DU Alumni / Magazine Feature / People

Alum finds life on ice is pretty nice

Tom Zakrajsek

Alumnus Tom Zakrajsek, right, recently coached U.S. figure skater Rachael Flatt, center, to a 7th-place finish at the Winter Olympics in Vancouver, B.C. Also pictured: Becky Calvin. Photo: Coutesy of Tom Zakrajsek

As a figure skater, Tom Zakrajsek was a pretty fair competitor, participating in six U.S. National Championships.

But as a coach in Colorado Springs, Zakrajsek has taught the best in the world. Working out of the Broadmoor Skating Club, he has coached numerous national and international champions. His latest successful skater, Rachael Flatt, won the 2010 U.S. Nationals and went on to a seventh-place finish at February’s Winter Olympics in Vancouver, B.C.

Now skating prodigies come to him. Parents hope he can turn their daughters and sons into Olympic hopefuls.

Zakrajsek (BA English and mass communications ’88) has come a long way from his days in the late 1980s when he was working several jobs while attending DU and trying to continue his skating career.

“I can just say nothing but great things about my days at DU,” Zakrajsek says. “I was a political science major. I wanted to be a lawyer. At the time, the DU law school was ranked fourth in the country. I wanted to go to school and train for figure skating. That whole idea changed once I got into the university atmosphere. I tried to make the most of my classes. I became a mass communications major and [also majored] in English, even minoring in history.”

All those classes left little time for skating. He eventually had to work his way through college with internships at US West and The Denver Post. He also was editor of DU’s campus newspaper The Clarion for a time.

All those duties cut into his skating time, Zakrajsek admits. In the late 1980s, there were few opportunities for junior skaters to participate in national events. Today, many of the world’s greatest skaters build their careers at the junior level.

“The sport has changed,” Zakrajsek says. “The opportunities have quadrupled from when I was a junior at nationals. There was no opportunity for juniors to skate on the international team because the top three seniors would go to the World Championships and the fourth and fifth place skaters would go to the other two junior competitions. Now there are 8 junior competitions.”

Zakrajsek has no regrets. He learned from each of his experiences, including:

  • working for US West for a year after graduating from DU — “I was making $27,000 which was pretty good money then.”
  • he returned to his first love, skating, to travel the world, including Europe, Asia and South America with the Walt Disney skating tour.
  • he coached figure skating in St. Joseph, Mo., where he discovered he “needed to understand sports better. In high school, I had always played basketball and football, so growing up in Cleveland I was always influenced by coaches like Joe Paterno and Woody Hayes and Bo Schembechler.”

Coaching in Missouri, Zakrajsek noticed that Russian figure skaters were flourishing. So he studied how Russian coaches approached the sport. Deciding he needed more training, Zakrajsek took a job at World Arena in Colorado Springs and started his master’s studies at University of Colorado-Colorado Springs. He obtained his master’s degree in exercise science in 2000.

“It’s like a conversation I had with my coach, Norma Sahlin,” Zakrajsek says. “She told me, when you make a decision, never second guess yourself. Just make it right by your actions. That’s how I have made a lot of important decisions in my life.”

Another decision he made was embracing former UCLA basketball coaching legend John Wooden’s Pyramid of Success. Zakrajsek insists his skaters read Wooden’s teachings and even drove through a terrible snowstorm to see Wooden speak to Air Force Academy cadets in 2004.

“Our manager at (World Arena) got me an invite even though the speech was only for cadets and faculty,” Zakrajsek says. “It was a horrible night — several cadets had to help push my car out of a snow drift so I could get home. But I heard him speak for almost two hours where he didn’t stutter or stammer and he was 93 at the time, I think. He was just so inspirational.”

Zakrajsek never met Wooden other than a brief hello after that initial speech. He has read all of Wooden’s books and has worn out a PBS video on the basketball hall of famer and coach of 10 NCAA national championship teams.

And he insists his skaters keep copies of the Wooden Pyramid of Success in their notebooks and has them watch the video. The pyramid is based on many human attributes, from industriousness, friendship, loyalty, enthusiasm up the ladder to self-control, initiative, skill, team spirit, poise, confidence and competitive greatness.

“I refer them to that pyramid to see what qualities I think they need,” Zakrajsek adds. “Sometimes they have that quality and sometimes they have to build that quality. Every year, I go through that John Wooden tape. My athletes know that very well.”

And the skating world knows Tom Zakrajsek as more than a pretty fair skater, one of America’s best coaches in the sport.

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