Zayak won the 1981 U.S. Championships at age fifteen and had
no doubts about winning it again the following year and the
year after that. She was bulletproof. No one could jump the
way she could. She finished second at the 1981 World Figure
Skating Championships, a remarkable achievement for one so
young. She was going to be the best there ever was. She dropped
out of ninth grade to train seven days a week, six hours a
day. A New jersey girl who had lost half her foot in a lawnmower
accident as a toddler, Elaine was the toast of nearby New
York City. The reporters there loved this unlikely skating
queen. She talked like a truck-stop waitress, spewing double
negatives, laughing from her belly, sharing every notion that
crossed her mind.
at the 1982 U.S. Championships she fell three times and finished
third. While the failure rattled Elaine's coaches and parents,
it nearly paralyzed Elaine. She was scared to return to the
ice, especially at the upcoming World Championships. What
if she embarrassed herself again? What if everybody laughed
at her? The pressure and fear closed in on her. In her hotel
room the day and night before the competition, she cried for
hours on end. "Don't make me do this," she pleaded to her
parents. "Don't make me go out there and make a fool of myself
mother cried with her. "Just try," her mother said. "If you
don't at least try, you won't be happy." Her father, exasperated,
retreated to the hotel bar.
Morn," Elaine finally conceded. "But no matter what happens,
whether I skate well or not, this is it, all right? I don't
want to compete anymore."
won, but the euphoria touched her like a breeze, light and
fleeting, barely felt. She was relieved more than anything.
Now maybe everybody would get off her back. But even her mother
joined the chorus: "How can you quit now?"
the World Championships, Elaine returned to school, but for
just two hours a day, from eight to ten every morning. It
was a joke. She wasn't learning or working toward anything.
"But so what," she thought. She had contracts worth $300,000
to skate in ice shows. She had her own fully loaded sports
car. Her hometown erected a sign at the edge of town: PARAMUS,
HOME OF WORLD CHAMPION ELAINE ZAYAK. Life had handed this
daughter of a tavern owner one of the grandest jewels in the
figure skating crown. Dorothy Hamill, Peggy Fleming, Sonja
Henie. Elaine Zayak's name would be chiseled alongside theirs
on the exclusive list of world champions.
now Elaine wanted out of competitive skating. After doing
ice shows for two months, she took off with some friends to
Florida and didn't train for two more. She had been skating
since she was a toddler as therapy for her partially severed
foot and by age ten was training six hours a day, traveling
two and a half hours round-trip from New jersey to a rink
on Long Island. At sixteen she was tired. Tired of the United
States Figure Skating Association telling her what she could
and couldn't say in interviews. Tired of judges calling her
parents to suggest she see a dermatologist for a patch of
acne on her face-and, by the way, she ought to wear more pink.
Tired of hearing about how her parents scrimped to pay the
$25,000-a-year tab for her skating.
than anything, she was tired of everyone harping about her
weight. Elaine never looked like a ballerina. She was never
going to be Peggy Fleming or Carol Heiss no matter how much
she dieted. To make matters worse, she had begun menstruating
the year before. Before puberty, girls have 10 to 15 percent
more body fat than boys; after puberty, girls have 50 percent
more. Elaine was feeling the change. By the time she returned
from Florida in early summer, she had gained 15 pounds. No
longer the girlish sprite, she found herself in the midst
of a whirling battle with her coaches, her parents and her
own body. Now more than ever, she wanted to quit. Her parents,
upset she was throwing away everything for which she and they
had worked so hard, grounded her. "It was basically, 'You
don't have a say in this,' " Elaine recalls. "They felt 1
couldn't make my own decisions." They took away her new car-and
Elaine's father infuriated her by driving it himself. Angry
and frustrated and feeling that without skating even her own
family had no respect for her, she stormed out of the house
one night with no clear idea where to go. She ended up at
the home of a classmate she barely knew and stayed for a week
without telling her parents where she was. "I really didn't
even want to hang out with my friends. I didn't know what
I wanted to do," Elaine says.
night Elaine and her friend missed their ten-thirty curfew
and the girl's parents locked them out. The world figure skating
champion huddled in a New Jersey backyard all night, sleeping
on the grass like a vagabond.
her parents and coaches wore her down and she returned to
the rink. It was already August. The competitive season would
begin in October. And her weight had climbed to 125 pounds.
"I felt like I was normal size," she recalls. "To me, it just
didn't look like I was fourteen or fifteen anymore . . . You
gain weight in those years even if you're not eating much.
You gain weight because you're physically becoming a woman.
My father didn't understand that. He goes, 'That's bullshit.'
Elaine couldn't open the refrigerator door without her parents
quizzing her. She tried Weight Watchers and Diet Center. She
biked. She hired a nutritionist. Her coaches weighed her every
week, exhorting her to lose more. But the weight wouldn't
come off. Desperate, Elaine tried amphetamines, given to her
by a classmate. She succeeded only in making herself sick.
she conceded the battle. What else could she do that she wasn't
doing? She began to eat in secret. The more she was told not
to eat, the more she ate. In her mind she was claiming control
for the first time in her life. Her sport, like gymnastics,
was all about control: coaches' control, parents' control,
physical control, emotional control. Her coaches could order
her back into training, her parents could take away her car,
they could forbid her to date-they could dictate everything
in her life, but they couldn't dictate what she ate. She would
eat whatever she pleased. Eating was a rebellion, but it was
also a refuge. As world champion, she knew she was expected
to win every competition through the 1984 Olympics, still
two years away. Food became a drug, dulling her anxieties.
she couldn't eat at home, she stuffed herself at convenience
stores and delicatessens. Once, when she tried to buy a bagel
and cream cheese at the deli near the rink, the man behind
the counter wouldn't serve her. "Coaches' orders," the man
said. Elaine's coaches had instructed him not to sell her
anything but tea and coffee. Humiliated, she drove to the
7-Eleven down the road, bought a pint of ice cream and ate
it in the parking lot.
