Joining the ‘Z Squad’ Paying Off for Pulkinen

By Colette A. Harris

Photo by Jay Adeff/U.S. Figure Skating

Photo by Jay Adeff/U.S. Figure Skating

The “Z Squad,” as Camden Pulkinen has nicknamed his coaching team led by Tom Zakrajsek, has been good to him. Since relocating from Gilbert, Arizona, to Colorado Springs, Colorado, to train with Zakrajsek and Becky Calvin in 2016, he’s been progressively moving up in the standings and has become a skater to watch. Zakrajsek describes Pulkinen, 18, as motivated, open to trying new things, and both athletically and artistically inclined.

“He’s clearly driven to be a complete skater,” Zakrajsek said. “He’s extremely athletic and has a really nice sense of skating and performing, and that’s kind of a unique combination. “I’ve worked with a lot skaters over 28 years of coaching and some are stronger in certain areas than others, but he really wants to be the total package.”

Pulkinen is fresh off a successful season full of personal and professional gains. Not every skate at every competition was perfect, but he learned a lot about who he is as a competitor and what he needs to do to be successful. His first competition, the Philadelphia Summer International, taught him his most important lesson — that he needs to focus on himself, not others, and trust his training when competing. Skating against the top U.S. men overwhelmed him at that event, but he soon learned how to manage that extra pressure.

“It just showed me that I really have to get in my own mental space and just worry about myself when I’m competing, because I can’t control what they’re [other competitors] going to do. I can only control what I’m going to do,” Pulkinen said.

That new outlook served him well at the ISU Junior Grand Prix (JGP) in Austria, his second event of the season. Although he didn’t know where he would stack against the rest of the skaters, he didn’t let it bother him. Instead, he focused on his performance and won the event with a total score of 203.80, while achieving his goal of earning more than 200 points at an international event.

Photo by Joosep Martinson - ISU/ISU via Getty Images

Photo by Joosep Martinson – ISU/ISU via Getty Images

Heading into his second JGP event, Pulkinen realized he had a chance to make the JGP Final, which until then had been just a dream. A second place-finish at the JGP in Poland secured him a trip to the Final, where he won the silver medal. Throughout last season, he struggled to put two solid programs out at the same event. While the Final was not an exception, he was proud that he qualified and put out a solid free skate.

“I’ve done those programs — I can’t even count how many times I’ve done them clean in practice — so when I feel the nerves going into a program I try to know that I can do it and there’s nothing different,” Pulkinen said. “So I just let my body take over and I don’t really think and I just have fun and I end up placing how I place.”

Heading into the U.S. Championships in San Jose, California, Pulkinen said he definitely felt the pressure of being one of the favorites to win. He had a rocky short program, but rebounded with a free skate that included a solid triple Axel-triple toe combination. He earned a personal-best total score of 219.29 and a gold medal. He ended the season with a sixth-place finish at the World Junior Championships.

Looking back, Pulkinen said he’s now more comfortable as a competitor and knows to how prepare in order to skate well. Next year, he’ll take those lessons with him as he competes nationally on the senior level and internationally as a junior. Pulkinen said he feels like he left a lot on the table as a junior skater and wants to take next year to max out his potential at that level. His goal: win the JGP Final.

Pulkinen is already training hard for next season. He and Zakrajsek are working diligently on multiple quads and have plans to add the element into the skater’s programs next year. Additionally, they’ve created goals around skating two solid programs at each event, and while Pulkinen is clear about next year’s objectives, he’s also looking ahead to the 2022 Olympics.

“To be on top of the international podium, I need to be better than good,” Pulkinen said. “I need to be the best and I need to be my very best. I think Tom really has a good vision for that and a good plan. He’s a masterful planner.”

Pulkinen has already seen Zakrajsek’s meticulous planning in action and knows what it will take to be a medal contender at the Games in 2022. He’s trained alongside Olympians Vincent Zhou and Mirai Nagasu, and elite skaters like Max Aaron. Zakrajsek demanded the full effort of those skaters every day leading up the 2018 Olympics and expects no less of Pulkinen.

“My message to my athletes every day they get ready leave the last session and walk out of the building is: You’ve got to make sure that you’re really happy with yourself personally; that you did every single thing you could that day to reach your goals and, if you haven’t, you shouldn’t leave the building,” Zakrajsek said. “You should get on another session and make sure you do something that you wanted to do.”

Find out more about Camden Pulkinen and other Team USA skaters in the June/July issue of SKATING magazine.