ESPN Yankush pedals his dream job
The Ursuline graduate has found happiness as a bike rider and commentator.
By JOE SCALZO
VINDICATOR SPORTS STAFF
At 4:15 p.m. on Saturday afternoon, Zack "Catfish" Yankush was riding from the Staples Center to the Home Depot Center in Los Angeles trying to recover from announcing one event at the X-Games while preparing for another.
"I've got my own personal driver and she's got a mohawk and she's hauling [butt] around Los Angeles," Yankush said, shouting into his cell phone over the noise and the radio. "It's great. I'm having a blast."
Less than an hour earlier, he'd done the on site announcing for the BMX Skate event, where Dave Mirra -- the most decorated X-Games athlete in history -- won his 14th career gold medal. He'd stayed up past 2 a.m. the night before riding his bike.
"Tonight's my last event of announcing," he said. "Then I can sit back, relax and enjoy the L.A. night life."
Living his dream
Yankush, who splits his duties between on site announcing at the BMX events and color commentary for ESPN, never dreamed he would be in this position when he started riding more than 20 years ago.
Wait, that's not true. He dreamed it.
He just never expected it.
"Never in a million years," Yankush said. "But I love what I do."
Yankush grew up on Youngstown's North Side, started riding in 1985 when he was still in grade school and never stopped. He went to Ursuline High School -- he was a wrestler all four years -- graduated in 1994 and turned pro in 1995.
"I was fortunate enough to have parents that supported me," he said. "A lot of times when parents see their kids get involved with this stuff, they're a little leery. Mine weren't."
Just before turning pro, he enrolled at Mount Union College, where he continued wrestling. He rode his bike in his spare time, practicing in his kitchen and getting scuff marks on the floor. ("My roommates weren't too happy about that," he said.)
Around that time, he and his friends started riding inside the abandoned Weatherby Coat Factory downtown. There was no running water (unless you count the water dripping from the ceiling) and sketchy electricity. It was their training ground for about two years, but the city eventually caught wind of what they were doing and shut it down.
Started park in Hubbard
So Yankush, along with a few of his friends, scrounged up some money and started Section 8 skate park in Hubbard. Yankush was sort of a silent partner -- he didn't have anything tied up financially -- but he helped get the project off the ground.
"It's one of the best skate parks in the world," he said. "Northeast Ohio is actually a huge hotbed of BMX activity. People hear about it and think, 'Oh, that's a California thing.' But it's turned out some of the most prolific riders in the world. The harsh winters force a lot of skate parks to go indoors, so you can skate year round."
After graduating from Mount Union with a business administration degree, he sent out resumes to every bike company in the country, figuring there weren't many BMX pros with college degrees. He got rejections from two and didn't hear from the others.
He landed at the Ford Motor Company, working eight hours a day in khakis and a polo shirt then coming home, putting on a T-shirt and ripped jeans and riding his bike for hours.
Moved to Dayton
Eventually he landed a job with DK Bicycles in Dayton (where he lives now), acquired the nickname "Catfish" (he picked a purposely bad nickname) and works as a team manager. He handles promotions and tours the world organizing bike shows, mainly for schools.
"We don't just do tricks," he said. "We emphasize keeping healthy, staying off drugs, staying out of trouble, that kind of stuff. It gives them something to do other than sitting in front of the TV or computer."
Somewhere along the way, he started announcing at events.
"I've always had a loud mouth and I guess I got a reputation as an OK announcer," he said. "ESPN contacted me and asked me if I wanted to do the X-Games."
The X-Games, now in their 11th year, are pretty much the Olympics of extreme sports. Yankush had competed in a few qualifying competitions, but never made it as a competitor. When ESPN called, he said yes. Quickly.
"I was incredibly excited," he said.
Yankush will turn 30 in September. He went to his 10-year high school reunion last year and saw many of the same people who made fun of him growing up for riding his bike. They asked what he was doing. He told them.
(And, in the fine tradition of reunions, he gloated a little.)
"Some of those guys sit in cubicles all day and they're two divorces in and two kids deep and meanwhile I'm living my dream," he said. "I've always wanted to work in BMX. It's my passion. I'll do a show, then find the closest skate park and go ride. Not because there are cameras on me, just because I love it.
"If I've been having girlfriend problems or going through trials and tribulations or stuck in L.A. traffic, I'll just hop on my bike. It's like my own personal psychiatrist."
Yankush hasn't had the smoothest ride to success, but he's had fun. And he doesn't plan on stopping.
"I'm going to keep riding until I can't pedal anymore," he said. "If I have one message for kids out there, it's to never give up on your dreams. Never in a million years did I think I'd be a pro bike rider, but here I am, in L.A., living my dream."