Gelderman shudders as she recalls how she and Peter Burrows
coached Elaine. "Elaine was our first Olympian. I was very
young, and we were a very hungry school. Here was one of the
most talented people ever to hit skating, and she's eating
and growing. So you panic. I think now that I look back on
it, I would never do that again. I would handle it very differently.
Gelderman doesn't weigh her skaters anymore. Instead, she
emphasizes how much easier they can jump and spin when they're
smaller and lighter. "Those who want to lose weight, will."
She shrugs. "Those who don't, won't."
Elaine tried throwing up after she ate, but she couldn't.
By late September, with competitions a month away, Elaine
panicked. The extra pounds were straining her right foot,
which bore more than its share of weight to compensate for
the half-severed left foot. A friend, a Harvard-educated former
skater, told Elaine she had lost 10 pounds in one week with
diet pills. Elaine flew up to Boston for the day without telling
her parents and visited the friend's doctor, who prescribed
the pills. What the woman, then a coach in Boston, didn't
tell Elaine was that the pills were on the United States Olympic
Committee's list of banned substances.
was very hush-hush," Elaine remembers. "Nobody knew about
it. My mother would just die if she knew I was doing drugs.
It's not something you want people to know about, especially
if you're national and world champion."
off by Elaine's dramatic mood swings, Gelderman found out
about the pills and pitched a fit. "You won't make the Olympic
team if you get tested!" she told the skater. "Get rid of
them!" Elaine first waited until she lost 10 pounds.
plagued by nagging leg and ankle injuries and doomed by her
womanly figure, she would never again be the skater who won
the World Championships seven months earlier. The press, once
so gushing, wrote that she was fat and washed up.---Look what
kind of world champion you turned out to be," her father said
to her one day. Elaine stopped talking to him. She never won
another national title, finishing second in 1983 and third
in 1984. She finished sixth at the 1984 Olympics. In the ice
shows afterward, she skated in the supporting cast-no Olympic
medal, no starring role. She tried going to Monmouth College
in New Jersey and she worked in a deli for a while. She tried
coaching. Nothing stuck. With only a high school degree, she
found few opportunities.
"This sport is so unforgiving," says ABC's Jurina Ribbens.
"Finish second and all of a sudden you're a has-been. They
don't look at the long term. They should have let Elaine finish
third or fourth for a while, then allow her to come back at
her own pace. There's too much emphasis on winning and winning
was thirteen years after winning the U.S. Figure Skating Championships
when Elaine Zayak attempted an unlikely comeback at age twenty-eight.
Her life had become a string of hazy weekends filled with
drinking until the clubs closed, smoking too much, eating
too much, sliding toward suburban oblivion. "I really hated
my life," she says today. Without her parents' breath on her
neck, she rekindled her love for skating. She trained for
a year, whittling her weight to 116 pounds. She learned to
perform a triple loop, a jump she couldn't master at age sixteen.
stunned the skeptics by finishing among the top four at her
sectional competition to qualify for the 1994 national championships
in Detroit. She reveled in the spotlight again, signing autographs,
offering quotable observations and insights to a press corps
that had once dismissed her as immature and empty-headed.
"I'm here to show that your life isn't over at eighteen,"
Zayak told reporters. Certain that the younger skaters wouldn't
know who she was, Zayak was taken aback when the mother of
sixteenyear-old Lisa Ervin said her daughter started in skating
because of Elaine.
Lisa said, "when I was three
my God," Elaine laughed, "now I really feel old."
Before she took the ice for her long program, her nerves jangled
like juiced wires. She felt sick, wondering why she had ever
thought she could pull this off. As she warmed up on the ice,
she stopped by the railing and hugged her coaches, Marylynn
Gelderman and Peter Burrows. Then she glided to the center
of the rink, clasping her hands as if in prayer.
nailed her first combination of two double jumps, then cleanly
landed a double Axel. As she launched into her triple loop,
the only triple in her program, the crowd held its breath.
She spun and landed beautifully, electrifying the Joe Louis
Arena. She skated with a soulfulness and grace the younger
girls couldn't match.
When she finished her near-flawless long program, the crowd
leapt to its feet. Elaine stood in the center of the rink,
her face buried in her hands, her shoulders heaving. Gelderman
and Burrows whooped and hollered from the railing. She finished
fourth, one spot short of a medal. One national judge, watching
the competition at home on television, thought Elaine should
have won the gold. But the former world champion wasn't disappointed.
She didn't care about medals. She had plenty of medals. In
Detroit she finally found what she always hoped she would
find on all those winners' stands more than a decade before:
joy pure enough to chase her fear and reward her sacrifice.
This, she felt, was what skating was supposed to be. She had
finally stopped fighting her own body. She showed, at least
to herself, that a full-grown woman's body deserved a place
on the ice.