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Burrows has a record of producing winners who demonstrate technical mastery as well as artistry, most notably Dorothy Hamill, the 1976 U.S. national champion and Olympic gold medalist. Zayak was a first-year novice (one of the competition classes in figure skating), 12 years old, when Burrows spotted her in a meet at Lake Placid. "She was, right then, the gutsiest kid I'd ever seen," he says. "I could tell that she was going to go all the way, that she would leave her own mark on figure skating."
Says Zayak: "Up until I signed with Mister Burrows, I thought I had been learning—but I had just been playing on the ice. Jeez. He's just like my dad! I mean [giggle], he can go from a normal voice to a scream, just like that. And he made me work. If I'd do something wrong, he'd pull my hair; just grab a pigtail and yank me around. If I'd fall on a difficult jump, he'd yell for me to get up and do it over again. 'Jeez, Mom, this guy's pulling my hair' I'd say. 'He's just doing it to help,' Mom would say. And there was no back talk, ever. If I'd fall out of a jump and lay there, trying to sort out how badly I was hurt, sometimes he'd skate over and kick me—not with the tip of his skate, but with the flat side, like this. 'Do it over!' he'd yell. 'Concentrate! Work. Get it right!' "
"Yeah, old Burrows is tough," says Rich. "He won't permit any—what do you call it?—petulance from his skaters. Me and Peter, we play a little racquetball now and then, and if he happens to miss a shot, sometimes he'll bang his racquet on the court. So I tell him, 'Ah-ah-ah. Don't kick the ice.' "
And then one day in 1978, Burrows called Elaine over and said casually, "Mmmmm, I think we might do well in the junior division next year." This was the first utterance of what was to become a code between them: "we might do well" means roughly: Let's sink the Bismarck. So in 1979 Zayak lined up the North Atlantic, the Eastern, the national and the world junior championships, all in a row—and won every one. And for their next act in '80, Burrows mused, they might even do well in the senior women's division, skating out there with the big ladies, despite the fact that Elaine would be only 14.
"And that," Burrows says now, "is when world figure skating began to change. Zayak has brought a new spirit of athleticism to it. It's the same in figure skating as in other sports today; each new wave of kids is better and stronger. The only thing I did was to seize the opportunity to put her athleticism into perspective. And the proof, of course, is in the reactions. When Elaine first appeared, there was a tendency to say, 'Cute, but all she can do is jump.' But now, you'll note, all of the senior women are jumping to whatever extent they can, following Zayak's lead."
Zayak was about this big—4'11", actually—in her first appearance as a senior, at the nationals in Atlanta, which also served as the Olympic Trials. She piled on some lipstick and rouge and combed spangles into her hair—which didn't fool anybody—and made a run at the ladies. It was a historic evening. In her four-minute free-style program, Zayak spent about three minutes in the air in various leaps. When it was all over she had won a standing ovation and a clutch of high marks and had scared the senior women half to death. She also had moved from ninth to fourth spot. She just missed making the Olympic team, but she was awarded by popular demand a berth on the U.S. world team.
Zayak's career since then—not always on the upswing—has been fueled by a phenomenon that often occurs in track and field; she draws her energy from the crowd. It's a bit like Mary Decker Tabb being carried along on waves of applause to a women's world mile record in Paris last July or like triple-jumper Willie Banks standing at the top of the runway at any meet, soliciting cheers. Zayak glides to her starting spot near the center of the rink, takes a deep breath and looks into the crowd. And at that moment she gives off a sort of charge, an impish air of boop-boop-e-doop. The rest of it is an exchange of energy. "Remember, there's no finish line in figure skating," says Mary Lynn Gelderman, a former skater who now works as an assistant coach to Burrows. "It's being judged subjectively, and Elaine is controlled by the way the crowd reacts. She must compete; she's driven by the urge to win. And if there's still a feeling abroad that perhaps Elaine came on too fast in this sport, it wasn't really our plan that she become world champion this soon—it's just that she couldn't be denied."
At her first world meet, in Dortmund, West Germany in 1980, Zayak advanced from 22nd spot in compulsory figures to 14th in the short program to, finally, 11th overall. The next year she won the U.S. championship and, pouncing from fifth, seized the silver medal at the world meet in Hartford, Conn., behind Switzerland's willowy Denise Biellmann. And then came the heady events of this year in which, as much as at any time in her life, she showed the guts that make her go.
First thing, at the nationals in Indianapolis in January, she lost her U.S. title. Nobody ever does that. Not only did Zayak lose the championship to a lithe young skater named Rosalynn Sumners of Edmonds, Wash., she dropped to third place. No excuses; it wasn't a case of we wuz robbed by unfair judging. Indeed, it all proved what everybody has always suspected about judging, says Gelderman: "If you're very very good, they can't stop you. Ah, but the first time you goof, they can really hurt you. It used to be that the reigning champion was somewhat protected by her title; only a drastic error could take it away. Now I don't think you'll see people hanging on to their titles for long stretches as they have in the past."
Zayak lost her title when she committed not one drastic error, but a series of them. In fact, she blew it across the board. She stepped out of a double salchow jump in her short program. She fell three times in the long program. Thus she arrived at the world championships in Copenhagen in March, like a pug fighter with the stumbles, down and presumably out. "Like, there's all kinds of pressures," says Zayak, "but, jeez, I think skating from behind is the worst. But I couldn't quit. See, you just can't ever show 'em you can't take it."