They actually passed the Zayak rule during the ISU Congress that same year. So basically like three months afterwards. And a quote from a fellow competitor kind of gives insight into the rationale behind why they passed this technical rule. So this person said “Everyone was amazed by her ability to do those triples, but the knee-jerk reaction was, ‘We can’t have the sport become a jumping contest.’ It was new and different and amazing. She was so ahead of her time that I think people didn’t know what to do with it.” So definitely sounds familiar to some of the things that have been said in the wake of the quad revolution, which I thought was really interesting. That back then it was triples, women jumping triples was considered this trailblazing event. And now it's like there's junior girls doing quad lutzes and stuff. It's pretty wild how far the sport has come in just like the past 30 years.

Yogeeta: In a couple of decades people will be jumping quints.

Kite: Don't say that.

(hosts laugh)

Kite: Why must you hurt me like this? This is a happy story.

Yogeeta: Is it !?

Kite: No...(laughter)...I mean spoiler alert it kind of does have a happy ending in a bittersweet sort of way. After winning the 1982 World Championships, Elaine naturally became a favorite for gold at the 1984 Olympics. Her hometown even erected a sign at their city border which said ‘Home of world champion Elaine Zayak’ and she was given a sports car. So definitely a lot of pressure being heaped on her, and remember she was only 16 at the time going into the 1984 Olympics. And everyone thought well 1984 is only two years away, she's basically a favorite for the gold medal with triple jumps and everything.

Yogeeta: Regardless of the decade we will always have too much media pressure on our athletes.

Kite: Agreed, but I feel like even in this day and age you don't really see like towns putting up signs saying you know "home of world figure skating champion". But it also was more popular in her day than it was now. I don't think too many people would actually care that much. She came from a small town too, so it's like oh it's their point of pride is that we raised a figure skating world champion. Following the end of the 1982 season, Elaine actually went on vacation with a friend. And when she came back at the end of the summer, her coaches started commenting on how much weight she had gained and encouraged her to lose a few pounds. Unfortunately the pressure put on her by her coaches in addition to the added pressure from her father and the US federation to train for 1983 Worlds and the 1984 Olympics caused her to develop an eating disorder that was characterized by cycles of binging. And this is actually really quite sad, Elaine recalls how once she walked to the corner store to buy a snack, was actually turned away at the counter because her coaches had instructed the clerks at the store to only sell her coffee and tea. So she ended up driving to another store, buying a pint of ice cream, and eating it in the parking lot.

Yogeeta: That sounds absolutely crazy. How could her coach be able to control what a store is selling her.

Kite: Yeah that was the point at which I was like "this is questionable". After the end of her career her coaches did acknowledge that she was really the first top skater that they had had. So because of that they were kind of drive to push her really hard to prove that they could produce a World and Olympic champion. I feel like you still see that a lot with coaches today who maybe aren't as well known in the elite figure skating communities that suddenly have one skater who shoots up the ranks. They really just want to put that one skater out there and as a result sometimes things like this could happen. It's just quite unfortunate and speaks to the politics behind you know if you have a coach with a reputation you might get scored better and things like that so...

Yogeeta: At the end of the day [what] coaches should care the most about is the state of their athletes and how physically healthy they are. Like I understand that reputation and medals and all of that...I guess we see this with the Russian ladies,

Kite: You see with like the US ladies too, I feel like. Maybe to a lesser extent.

Yogeeta: We see it with basically all skaters to some degree. I guess like when I think about it the most or who I'm really seeing it the most currently with is Alysa Liu.

Kite: Yeah that's exactly who I was thinking of when I was reading this story, I was like wow there are definitely some parallels there. I mean you know Elaine states quite an extreme scenario even by those standards but I mean it does shed some insight into the mentality of her coaches. She went on to place 2nd at 1983 Nationals anyway. And she was sent to 1983 Worlds, where she competed in the compulsory figures portion and then withdrew in the middle of the competition, citing her injured foot.

Yogeeta: Oh no!

Kite: She unfortunately was never the strongest competitor in compulsory figures, which caused judges to give her low scores and she believes that this was compounded by skating politics. In other words, she thought they were intentionally scoring her lower than what she was merited to prevent her from getting on the podium. She eventually did go to the 1984 Olympics, but she was 13th after the compulsory figures portion which effectively erased her chance of winning a medal at all, much less winning the gold like she was expected to do two years previously when she won Worlds. She actually finished 6th overall at the Olympics, which is not a terrible result by any reasonable measure.

Yogeeta: Oh yeah, definitely not.

