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The Inside Edge with Sarah and Drew - August 9

Two coaches and a wedding

Alexe Gilles, coach Tom Zakrajsek and Brandon Mroz at the Ice Hall in Colorado Springs last week.
Alexe Gilles, coach Tom Zakrajsek and Brandon Mroz at the Ice Hall in Colorado Springs last week. (Drew Meekins)

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By Sarah S. Brannen and Drew Meekins, special to icenetwork.com
(08/09/2010) - Sarah and Drew get you caught up on all the latest in figure skating.

Tom Z.
A few weeks ago, we sat down for an interview with Brandon Mroz and coach Tom Zakrajsek. We told Mroz's story in our June 21 blog; this week we focus on the coach. As you know, Zakrajsek is one of the premier coaches in figure skating today. At least one of his students has made the world team in each of the past four years, and at the 2009 U.S. championships his students nearly swept the senior men's podium. Last season, he coached Rachael Flatt to a national title and the 2010 Olympic team.

Drew has been training at Zakrajsek's rink for over two years, and he has been impressed by his passion for his work, as well as his ability to manage a rink-full of elite athletes in a thoroughly disciplined and organized manner. You can always find him at the rink, morning or night, no matter what time it is. He coaches in skates and will often chase a student on the ice after a run-through, to motivate them and work on their stamina. He can still beat most of his elite skaters around the rink.

Where does all that ferocious passion and drive come from?

"Ooh, that's a good question," Zakrajsek said thoughtfully. "I think it's part of my personality. I don't think you can be successful without it. I try to find inspiration in all walks of life -- from other coaches, athletes, musicians, actors, politicians, or business people. It seems like everyone who's at that top of their field is really passionate about what they are doing."

As a competitive skater, Zakrajsek competed at the U.S. Championships six times, in both singles and pairs. After he stopped competing, he got a job working for the phone company right out of college in 1988.

"At that time, I wanted to make money," he told us. "I dressed in a business suit. I had a cell phone -- which back then were the size of a brick -- and I thought I was pretty cool. I was in the business world, and after eight or nine months, I thought, 'I got a degree for this?' I didn't love it, or even like it."

During that time Zakrajsek remained close to his former coach, Norma Sahlin, and one day she suggested that he compete in the U.S. Open professional competition.

"She said, 'You just retired a few months ago, you could skate on your lunch hour.'"

Zakrajsek took her advice and began skating again. 

"I was training for the U.S. Open at the same time as working and it showed me how much love I had for figure skating and how I didn't love the business world. It really expanded my skating experience. Maybe my passion comes from the fact that I feel so fortunate to do this. I feel so lucky to do something I really love," he said.

Competing as a professional jump-started the next phase of Zakrajsek's career and led to Disney on Ice. After touring with the show for a few years, Zakrajsek's love for skating turned into a desire to coach, and he started working with young skaters in Missouri. While there, he read an interview with Russian coach Alexei Mishin, in which he said that American coaches didn't have as much education in sports as Russians.

"So I went to Missouri Western State College and got the equivalent of a physical education degree," Zakrajsek went on. "I took a lot of courses in biomechanics, kinesiology, anatomy and physiology, sports psychology, nutrition, etc. Even though I don't use every bit of information that I learned every day, my overall education in sport helps me see and understand the big picture with each of my athletes at their given level."

His first students in Missouri were Ryan Bradley and his sister Becky.

"I taught Ryan to do a shoot-the-duck," Zakrajsek told us. "When I started coaching I was nobody. I had to build my credentials and make a name for myself. With many of my skaters I took them from the early stages of their career to the highest level, and there's something very rewarding about that. I don't think you can describe what it's like working with someone for ten years. I'm very proud of my relationship with Ryan. The fact that Rachael and I get another year together before she goes to Stanford is very exciting. Our goal is to make it to the world podium."

We asked Zakrajsek how he manages training so many elite athletes at the same time. As well as Mroz, Flatt, and Bradley, he currently works with U.S. junior champion and world junior silver medalist Agnes Zawadzki and former national medalists Alexe Gilles, Alexander Johnson, Joshua Farris, Marissa Secundy and Max Aaron.

"I set up a periodization plan," he said. "It's all on the computer. There are similarities to what, for instance, Rachael and Alexe will have to do on the Grand Prix and what Josh will have to do on the Junior Grand Prix. Some principles are universal, and then you tweak it to each athlete. It only takes me about 90 minutes on a Sunday to organize the week. I have years of information on some of the athletes."

Zakrajsek has worked with some of his students for many years, while others are very recent additions to the team, like Johnson and McKinzie Daniels.

