In a cut-throat sport of skill and grace, inner drive is often the key ingredient to success. Every now and then, a figure skater comes along who takes ambition up a notch. U.S. national silver medalist Rachael Flatt is one of those rare, young athletes. To those who know her, like training teammate Ryan Bradley, Flatt's drive and passion are amplified by her intelligence both off and on the ice. "Rachael's one of the smartest people you'll ever meet," Bradley said.
Last year, Flatt graduated with honors from Cheyenne Mountain High School in Colorado Springs, Colo., where she currently trains with Tom Zakrajsek. She was accepted at Stanford but decided to wait a year so she could regroup and refocus after a jam-packed 2010 calendar. "Honestly, I was a little bit exhausted after last season with doing four AP classes, making the Olympic team and going to worlds again," she said. "It was a hectic couple of months and I needed a little more time [before starting college]."
While the break from school has allowed Flatt to focus almost exclusively on skating, her season has brought mixed results. She finished last among the six skaters who qualified for the Grand Prix final in December, then rallied impressively at the U.S. national championship in January, claiming one of only two spots on the team for worlds. (The first spot went to U.S. national champion Alissa Czisny.)
Flatt admits she was nervous at nationals: "I was trying my new short [program] out, and I just really wanted to show that it was a breakthrough moment for me and that I really can be artistic."
Her previous routine had been coolly received, so she switched at midseason -- a risky move, since choreographing new programs is usually done during the offseason. On top of that, she chose Lee Holdridge's score for "East of Eden," which many skating fans see as Michelle Kwan's signature music. (In an interesting coincidence, Kwan had also turned to "East of Eden" as a midseason replacement back in 2001.)
Just before the holidays, Flatt made a special trip to Toronto to see her choreographer, Lori Nichol. Holdridge's music -- which swells majestically and easily commands a large arena -- was unfamiliar to her. "We were in Lori's car, driving in Toronto, and we were playing different pieces of music through the cell phone," she recalls. "At first, "East of Eden" didn't sound very good." But when they arrived at music editor Lenore Kay's house, Flatt heard the score on a magnificent stereo system, and her thoughts changed. "We were all sitting there in her basement, almost in tears. Lori said, 'You can't back down from this music.'"
Nichol, who had choreographed Kwan's performance a decade earlier, pushed Flatt. "'We really have to do something that's going to make you skate like a totally different skater,'" Flatt recalls her saying at the time. From there, the program came together in just two days.
When asked about her music selection and whether she's "taken" the selection from Kwan's famous performance, Flatt seems almost apologetic. But, as she sees it, "Michelle and I have something in common. The music really resonated with me, too."
In Moscow, Flatt's biggest challenge may be a nagging injury. "My back hasn't allowed me to do a solid layback spin or moves that require a lot of flexibility," she said. The layback spin is a required element in the short program and a less-intricate version costs her valuable points. For the long program, however, she plans to present the same jumps she did at nationals. A double Axel-triple toe combination and a triple loop in the second half of her program will boost her point potential if she nails the landings.
After worlds, Flatt will focus on next season and her transition to Stanford, where she plans to major in chemical engineering. Unlike with other undergraduates, her move involves much more than boxing up her parents' sheets and buying posters of Matisse prints. The California native has to establish a new training base with a new coach -- a process she has not yet begun.
But she's excited and has already gotten advice from a well-known Stanford alumna Debi Thomas, the 1988 Olympic bronze medalist. "She's like me," Flatt said. "It's better for us when we train and do schoolwork at the same time. It takes our mind off skating.
"Debi said to take courses that mean a lot to you, and to make sure you find a great roommate, someone who is willing to deal with your training schedule and competitions," Flatt said. Finding a good roommate shouldn't be difficult for Flatt. As Bradley tells it, anyone would be lucky to have her. "If I have a bad day, I'll go home and get a text from Rachael that night," he said. "I don't think the fans and the media realize how great a human being she is."