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Sunday, January 24, 2010
U.S. duo a combo of athleticism, artistry

By Bonnie D. Ford
ESPN.com

SPOKANE, Wash. -- If anyone proved you could be both a sweetheart and a champion, it was Dorothy Hamill. That made her the perfect companion for Rachael Flatt on the bus ride to the arena where Flatt was about to spend the most intense four minutes of her life.

Rachael Flatt
Dorothy Hamill has helped Rachael Flatt become more confident in her abilities as a skater.

Not that she was entirely Zen.

"I think she was more nervous for me than I was," Flatt said with her trademark low giggle.

The 1976 Olympic gold medalist has been mentoring Flatt for the past year, spending some time with her at Flatt's home club in Colorado Springs and other training venues. Hamill gives her feedback on skating now and then, but most of the conversations are strictly girl talk.

Some things never change in ladies' figure skating, and one of them is the eternal tension between athleticism and artistry. Flatt -- who won the national title Saturday night and booked herself a trip to the Vancouver Olympics along with runner-up Mirai Nagasu -- is a bona fide honor roll student who is well aware of the grades she gets from reviewers: Consistent. Hard worker. Skates clean. Lands her jumps. Handles pressure. Plays well with others. But a ballerina she's not.

"One of the very first things I said to [Flatt] and her mom, I said, 'Get the image of being a tiny little bird out of your head,"' Hamill said. "'You are an amazing athlete and you can't wish and hope and pray for something you don't have.' She has to make herself the best artist and athlete she can be.

"I wanted to be Janet Lynn," Hamill said, referring to the angelic icon of her generation. "I knew I couldn't be Peggy Fleming, so I didn't even go there. Rachael's never going to be able to do a vertical spiral, and some of the other girls are never going to be able to do a triple-triple [jump]."

That weapon helped Flatt stay within a point of two great short program skaters, Nagasu and Sasha Cohen, in the first phase of the competition. On Saturday, she fired off a crisp long program that distanced everyone else in the field. That is Rachael being Rachael, and Hamill's pep talks may have had something to do with it. "Dorothy allowed Rachael to feel confident, be herself, and not somebody that she's supposed to be," her coach, Tom Zakrajsek, said.

Hamill said she has no desire to mold Flatt into a mini-me, but she does recognize some of herself in the 17-year-old, especially the streak of perfectionism that fuels her but also can put sugar in the gas tank.

Moments after winning the national championship, Flatt admitted she had yet to give herself an A-plus. "I feel like I'm on the cusp," she said. "I've never been fully satisfied with any of my performances."

Here's some breaking news: Staying upright, with all the psychological strength and physical conditioning that implies, is more than half the rock climb up to the Olympic medal stand. That, and calibrating a winning program to a scoring system whose calculus is still incomprehensible to most viewers.

Even NBC analyst and 1984 gold medalist Scott Hamilton admitted he was mystified at first when the results showed Nagasu's long program score was lower than Flatt's (and, in fact, third-place Ashley Wagner's). "I blew it," he said. "I thought [Nagasu] won. I really did, because I got caught up in the performance."

If someone knowledgeable is led to make that kind of Dewey-defeats-Truman declaration, how does the average fan stand a chance? Nagasu was downgraded for under-rotating three triple jumps, technical flyspecks that are invisible to the naked eye. That left her with three clean triple jumps to Flatt's seven.

What most people saw was the hyper-flexibility that put an exclamation point on Nagasu's every spin and spiral, expressiveness that flowed out through her face and fingertips, and a serenity that has been lacking from her skating since she precociously won the 2008 national title at age 15.

But rules are rules, and Flatt was the one who used her gifts to the best advantage with the current template.

"Every one of these skaters, they know," Hamilton said. "They're coming in under this scoring system and they develop their programs and they know what's at risk."

The intricacies of the 1-2 finish will be yesterday's potatoes pretty soon. What's of interest going forward is how these two teenagers might stack up against the rest of the world. In that sense, Nagasu's coach, Frank Carroll, thinks the United States is fortunate.

"One is a great athlete and one is a great artist," Carroll said. "You have two different things going on."

That's not the only contrast between the bright new members of the Olympic team.

Nagasu's Japanese-American parents own a sushi restaurant that has fallen on hard times because of the economy, while Flatt's mother is a molecular biologist and her father is a biochemical engineer. Flatt is almost unfailingly bubbly, while Nagasu has made reporters gasp by talking about her personal demons and airily addressing ethnic stereotypes head-on. Carroll describes Nagasu as an occasionally "naughty" student who brings some sass to practice. Hamill said when she stayed with the Flatts, she was astounded at their daughter's calm, methodical approach to her jam-packed schedule of homework and training.

On the bus en route to the arena, it was just the two of them. Flatt's coaches were already at the competition with another skater. "Do you feel like you deserve to be here?" Hamill asked, although she was sure of the answer in her own mind. "'You're trained, you're conditioned.' I could tell she was ready," Hamill said.

Flatt put on her noise-deadening headphones at this competition, shut out all the static and the Sasha-mania and did her thing. After the scores were in, Flatt was asked if she felt vindicated at last for her constancy. "I would love to be both steady and spectacular," she said.

In a sport that balances on nerves and blades not much wider than a knife, sometimes those qualities are one and the same thing.

Bonnie D. Ford covers tennis and Olympic sports for ESPN.com. She can be reached at bonniedford@aol.com.