"I'm starting to get athletes who are already groomed, like Alex and McKinzie, and that's a little bit of new territory for me. Alex and McKinzie have to learn how I do things, but they're both like sponges and they're very enthusiastic. I'm kind of relentless, which can be a good and a bad thing. I do want results, and I believe the only way you get results is through good old-fashioned hard work."

"I really like working with Tom because he has a plan for all his skaters and he knows what to do to get that plan accomplished," said Johnson. "He is one of the most organized people I know. He's very knowledgeable; he knows exactly where your body needs to be and the biomechanics of every jump. He's not only active in your coaching; he's a role model and he doesn't just help you on the ice, he helps you off the ice as well. He makes sure that his skaters stick to their schedules and their work that needs to be done because he knows what we need to do."

Daniels also praised Zakrajsek's organizational skills. He gives all of his students a binder with training logs and resources, which they are required to bring to every session.

"I like the detail of his technique for practice and competitions. For example, at a competition he has you make a plan for your five-minute warm-up, your off-ice warm-up, and your actual program," she said.

Over the past two years, Drew has witnessed the details of Zakrajsek's coaching system first-hand. It involves, among other things, an innovative use of "teams" of skaters. Zakrajsek's athletes are put into groups, each led by an elite skater captain. The teams are used for a variety of purposes, from team-building field trips and exercises to peer motivation during daily training; they also provide a way for higher-level skaters to mentor lower-level ones.

Zakrajsek says he developed this system to strengthen his skaters' learning and training experience.

"I grew up in a small town outside of Cleveland, and I started in basketball and football," Zakrajsek said, "My whole association with sports was through team sports, and that probably says a lot about my style. The coaches I had when I was young had a big influence on me."

Zakrajsek puts his students through a wide variety of off-ice exercises, both physical and mental. Drew was working out with the pairs skaters the other day and watching one of Zakrajsek's students jump over a pile of foam pads. Each time he cleared the stack, Zakrajsek added another pad, until the pile was as tall as he was. The pair skaters all doubted that he could jump over it, and when he did, the point of the exercise became clear.

"The point is to see the obstacle and see that you can conquer it," said Zakrajsek. "It's about looking at this wall as tall as you, and finding a way to get over it without being intimidated."

Morgan M.
The Boston area has recently been enriched by the addition of 2005 world junior ice-dance champion Morgan Matthews. Sarah sat down with her before a session at the Skating Club of Boston on a warm July day, and asked her what brought her to Boston.

"My boyfriend lives here," said Matthews. "I've always liked Boston -- I did 'An Evening with Champions' about five times and I kind of fell in love with the city. So it was always in the back of my mind to come here. I moved in May, and I'm really enjoying it! I've been in the middle of nowhere in all these training centers for years and years, so it's nice to be near everything."

The world last saw Matthews when she and partner Leif Gislason finished fifth at the 2009 U.S. championships. Injuries caught up with both of them shortly afterward.

"Leif had had shoulder surgery, and he was in a lot of pain all the time," said Matthews. "He didn't see any good way to keep skating. I kept skating for a while, with Eliot Pennington. Then he got hurt, and then I got hurt, and that was it."

Matthews rattled off a horrifying list of terms to describe her hip injury.

"I have a macerated labrum; when I put my hip forward my femur starts to slip out of the socket. I have acetabular dysplasia, where the head of the femur isn't covered all the way. I also have vascular necrosis, which means the head of the femur is deteriorating. So it's in terrible shape, basically!"

She told us she'll have to have a hip replacement, but she's trying to put it off for the time being. "Having a foreign something-or-other in your hip is kind of scary. I'm going to wait a little bit and try and keep strong."

For now, Matthews is coaching, and thinking about going to school in the future.

"I have so much energy that I still want to contribute to the sport," she said. "I need a creative outlet. I have so much a wealth of knowledge of skating. I've been trained by some of the best coaches in the world and I have too much to contribute to just walk away from it. I'm working with Garrett Lucash; we're collaborating a little bit. I'm mostly interested in choreography. I've been doing choreography since I was fifteen or sixteen years old, although I haven't had as much time to devote to it before. Now I can really delve into it, which is nice."

NNNP
1999 U.S. ladies silver medalist Naomi Nari Nam got married on August 2 in Orange County, California; she wrote us a brief note to let us know.

"I am very happy and extremely excited to see what married life has to bring," she said. "My husband's name is Tyler Poor (I giggle every time I say husband). We are still planning to have a wedding in the near future."

Congratulations to the happy couple!

We hope to have some more news from north of the border in our next blog. Until then,

Sarah and Drew
sarahanddrewblog@gmail.com
Follow us on Twitter for news and extra pictures @SarahandDrew