- Figure Skating
Former Olympian Flatt aims at comeback the hard way
Rachael Flatt has a hard time remembering the last time she competed in a U.S. Figure Skating regional event.
“I think it was the 2006-07 season,” says the 21-year-old, a junior at Stanford. “I remember skating in sectionals, but I can’t remember where regionals were … it was too long ago.”
It’s hard to blame the failing memory of the 2010 U.S. national champion and Vancouver Olympian: regionals are the first-tier event used in the qualifying process for nationals. This weekend Flatt will descend on a rink in Vacaville, Calif., to try and continue a comeback that saw her miss much of last season with injuries.
The attempt – two qualifying competitions before making it to nationals – is virtually unheard of for a former Olympian. Flatt, who was seventh at the Olympics in Vancouver, has four national medals under her belt, but missed the competition a year ago in Omaha, a first since 2006.
“I’ve really struggled with injuries over the last two years, specifically with tendinitis in my ankle and a stress facture in my landing leg,” explains Flatt, who is studying biology and psychology. “I took most of last season off and didn’t skate for several months. I came back in May and started to fool around with some program ideas and it was at that point that I realized I really missed competing. I was finally feeling better and had taken enough time off for my injuries to resolve themselves.”
That resolution brought mental clarity for Flatt, who is known as a consistent competitor when on the ice: she wanted another shot at the Olympics. At the age of 17, she was considered a medal contender in Vancouver but faded to seventh after a nationals where she had vaulted to first place over Ashley Wagner and veteran Sasha Cohen with a convincing free skate.
Almost four years later, Cohen is long retired and Wagner is now a two-time national champion. Flatt is a long shot to make the three-member team in the ladies event, with names like Wagner, Gracie Gold, Agnes Zawadzki, Christina Gao and Mirai Nagasu now placed before hers.
Embedded owg_slideshow: Rachael Flatt at the 2010 Olympics
“Honestly, I’m viewing it as just another season. I’ve been hurt many times before and it’s nothing new for me to come back from an injury,” says Flatt, whose schedule at Stanford is lighter, though still full-time. “I just want to have fun again while competing. I think I really lost sight of that when I was competing injured for so long.”
“Being pain-free is the main objective, but skating incredibly well at nationals would the icing on the cake and making the Olympic team would be the sprinkles on the icing on the cake.”
But can Flatt even dream about those sprinkles?
“It’s a shock to a lot of people that Rachael is doing this. She's kind of a big question mark at this point,” says Lynn Rutherford, a longtime skating writer who works for icenetwork.com. “It's rare for a former U.S. champion or Olympian to do this. Emily Hughes tried it in 2009 and Alissa Czisny is attempting it this year, too. If Johnny Weir had decided to compete this season, he would have gone through the same process.”
Czisny, a national champion in both 2009 and 2011 (but was not on the 2010 Olympic team), advanced to sectionals by winning her region earlier this week.
“I think it’s really respectable,” says Flatt’s peer Gao, who said Rachael helped her with a decision to attend Harvard last summer. “I know coming back is very hard … It has to be really hard to go through sectionals.”
For Flatt, belief doesn’t just come from within, but also from her inner circle, including her family.
“Going to the Olympics in 2010 was an amazing experience for her as an athlete and us as a family,” says Jody Flatt, Rachael’s mom. “We’ve never taken any of this for granted. In 2009 Rachael did all the media events and there was sort of this pre-deteremined mindset that was, ‘Oh, you’re a part of the Olympic team.’ But the reality is, not all of those athletes will make it – there are no guarantees. It comes down to you have to do the work. It’s still a competition and you have to perform. No matter what the competition is, you still have to deliver.”
If Flatt delivers, she’ll do so on her own terms: she’s staying at Stanford this quarter (“focusing on just skating has never really worked for me”) and has a team around her she says clicks at St. Moritz Skating Club, training at a rink in San Jose with coaches Justin Dillon and Lynn Smith.
Flatt has worked with Dillon choreographing her own programs this year, set for (a competitive) debut at regionals and then at Cup of Nice in France, Oct. 23-27. Should she place in top four at regionals, she’ll go to sectionals in November, held in Oakland.
And then – if she qualifies – nationals.
“It’s going to be a little bit of a different mindset coming back through this and going through regionals and sectionals,” an optimistic Flatt says. “It’s a little bit of a change of mindset and the overall approach. In a way, it’s like going back to the good old days. I’m taking it on a day-to-day basis and that’s the way I intend to keep it.”
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