And now the Pride of Paramus herself comes clomping downstairs in her white cowboy boots. She's wearing tight designer jeans and a slinky black tank top and—a brand-new addition—half-inch-long fake fingernails. She sits down and admires them, holding out both hands and turning them this way and that. And she giggles. "When I first got 'em," she says, "the lady did 'em in this really neat color called Do The Town Pink. But this friend of mine, he's a hockey player, he said they made me look..." She consults her mother. "Do these make me look like a hooker?"
Jeri shakes her head. "Not if you keep them a nice, plain, natural color," she says.
Because figure skating is a sport with one foot firmly planted in show business, there's always grave and nervous concern among the competitors over appearance; everybody tries to achieve some sort of magic aura that will dazzle those who watch. Clearly, too much stress is placed on what one wears, on how one stands, how one's hair looks, on how to position one's arms and hands. The men included. Crazily, none of these things have anything to do with how one does on the ice. Ideally, all figure skaters should be made to do their free skating in identical black woollen long Johns with their heads shaved so there'd be no distraction from their performances. And as for the school figures, says Jeri, all competitors should execute them in the dark of night in an empty rink, leaving only their tracings to be judged the next morning.
One of the ironies in figure skating is that image has become even more important to Zayak than to most of her competitors because she's a pure athlete thrown in among balletic types. In free skating, competitors are scored on two qualities, technical merit (how tough the program is) and artistic impression (how well it's done). And there are moments, painful to watch, when one can actually sense Zayak struggling to maintain that graceful flow of movement the sport has always demanded. Heaven knows, it ain't easy being a swan. Two years ago in San Diego, after winning the national championship at 15—typically striking from fifth spot after the compulsories—she confided to SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, "I do and I don't want to become a woman. You know, I want to be older so that I'm treated like a lady—but I want to look younger so that people will see me and say, 'Awwwww.' "
Well, there's no mistaking Zayak now. She's a sturdy young woman of 115 or so pounds, still carrying traces of her old chipmunk-cheek cuteness, but with a definite new, steely air of adult determination. So far it has been fun for her, a life of upset wins and jumping on competitors from out of nowhere, but now she's the world champion and the subject of even more critical scrutiny from the old guard. Cute can only get a girl so far; now she's a real target, and the toughest meets lie ahead. To keep the title, she says, "You've gotta want this really bad. Like I did when I was a kid."
To understand that determination one must go back to an accident that happened when Elaine was a kid, an episode many folks in the figure-skating world don't even know about. It never appears in the outpouring of publicity on Zayak, and the family doesn't discuss it unless pressed, and then only in the most general terms. Rich and Jeri adapted this attitude years ago, partly because the memory is painful, partly because they wanted to forestall any possible sympathy vote for Elaine. She would have to make it to the top on her own.
"It was when Elaine was 2½ years old," Jeri says. "Rich had just finished mowing the lawn—we had a ride-around mower—and he had parked it in the driveway and gone to open the garage door so he could drive it in. The mower was still running, of course. We had a strict rule that the kids weren't to be playing outside when Daddy was mowing the lawn, but just to make sure, he called to me to keep them inside. And just as he was calling at one side of the house, here came little Elaine from around the other side, running for her daddy. And suddenly she slipped and fell. There was a blade guard around the bottom of the mower, of course, but...her feet were so small that her left foot slid right underneath it. And the blades cut off most of her foot, diagonally, from the second toe angling back toward her heel." Jeri sighs, recalling the horror of that day. "I'll never forget Rich running into the house carrying Elaine in his arms. While I called for help, he laid her down on the kitchen floor and then whipped off his belt and made a tourniquet with it."
There was a long, painful recovery. Elaine had to learn to walk all over again, this time wearing a built-up left shoe, with padding where her three outer toes and most of the left side of the foot should have been. At first, doctors said that while Elaine might walk again, she'd always have a limp. But the Zayaks are a tough, resilient family and "in six months, by the time she was three years old," Jeri says, "we had her on skates. In a nursery school. Coloring books and hot chocolate and ice skating. She had tiny skates, the left one specially built. It was strictly for therapy, to teach her balance again. You know those Day-Glo orange plastic cones they set out in road construction to control traffic? Well, today's world figure-skating champion started her career by hanging onto one of those, pushing it around the ice ahead of her as she went."
Next thing anybody knew, Zayak was a skating black pussycat and then a bumblebee in those great revues, Tots on Ice, at Fritz Dietl's rink in Westwood, N.J. And from the moment she first heard folks actually clapping for her, Zayak knew what she wanted to do. "I just, like, got this thing into my head," she says. "I wanted to skate all the time. I went from lesson to lesson. I'd see big skaters make certain jumps and I'd copy them—keep doing it again and again. All by myself, falling and wobbling all over, until I finally got it right. My dad used to watch; his way of encouraging me was to bet me. 'Got a buck says you can't make that jump,' he'd say. And so, when I was just a little kid, I mean really small, I could jump like crazy."
But there's considerably more to it than that, of course, and if it weren't for Peter Burrows, Zayak might still be bounding around more or less aimlessly across the ice, a victim of her own exuberance. Burrows is to figure skating what Joe Paterno is to college football, with maybe the slightest touch of Woody Hayes thrown in. He's a transplanted Briton, a big, imposing guy, a purist, work-'em-hard, get-it-right coach, and if ever a couple of hard heads were made for each other, it's Peter and Elaine.