March 02, 1981 12:00 PM

Just before the national figure skating championships in San Diego this month, 15-year-old Elaine Zayak received a good-luck necklace from 1976 Olympic gold medalist Dorothy Hamill. Later, after Elaine had whizzed past the competition to finish first, four-time U.S. titleholder Linda Fratianne wired the new queen a dozen long-stemmed roses. And so the mantle was passed.

In this case, though, the more things change, the more they do not stay the same. “I have my own style,” Zayak says bluntly. “I don’t copy from anyone.” By way of proving her point, the 5’2″ Elaine sealed her victory with an astonishing seven triple jumps in her four-minute freestyle program. No other rival managed more than two. “I just think of myself as an ordinary person who can jump,” says Elaine, but her coach, Peter Burrows, a former British pairs champion, is less restrained. “Elaine has revolutionized women’s skating,” he declares. “Of course, if you’re going to be national champion, you have to do something different.”

It remains to be seen whether the difference can propel her to victory in the world championships in Hartford, Conn. next week. “I think I could win,” Elaine says. “I have the ability. It’s a question of whether I can put everything together. But I know winning would put a lot of pressure on me, maybe too much. I still have three years to go before the Olympics. I have plenty of time to win the world’s.” Burrows agrees. “For now,” he says, “the top five is realistic. We’ll be happy with that.” Meanwhile he is working with Zayak on the triple axel, a three-and-a-half-revolution jump that only a few men have ever successfully completed in competition. “It has never been done by a woman,” says Burrows. “Elaine has done several in practice, and if we can get to the point where she does seven out of 10 without falling, we may try to put it in her program next year.”

Burrows’ charge developed her extraordinary leaping ability while fooling around on her family’s backyard trampoline in Paramus, N.J. That was the easy part. In terms of time and money, the cost of turning Elaine into a world-class skater has been staggering for Zayak and her parents. For three years, before Elaine began working out at a closer arena, she and her mother, Jeri, rose before dawn nearly every day to drive 70 miles to a rink on Long Island. Expenses for training, travel and equipment run as much as $25,000 a year. “My parents are in the poorhouse,” says Elaine. “You just can’t pay everything at once,” admits Jeri, whose husband, Rich, is part owner of a workingmen’s bar. “We owe the dressmaker for the last two costumes she’s made, but she’s very understanding.” So, too, was Fratianne, now with the Ice Follies and Holiday on Ice, who used to pass along her old outfits.

Though technically a sophomore at Paramus High, Zayak attends only two classes—acting and typing—and spends the rest of her day at the rink. She is tutored in English and history for a total of five hours a week. Although her social life comes second to skating, there are compensations—for instance, four trips to Europe and a 10-day tour of China for an ABC special (the network footed the bill for Zayak and her mother). “Besides,” says Elaine, “I don’t want a boyfriend—not yet. The only thing boys can do is hurt your concentration.”

What she does need, she has persuaded herself, is a chunk of Olympic gold, and for that she is willing to wait. “It’s really weird,” she says, “but it seems an American woman wins the figure skating in every other Olympics. Peggy Fleming won for us, then someone from a different country. Dorothy Hamill, then someone from another country. I figure 1984 will be the year for the United States.” And, she might add, for Paramus.

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