Zayak prepares for 2nd chance

January 05, 1994|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,Staff Writer

DETROIT -- The dream came to Elaine Zayak a few years ago, long before the world of amateur skating opened its arms to the millionaire mercenaries of the ice-show circuit.

She wanted to compete again, wanted to show the world that the unhappy teen-ager who melted under a glare of Olympic publicity had grown into a strong, resourceful woman.

"I always thought that I would come back and be better than ever," she said.

So here she is, 10 years later and two pounds lighter, a 28-year-old preparing to skate at the 1994 U.S. Figure Skating Championships.

There are a lot of wonderful stories in the making here, of kids and veterans who will realize Olympic dreams come the weekend.

But Zayak has a different, albeit equally terrific, story to tell.

Of all the professionals who have been reinstated to competition, Zayak seems to be having the most fun.

Watch her practice, a 5-foot-3, 116-pound bundle of energy, leaping across the ice, a smile on her face, and she is a picture of joy.

And underneath the stands at the Joe Louis Arena, she is every skater's best friend. Brian Boitano gives her a hug. Peggy Fleming shouts encouragement.

"You look great," Fleming says.

"Thanks so much," Zayak replies, shaking sweat from her blond hair.

This is a world Zayak knows so well.

For a while, back when she was a teen-ager with an entourage and an agent, Zayak was the whole show in American figure skating. She was a national champion and world titlist before her 16th birthday. But it all happened too fast.

"I had only one way to go," she said. "Down."

The world champion of 1982 soon was surpassed by an equally talented American woman, Rosalynn Sumners. And by the time the 1984 Olympics in Sarajevo came around, it was Zayak who was stumbling in the old school figures and Sumners who was lifted on the podium, second behind Katarina Witt.

"It was all so political then," she said. "I never got a fair chance."

Zayak went from the amateurs to the ice-show circuit. But she wasn't happy jumping for dollars. And as her weight ballooned, her drawing power plummeted. She hit bottom in 1986, when she signed to appear on a television special, but was left on the cutting-room floor.

"My agent told me I looked too heavy," she said. "So I fired him. And I quit."

Zayak went back to Paramus, N.J. She went to college for six months. Went to the beach. Started giving lessons at her old rink in Monsey, N.Y.

"I even opened a delicatessen," she said. "It went bankrupt in a year and a half. I guess I'm not that much of a businesswoman."

She was, first and foremost, a skater. Watching a new generation of teen-agers stumble through the 1993 U.S. championships, Zayak decided that when the International Skating Union reopened the sport to pros, she would return.

So there she was, on a list with Boitano and Witt and Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean, an old-timer ready to retrieve her sequin costumes from a closet.

And she hasn't looked back in regret.

Zayak won the Skate Rockland title at her home rink, and it was as if she had won the Olympics.

"I was happy," she said. "And relieved."

Zayak also made a bold personal decision, barring from the practice rink the man who had the most influence on her career, her father, Richard. It was Richard Zayak who coaxed his daughter to the ice, giving her $5 bills for each triple jump she landed.

"A lot of times my father would say that 'I made you a world champion,' " she said. "And I said, 'No, I did it.' "

Now she is on her own, willing to accept whatever success or failure comes her way.

Once the sport's best jumper, Zayak must make do with four triple jumps, two fewer than most of her competitors.

But with maturity, she has added artistry. Her music veers from the scores from the movies "The Babe" and "Robin Hood" to Debussy.

Now, she looks at her competitors not as rivals but as friends to be nurtured.

She is getting to know the teen-agers, trying to tell them all what lies ahead.

"I know what they're going through," she said. "I feel bad. But at 16, I knew everything. I knew what I would do. Those years were the most difficult of my life. Everyone at that age has weight problems. It's not that you don't want to lose the weight. It's that you can't. You're becoming a normal woman, and your body changes. But people start nagging at you and make it worse. All you can do is go on."

Zayak has few illusions about this week. Her hope is to make the top six, to appear on national television with the final group of women skaters come Saturday night.

Only two women will advance to the Winter Games.

Zayak won't be among them.

"Even if I finished second, I wouldn't go," she said. "I've already had my chance. It's time for someone else to go."

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