SI Vault
Bob Ottum
December 06, 1982
Not long ago Elaine Zayak was just a skating bee in a kiddies' ice show. Now she's the champion of the world, and her high-flying style has the staid folks of figure skating all abuzz
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December 06, 1982

Flight Of The Bumblebee

Not long ago Elaine Zayak was just a skating bee in a kiddies' ice show. Now she's the champion of the world, and her high-flying style has the staid folks of figure skating all abuzz

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From outside the car, looking through the windshield from just a few feet away, about the only thing that shows up behind the steering wheel is a mop of bright blonde curls. But from inside, from the front passenger seat, one can take in the rest of Elaine Zayak, all 5'3" of her, sitting up straight with her head thrown back so that she can see over the dashboard. She's driving expertly—if a bit too fast—playing the pedals with her tiny white cowboy boots while also talking in a high, chirpy voice, tuning the radio, gesturing, changing lanes and pointing out the sights of her hometown in New Jersey. See there? That sprawl of low buildings is the Paramus Park Mall. " 'At's where I do all my personal appearances," she says. She giggles. It's a trademark giggle that she uses as a form of punctuation. "Lotsa folks recognize me in the mall," she says. "Well, 'at's me. The Pride of Paramus."

Well, 'at's her, all right, but she's not just the Pride of Paramus. She's La Zayak, at 17 the reigning queen of figure skating and an athlete quite unlike anybody else in that benighted sport. She may be the pride of a vast world of fans outside Paramus—but she's the despair of a sizable group of folks who control figure skating. Imagine it. If that group, consisting of international officials and judges, had its druthers, it would still prefer Peggy Fleming, forever ethereal, wrapped in pastel gauze, a soft-spoken butterfly. Peggy Fleming was never a problem.

This attitude will be a crucial factor in the sport in the next 15 months—two until the national championships, three to the world's and then on to the February 1984 Winter Olympics in Sarajevo, Yugoslavia. For here is one of the gutsiest, get-it-down athletes in the land, a specialist in the fine art of come-from-be-hind victories, in a sport run largely by hidebound conservatives. On the one hand, the figure skating folks appreciate her—there's no ignoring Zayak on the ice—and yet they can't seem to get comfortable with her.

For starters, they squirm and roll their eyes toward the heavens whenever she speaks in that Ziegfeld Follies voice of hers. Ideally, for many American and most European executives of the International Skating Union, their queen, the world champion, would say, "My deahs. How lovely of you to come to our little competition. It was veddy, veddy difficult. And I'm sure you could not help but notice that I can do triple loops, most exhausting, devastating leaps, in which I spin around three times in midair, dahlings. Indeed, I could hear many of you gasp in amazement as I twirled dizzily over the ice. Well...."

That's the ideal. But here's the way it comes out when Zayak says it: "Well, like, I mean, I've always been a good jumper, you know [giggle]. I mean, I get up to speed and then I swing it like this [a saucy little body move here to show how she swings it], and then, like, I just sort of yank myself up off of the ice. And suddenly I'm spinning around in midair [giggle]. Lissen, I gotta shut my eyes to keep from gettin' dizzy [Giggle]. And I can hear everybody going oooooohhhhh."

Now that's terrific. Anybody who can make a sport come to life so plainly, without pretense, is a national treasure. She should not be buffed or polished, nor should she be banished to charm school by a band of people stubbornly clinging to a daguerreotype of skating the way it once was, the way they'd like it to remain forever. Zayak is the straight, undiluted stuff.

The Zayaks live at the very end of McHenry Drive in one of those California-style houses with several interior levels connected by short staircases, so that every room seems to be a mezzanine. Out in the backyard are a swimming pool and gas barbecue grill and a trampoline, and Jeri, Elaine's 42-year-old mom, has hung pots of flowers from the tree branches; one of the trees has been so overloaded that its branches bend almost to the ground. Right smack over the backyard fence is the Garden State Parkway with its steady, dull roar of traffic. Occasionally, heady clouds of exhaust fumes roll through the Zayak property. Like all moms in the neighborhood, Jeri used to tell her kids that the ditch just beyond the fence was loaded with deadly snakes and trolls and snapping turtles and Lord knows what all, so that the children wouldn't be tempted to wander across it and into the traffic.

But all the Zayaks are too old for that now. Elaine is a high school senior and although her busy training and travel schedule allows her to attend Paramus High for only a couple of hours a day, she gets some help from a tutor and will graduate next spring. Ricky, the only son, is 20, an auto mechanic and a good one. Cindy, one year older than Elaine, graduated from high school last spring; she's working two jobs and saving her money to move to California. "Typical family," says Jeri. "You know, the kids always standing in front of the open refrigerator door, studying the contents while all the cold gets away. Cindy keeps a lock on her bedroom door so that Elaine can't sneak in and borrow her clothes. But still, we all get along." Jeri's husband, Rich, a 46-year-old with thinning sandy hair and a mustache, presides over the scene with the wry detachment of a guy who has been a bartender all his life. Rich and his mother are co-owners of Lou's Tavern in Hillsdale, N.J., just 10 minutes north of Paramus. It's not far from the old Erie Lackawanna Railroad tracks, a working-man's bar in the blue-collar, hard-hat part of town, where "every Sattidy and Sunday we got an argument over what to watch on television," Rich says. "I mean, one old customer wants to watch the football. And another regular says, 'Naaawwww, turn on the baseball game.' And maybe still another guy wants the bowling." Rich shrugs. "But when there's figure skating on—well, if it's Elaine, we watch the figure skating."

Think of it. This has got to be one of the great tableaux in modern America: small bar in Jersey; several guys in T shirts and workpants, some with their bellies spilling over their belts and with tattooed forearms resting on the bar. They're all raptly watching a tiny blonde girl in sequins swirl through triple jumps and double toe loops to symphonic melodies, and maybe they occasionally murmur to one another, "Sheeeesh! Did youse see dat move?" But that's the way it is at Lou's Tavern. (Lou, by the way, was the name of the guy Rich's father bought the tavern from 16 years ago.) The Zayaks' ancestors came from Czechoslovakia; in fact, Rich's mother was born in the old country. "But we're not Czechs," he says. "The folks were very fussy about that. We're Slovaks."

The present Zayaks are very fussy—and rightly so—about the pronunciation of their last name. "Once, a long time ago," Jeri says, "I had a message to call this ABC commentator. This was when Elaine was just getting started, before we all knew each other. So he answered the phone and I said, 'Hello, Mister Dick Buttons?' And he got really huffy and he yelled, 'The name is Button. BUTTON.' And so I yelled, 'O.K. Our name is Zayak, ZAY-ak, not ZIE-ak.' "

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