Kite: And she won the Bronze at the 1984 Worlds. Any of us who have watched a post-Olympics Worlds, it can get messy pretty quickly. The fact that she could pull herself up following what was certainly disappointing for her at the Olympics is pretty impressive. Unfortunately, her father had continued putting pressure on her during this time to be a figure skating ladies champion, so he actually took away the sports car she had been given when her results was starting to slip and she wasn’t as interested in training anymore. He started driving the car himself, which was obviously very upsetting for her. Following the Olympics, her dad actually called her -- and this is a direct quote -- “a fat washed up World Champion.” And she has not spoken to him since then.

Yogeeta: What a terrible father, firstly.

Kite: There’s not a lot of recent interviews with her. I think the most recent that I found that really made headlines was like 20 years ago, but that was still in 1999. As of then, she was not speaking to her father and had not since the 1984 Olympics. Definitely some unfortunate family dynamics going on there with the pressure he put on her to be a champion. After the Olympics, she ended up turning professional. So she joined Ice Capades, which was kind of the precursor to Stars on Ice and they paid her $4,000 a week, which is a big part of the reason why she ended up joining although she didn’t really want to tour. Her parents were going through a divorce at the same time and she felt like she could use the money. Some other people convinced her to join the tour because it is a pretty decent amount of money for an 18-year-old to be making if you’re skating in professional shows. Later she did admit that she hated the experience of skating in Ice Capades, but it’s important to remember that Elaine was still competing and performing at a time when skaters could make a decent amount of money skating in shows. It was a stable career following competing as an amateur that you don’t see anymore necessarily. When I saw $4,000, I was like, oh my god.

Yogeeta: Yeah, that’s a lot of money for a skater. I’m like, we’re living in the days where skaters can’t afford to pay their coaching fees, pay for new costumes and all of that. But you can get $4,000 a week to skate in an ice show? I can’t imagine that ever happening anymore. I wonder how much people on Stars on Ice get paid these days.

Kite: I highly highly doubt that the amount they get paid approaches anywhere close to $4,000 a week.

Yogeeta: Oh definitely not.

Kite: And this was $4,000 in 1984 which is more than that now. That was just an absurd amount of money. It probably wasn’t a year long thing. They probably toured for a couple weeks

Yogeeta: $4,000 in 1984 is approximately $10,000 today.

Kite: That’s crazy! It was a different time, especially for Elaine Zayak not having the best relationship with her father, her parents going through a divorce, and her trying to step away from her competitive career, it was probably a sensible choice for her at the time to join IC although later she admitted she didn’t like skating in a tour. Those days the line between amateur and professional skating was a lot more firmly drawn than it is today. So after a skater turns professional and was receiving money to skate in shows, they couldn’t come back to amateur competition. But in 1990 the ISU actually reversed that rule and allowed skaters who turned pro to come back to competition if it was approved by their federation. That’s how today you can have skaters who are skating in Stars on Ice and then also coming back and skating a World Championships and what have you. Elaine actually did not come back to skating when that rule was instated, so in 1991 after she had spent some time skating in the Ice Capades and working in a restaurant for a time, being a restauranteur and trying to go to college, but then not quite finishing her degree, Elaine rejoined her old coaches and coached part-time. And then she made the decision to return to competitive skating herself. Elaine actually competed at the 1994 US Championships 10 years after her last competition at 1984 Worlds. She was 28 at the time. She landed a triple loop in the competition for the first time in her competitive career, finished fourth and was actually named as an alternate to the Olympic team.

Yogeeta: Oh wow!

Kite: Yeah, she actually competed in the same event as Michelle Kwan, which I feel is very strange for me to think about. Because I just imagine them being from completely different different areas, and then it's like "no, they actually competed together". I mean, granted, Michelle Kwan was a teenager at the time and Elaine Zayak was the oldest competitor in the event, but still. It's kind of two eras coming together, which I thought was really interesting. Elaine actually talked about that experience of competing at the 1994 US Championships and said that she had skaters coming up to her saying she was their inspiration for starting skating, and they had watched her compete at Worlds and the Olympics when they were like 8 years old. And she was like, "oh my God, I'm actually really old."

Yogeeta: Yeah, well, 28 is old in skating terms.

Kite: That's like firmly an uncle territory, or auntie territory.

Yogeeta: When I think about the 1994 US Nationals, I wouldn't even start to think about Elaine Zayak because of the whole Tonya Harding/Nancy Kerrigan stuff that also happened then. But it's nice to hear that the fact that you had such a big traumatic event happen at the US Nationals, that something good actually also happened. Elaine Zayak made her own choice, especially since it sounds like her career has been really dictated by her coaches and her father and the expectations of the media and the US Fed, that she did this one thing for herself and she did it really well.

