Be Thin and Win
From LITTLE GIRLS IN PRETTY BOXES
by Joan Ryan

 

Elaine 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.

But 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 again."

Elaine's 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.

"Okay, 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."

"Okay."

Elaine 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?"

After 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.

But 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.

More 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.

One 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.

Inevitably, 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.

So 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.

Because 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.

Marylynn 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.

"It 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."

Tipped 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.

But 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 young."


It 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.

She 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.

"Right," Lisa said, "when I was three

"Oh 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.

She 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.