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Coach does it the Wooden way

Tom Zakrajsek keeps a group of elite skaters happy by selling them on character and teamwork.

March 25, 2009|Helene Elliott

Any figure skating coach can teach students how to land a jump or perform a spiral.

Not every coach sees his job extending to providing life lessons that skaters will rely on long after they stop performing sit spins and triple flips.

Tom Zakrajsek believes that to mold champions he must first mold character, and the accolades his students have won seem to validate his approach.

The 45-year-old Ohio native guided three skaters onto the U.S. team for the World Figure Skating Championships this week at Staples Center, a remarkable feat. Acting as point man for a group of coaches and choreographers, Zakrajsek steered Jeremy Abbott and Brandon Mroz to a 1-2 finish at the U.S. championships, missing a sweep when Ryan Bradley placed fourth behind Evan Lysacek.

Zakrajsek also is the primary coach of Rachael Flatt of Del Mar, who won the 2008 world junior title and finished second at the U.S. championships this year to earn a senior-level world team berth.

The men's event begins today with the short program and the women's event begins Friday.

For a coach to have so many skaters here is noteworthy. What makes it exceptional is how they live their lives off the ice.

Abbott, the Grand Prix Final champion, started a fund to support skaters in his hometown of Aspen, Colo. Mroz makes gift baskets for cancer-stricken kids in hospitals near his training rink in Colorado Springs. Flatt takes a full load of Advanced Placement classes and was named to U.S. Figure Skating's scholastic honors team.

"I feel like I'm trying to teach these young people that I'm working with about how to be really good people. And I stress sportsmanship," Zakrajsek said.

His name might not be familiar, but he derived his philosophy from someone whose name is well known here -- and beyond.

Zakrajsek is a disciple of John Wooden's pyramid of success, which places competitive greatness atop a structure built on 14 "blocks," qualities such as industriousness, self-control, initiative, skill, poise and confidence. Zakrajsek relies on the former UCLA coach's theories every day.

"I even use his children's book with my children," said Zakrajsek, a father of two.

Some of the values Wooden espouses don't seem to fit figure skating -- cooperation and team spirit come to mind -- but Zakrajsek makes them work.

Though Abbott, Bradley and Mroz are rivals, they train together twice a day in overlapping sessions. That's rare for elite skaters, who usually demand a coach's full focus.

Sharing the ice has made them supportive of each other and each warmly congratulated the others after their routines at the U.S. championships.

Flatt and 2008 U.S. junior champion Alexe Gilles often are on the ice at the same time as the men. They all take a power skating class and what Zakrajsek calls a sports concept class together. Most also work with a secondary coach, Becky Calvin, and husband-wife choreographers Tom Dickson and Catarina Lindgren.

"Tom is an excellent coach. He's brought an amazing team to work with me," said Abbott, who recently added 1992 Olympic silver medalist Paul Wylie as a mentor.

"It's really a great group of people, plus I love training with Rachael and Brandon and Ryan and Lexie. We push each other very hard and I think that's motivating and not distracting at all. I feel like I get enough of Tom's time and attention."

Zakrajsek was a competitive skater who reached the national level in junior and senior men's singles and in pairs. He bounced from coach to coach until he settled for seven years with Norma Sahlin, who coached Charles Tickner to an Olympic bronze medal in 1980.

He skated in shows until 1990, when he made the transition to coaching. Bradley was his first student and his first major success, winning the U.S. junior title in 1999.

Frank Carroll, who coaches Lysacek and has worked with a stellar list of U.S., world and Olympic medalists over more than three decades, mentored Zakrajsek. "And he's sort of like a mentor to me," Carroll said.

"When we both get into problems or troubles we ask for each other's help. It's nice to have somebody you respect and is really good at what they do to ask about what they think."

Zakrajsek knew what to say when Abbott, poised to win his first U.S. title, was unusually nervous before the free skate. Zakrajsek paraphrased Wooden to assure Abbott it was natural to feel anxious after striving for that moment for so long.

"But the rest of his quote goes something like, 'If you have patience you will have great success,' " Zakrajsek said. "So I just said, 'This is so typical for you to feel this way because you have worked so hard and you deserve success and it's OK to feel that way so let's move on and get back to what needs to happen.' "

Abbott won the free skate and the title. Wooden surely would have applauded.


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