Burrows continues commitment to causes

Renowned coach passionate about making a difference

Peter Burrows and coaching partner Mary Lyn Gelderman.
Peter Burrows and coaching partner Mary Lyn Gelderman. (courtesy of Liz Leamy)


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By Liz Leamy, special to
(11/11/2008) - Peter Burrows, the esteemed world and Olympic coach based in the New York metropolitan area, is just one of many prominent people in the American figure skating community who have gotten involved in the fight against breast cancer.

Last month, the Burrows Skating Centers joined up with the Metropolitan Figure Skating Club and Iceland Skating Rink of New York to take part in the American Cancer Society's "Making Strides Against Breast Cancer" five-mile walk on Jones Beach in Long Island.

This fundraiser was held on Oct. 19, and attracted several thousand participants -- including members from the Burrows facilities who carried a banner to honor Patti Johnson D'Alonzo, a friend and colleague of Burrows.

D'Alonzo, a former coach of Sarah Hughes, the 2002 Olympic gold medalist, became close with Burrows in the 1990s when she had visited him with to go over jump technique for her student. Last summer, D'Alonzo had been diagnosed with breast cancer (she has since been in recovery).

Burrows was also inspired to get involved with this cause due to the fact that he his lost his former wife, Judy, to cancer more than 10 years ago. Although he has since gone on with his life and remarried Katherine Healy, a former New York City Ballet member and competitive skater, he still remains fiercely committed toward helping out this cause.

Burrows seems to know a thing or two about commitment. Back in the early 1970s, when he first began coaching, he made the decision to dedicate his life to raising the competitive bar of the sport. Since then, he has come to be regarded as one of the finest teachers around and has racked up one of the best track records of anyone in the business.

"I love to do what I do," Burrows said in a recent interview at Sport-O-Rama, his home coaching base that is located in Monsey, New York. "These are great kids who learn to a lot from what they do with their skating."

Since the 1970s, Burrows has played the chief role in helping dozens of competitive skaters catapult from the qualifying regional levels up through the junior national, sectional, and even U.S. national and world championship rungs.

Inevitably, Burrows excellent work has earned him an iconic status among his peers in the figure skating community, especially among those few others who have achieved this level of success. "Peter is one of the only coaches I have seen at nationals year after year," said Ron Ludington, the world and Olympic pair and singles coach from Newark, Delaware, and a longtime friend of Burrows.

"He always has great skaters."

When these things are mentioned, Burrows reacts in a humble and candid manner. He said the quality of his work is due to the fact the high standard he has maintained ever since the beginning of his career. He has also been adamant about making sure his students are well prepared. "How you skate in practice is how you skate in competition," he said.

Right from the outset, it was pretty clear that Burrows, a former British pairs champion, was destined for greatness. In the 1970s, he built a strong stable of regional, sectional and national competitors and had established himself as a rising star in the business.

In 1976, Burrows sealed his reputation when he worked with Dorothy Hamill right before she won her Olympic gold medal in Innsbruck. Although he had not been listed as Hamill's official coach (that title went to the late Carlo Fassi, her longtime teacher), most in the skating world knew it was Burrows who played the key role in her victory. Last year, Hamill credited Burrows for helping winning that Olympic title in her autobiography, "A Skating Life."

Burrows' approach with Hamill also reveals why he has become such a successful coach. He explained when she had competed at the 1975 U.S. Figure Skating Championships, she was just coming back from an injury and not skating at her usual level. During the event, Fassi told Burrows he ws thinking about altering Hamill's program so that it would be easier. Burrows in turn, scoffed, Fassi listened and Hamill won the title. "You have to show an athlete of that level and ability that you believe in them.

"That is everything," Burrows said.

In the 1980s, Burrows' business continued to grow like gangbusters. At this stage, he was coaching many top U.S. skaters, including Elaine Zayak, his first world champion.

During this time, he also began to coach alongside Mary Lyn Gelderman, a former U.S. national competitor and established coach in the New York City area. The two worked extremely well together and are still working in tandem to this day. "Mary Lyn thinks like I do," he said.

Burrows and Gelderman helped Zayak win the 1981 U.S. national and 1982 world championship titles. During this time, Zayak earned international acclaim for her arsenal of triple jumps, which at that time were still considered to still be a whole new phenomenon in skating. (Zayak's triples also inspired the International Skating Union's "Zayak Rule," which limits skaters to perform a jump just once by itself and once in combination).

Burrows described Zayak as an excellent competitor. He cited the time when she had rebounded at 1982 worlds to win the title after having had a disappointing short program. "It was so unlike her, and Mary Lyn and I didn't know what to do," he said. "I tracked down Fritz Dietl, Elaine's first coach, at the hotel bar and managed to get him to talk to her. I don't know what he said, but it sure as heck worked."

In the 1990s, Burrows continued to do outstanding work. He taught a number of top U.S. and world contenders including Michael Chack, the 1993 U.S. national bronze medalist and Charlene von Saher, the former British ladies champion. He also coached Kyoko Ina and Jason Dungjen, the 1997 and 1998 U.S. national pair champions.

When Ina and Dungjen retired from amateur competition in 1998, Burrows had been faced with the prospect of rebuilding his stable, something he had not done since the beginning of his career. Rather than walk away, he took on the challenge.

Subsequently, Burrows began to yield some good results in his typical winning fashion. Currently, he and Gelderman work with a talented group of up-and-coming U.S. skaters, including Samantha Cesario, the 2009 North Atlantic junior ladies champion; and Christine Mozer, the 2009 North Atlantic novice ladies silver medalist. Burrows also coaches Tamar Katz, the Israeli ladies champion who recently placed fourth at the 2008 Karl Schaefer Memorial event in Vienna, Austria. Katz, who resides in New Jersey, said she loves working with Burrows.

"Mr. Burrows has taught me that if I train hard, I will be strong in competition. He's great and I'm really happy to work with him," she said.

Burrows seems to have quite an effect upon his students in a way that goes well beyond the rink. Many of his current students are top academic achievers. At the same time, most of his former skaters have gone on to become top career professionals, such as doctors, investment bankers and attorneys.

Many of Burrows' students have also gone on to become top competitive coaches and choreographers. This group includes Robin Wagner, who taught Sarah Hughes, the 2002 Olympic champion; Lori Nichol, the acclaimed international choreographer; Ken Congemi, the coaching partner of Frank Carroll who works with Bebe Liang, the top-ranked U.S. ladies contender; Elaine Zayak, who teaches Kristiene Gong, the 2009 North Atlantic junior ladies silver medalist; and Tracy Doyle Lunde, the former coach of Katrina Hacker, the top-seeded U.S. ladies skater.

For Burrows, success is ultimately due to a maintaining a strong work ethic, drive and a willingness to make the most out of any situation. "I love doing what I do because there is always work to be done," he said. With that, he walked back onto the ice to work with his students.

Note: The author is also a former student of Peter Burrows.