Kite: It's always really nice to see skaters who seem to be dictated by what their coaches want them to do, or what their families wants them to do, and then finally they just are able to regain control of their career and just skate for the sake of their own enjoyment. I feel that's always super nice. But yeah, it's 1994 US Nationals, it wasn't completely cursed.

Yogeeta: It was like 90% cursed, but there's this 10%...

Kite: ... Of a silver lining. There was a wholesome story going on, it was just completely overshadowed by everything else that happened there, but you've got to focus on the positive things.

Yogeeta: The positive things...

Kite: So, in her later life, Elaine ended up leaving competitive skating for good after she had a benign tumor removed in 1997. She has been coaching since then, so she works as a coach in Hackensack, New Jersey. She actually coached alongside Peter Burrows who was her coach for a while and then ended up leaving and taking some of the students with her. So now their relationship isn't as good as it used to be, which is pretty unfortunate. She was also inducted into the US Figure Skating Hall of Fame in 2003 and the Polish-American Athletes Hall of Fame. Definitely rounded out her career in a way that probably most people weren't anticipating, following the 1984 Olympics and 1984 Worlds, but she was definitely able to end on her own terms, which is always good to see. Especially in a sport like figure skating where it can be really nebulous and nothing is really guaranteed to you, that she was able to retake the love that had brought her to competitive skating in the first place.

Yogeeta: Have any of her students become top skaters within the US or any other country?

Kite: Not winning medals at the national level. She does coach at the same rink that Morozov coached at prior to moving back to Russia. So Hackensack, New Jersey, apparently is a hub of figure skating, which is not the first thing that I would think of when I think of New Jersey, but.

Yogeeta: What kind of frustrates me though is that, it seems like she had this eating disorder but she never really got help for it, and it doesn't seem like it was a high priority for her coaches or the US federation.

Kite: That's a good point, I actually want to plug a book that was really instrumental in researching this episode, it's called Little Girls in Pretty Boxes. It's actually from about 1995, so it is a little bit out of date, but basically it goes into all the issues that young women in elite sports face and it focuses primarily on gymnastics and figure skating. So it actually goes into a lot of detail with how eating disorders are a lot more prevalent in figure skating than people tend to assume, and how back in the day the US Figure Skating Association and other federations did not have a framework in place to help skaters who were dealing with this. And it was the attitude of a lot of coaches in that time period that "all you have to do is win" and then after you win you can eat. And that was actually featured pretty prominently in the book with these very vivid scenes of skaters competing and then immediately rushing to a cookie stand or to a food booth and just stuffing themselves. It's a very sobering book into the other side of how these sports are seen- it's just very glamorous and full of these perfect ballerina-like figures, and then it turns out to not really be like that at all. And I think in the present day and age there's definitely more awareness that stuff like this goes on, but it's still something that really needs to be addressed. It's quite sad that Elaine didn't get the help she needed at such a vulnerable age when all of this was going on, and the pressure was just mounting and mounting on her and she really didn't have any healthy way of coping with it. There is some happy news, so actually she married after her competitive career ended, and her son is now a lacrosse goalie.

Yogeeta: Oh! Exciting!

Kite: Yeah it's quite successful, it seems like. He's pretty young still, like high school age, but he's been quite successful as a lacrosse player. In the end, despite the tumultuous career and skating experiences that she had, she did turn out to make a life for herself that she hopefully could be happy with.

Yogeeta: I support her and whatever future she has, and I hope she is having a better life now than it sounds like she did when she was a competitive skater.

Kite: Yeah, it really sound like she tries to make her students' skating experience smoother than hers was, which is kind of the flip side to everything that she went through, if something positive comes out of it it's that her students can have-

Yogeeta: Can learn from her experiences, and she can learn what not to do as a coach.

Kite: Yeah, exactly.

Yogeeta: Thank you all for listening, we hope to see you again for our next episode!

Kite: If you want to get in touch with us, then please feel free to contact us via our website inthelopodcast.com or on Twitter or Tumblr. You can find our episodes on Youtube, iTunes, Google Play, Stitcher and Spotify.

Yogeeta: If you enjoy the show, and want to help support the team, then please consider making a donation to us on our ko-fi page, and we’d like to give a huge thank you to all the listeners who have contributed to our team thus far. You can find all the links to our social media pages and our ko-fi on the website.

Kite: If you’re listening on iTunes, please consider leaving a rating and a review if you enjoyed the show. Thanks for listening, this has been Kite,

Yogeeta: and Yogeeta.

Kite: See you soon!

Yogeeta: Bye!