VANCOUVER — Tom Zakrajsek had spent 21 years patiently working and waiting for the moment when he finally could call himself an Olympic figure skating coach.
That was his goal, his driving motivation in developing many young athletes to rise higher than he ever could in the sport.
In a perfect world, Zakrajsek would have been able to relish that accomplishment and share it with all 16 of his skaters training at the World Arena Ice Hall in Colorado Springs.
When 17-year-old Rachael Flatt won the national ladies title last month at the 2010 U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Spokane, Wash., it meant she would be going to the Winter Olympics — with Zakrajsek as her longtime coach and guiding force.
But as thrilled as Zakrajsek was, he had to deal with equally painful disappointment. In the men's event at Spokane, one of his earliest pupils, Ryan Bradley, landed three quadruple jumps (more than anyone), but short-program mistakes doomed him to fourth place and the worst-possible consolation prize: Olympic alternate. Brandon Mroz, who had been second nationally in 2009, wound up sixth.
For Mroz, at 19, there remains hope for the future. But for Bradley, at 26, the reaction was different.
"Ryan came up to me and said, 'My dream just died,'" Zakrajsek said. "Those are hard words for a coach to hear."
Giddy success in one hand, bitter frustration in the other. Such is life for an ambitious 46-year-old coach reaching his prime in the skating world.
Aiming for the top
Flatt and Zakrajsek traveled to Canada on Feb. 11, the day before she marched in the opening ceremony with her coach proudly watching from the stands. They checked into the Olympic Village, figured out the transportation, checked the ice at practice sessions — then did something few athletes and coaches would consider.
They left Vancouver on Monday, flying back to Colorado Springs for a few days.
Was it a mind game? As Zakrajsek puts it, "With Rachael's event so late in the Games [short program Tuesday, Feb. 23, long program Feb. 25] and with Colorado Springs being as close as it is to Vancouver, we thought it would be best."
Flatt insists another reason for the return was to catch up on classwork at Cheyenne Mountain High School. Regardless, it's typical of Zakrajsek to make the most of any situation.
Like the day a few weeks ago, after Flatt had a strong early-morning practice. She had another ice session to follow, but instead of studying as she usually would, she fell asleep on a chair in the Ice Hall lobby.
"I woke her up," Zakrajsek says, "and told her to take the rest of the day off. She needed it. You just have to go with your gut feelings."
With Zakrajsek setting the tone, Flatt has become strong under pressure. She's finished second, second and first at the past three Nationals, and fifth at the 2009 Worlds.
In Vancouver, nobody seems to be taking that into account. Nor are they considering that Flatt actually defeated Olympic favorite Kim Yu-Na of South Korea in the long program at Skate America last November. But Zakrajsek doesn't mind any of that.
"For me, whatever you've achieved instantly becomes the past, and it's a snapshot for you to draw from," he says. "But that competition did prove nobody is invincible, and that was a good thing for Rachael to learn. ... My philosophy with our skaters is to command the ice when we're out there."
Inspirations along the way
Zakrajsek grew up in the Cleveland area, playing team sports. But when he went with his sister to a learn-to-skate program at age 10, something clicked. He eventually became a national-level skater, with respectable finishes during his final competitive years while attending the University of Denver.
He toured with Disney on Ice for several years, and during breaks started coaching. After leaving the Disney show, he coached full-time a few years in St. Joseph, Mo., until an offer came in 1998 to move to Colorado Springs and develop young skaters for the Broadmoor Skating Club.
He didn't hesitate, and soon his skaters began winning low-level and junior titles. They also stayed with Zakrajsek as they progressed. Bradley, Flatt and Jeremy Abbott had been around since they were youngsters.
In 2004, Zakrajsek saw a presentation on legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden's "Pyramid of Success" and began implementing it in his own coaching.
"It motivated me to read all of Coach Wooden's books," Zakrajsek says. "His message really impacted me."
Pushing Wooden's desired traits — industriousness, enthusiasm, initiative, self-control, confidence — Zakrajsek now makes his skaters watch videos describing the philosophy.
They understand Wooden's slogans, especially one that Zakrajsek won't let them forget: "Respect every opponent, but fear none."
Zakrajsek also talked extensively to other coaches he respected, starting with Frank Carroll, whose pupils have included Michelle Kwan, Linda Fratianne and now Mirai Nagasu, Flatt's friendly U.S. rival. Carroll's main lesson: The best coaches must have a vision of what they expect skaters to become, and it can't be influenced by others.
After applying those ingredients, Zakrajsek broke through in 2009, when Abbott won the U.S. men's title with Mroz second, while Flatt took second in ladies. That meant he'd have three skaters on the U.S. world team in the year before the Olympics, with Bradley also in the mix. It earned Zakrajsek a major honor — National Coach of the Year from the Professional Skaters Association.
Mitch Moyer, senior director of athlete high performance for the U.S. Figure Skating Association, is one of many who have noticed Zakrajsek's rise.
"He's proven himself to be one of the most consistent coaches we have at the national level over the last five to seven years," says Moyer. "We're always looking to see who will be in the next group of top coaches coming up, and it's nice to see that Tom has arrived in that group."
But reaching the top can have its drawbacks. After training for 10 years with Zakrajsek, Abbott left last spring, telling his coach he was concerned about having to share time with so many others.
"I wouldn't be where I am today without Tom," Abbott said as he left. "I am so grateful to him."
Zakrajsek has reduced his number of skaters from a high of 30 to 16, but after the Winter Games he'll go back to what he's been doing — making top-notch skaters better while cultivating younger ones like 15-year-old Agnes Zawadzki, the new U.S. junior ladies champion, and Joshua Farris, the national junior men's runner-up at 15.
How early can he spot a special skater?
"Usually in the first lesson," Zakrajsek says. "But if not, then no later than after the first month or so. I don't know if you can predict someone making the world team, but there are certain qualities that always stand out."
And it's not always about talent. For Zakrajsek, enthusiasm and "love for the sport" are huge.
"At the highest level, it's probably 95 percent mental," he says. "They've done all the work and the training, and you have to be talented to get to this level. That's how it is now for Rachael. After what she did in Spokane, she knows she can do anything."
And for Tom Zakrajsek, this experience of coaching in the Olympics might be just the first of many.