This is the fourth installment of our semimonthly series following the life of 2010 U.S. figure skating champion and 2010 Winter Olympian Rachael Flatt, focusing on her adjustment to college and the pursuit of her career.
Rachael Flatt glided around the ice at the Oakland Ice Center on Wednesday, zig-zagging around the dozen or so other young skaters there working on their sit spins and perfecting their jumps.
She sported her red fleece U.S. Figure Skating jacket -- a piece of apparel most of those kids can only dream of having -- until she peeled it off when she was ready to run through her long program.
"Firebird" came over the speakers in the rink and Flatt took her position on the ice.
"'Firebird' is a story about rebirth, and I think that's kind of symbolic of my skating this year," Flatt said.
Rebirth after a difficult 2011, which was marked by injury and struggle on the ice. Rebirth after a year of transition and change in her life. Flatt is now firmly established as a college student at Stanford, with one quarter in the books.
But is she still established as the champion skater she was in 2010 when she won the U.S. title? She'll find out in a little more than a week as the U.S. national championships begin in San Jose. Flatt's competition commences with the short program Jan. 26.
Flatt is back in school at Stanford after spending her winter break in Colorado Springs. She's settling in on campus.
"I really was missing my friends in the dorms," Flatt said. "I'm actually really happy to be back."
Flatt trained in Colorado Springs over the winter break, skated in a couple of ice shows in Vail and did physical therapy on her sore right ankle, trying to mend it in time to compete at the highest level.
Now, it's time to get back to class and ramp up preparations for what could be a defining event in Flatt's already accomplished career.
She comes in as a former national champion on the heels of two underwhelming performances last fall. She finished 10th in a Skate Canada event near Toronto in October and ninth at the Rostelecom Cup in Russia in November.
She has been battling an ankle injury and adjusting to juggling her competitive skating career with a demanding academic schedule and the life of a college student.
"Obviously, at nationals, you find out whether you are going to compete another couple of times this season or not," Flatt said, referring to the fact that a top-three finish would send her to the world championships. "In a sense, it is defining, but I'm competing to have fun."
Flatt is looking for a clean skate, one that will show off her artistic side.
"I'm looking to skate my programs the way that I've been training them," she said.
Coach Justin Dillon said the approach is "not focused on her results, but on her performance."
"I want her to feel good about how she skates," said Dillon, who has been coaching Flatt since she arrived in California in August. "We've been on quite the journey this year and I think in the process, she's found herself. No matter what the result is in San Jose, she's a national champion."
Dillon said "we would all be lying to ourselves" by failing to acknowledge that Flatt has something to prove in showing she can be a full-time student at an elite university and a highly competitive skater.
"The pressure is definitely there," Dillon said. "I think she also wants to end anything she's doing on a good note. Whether it's worlds or the next Olympics.
"Whatever it ends up being. You always want to walk away from something that gave you so much joy thinking 'I feel good.'"
Flatt doesn't sound like someone who is ready to walk away from her sport.
"I am competing to have fun and I want to continue competing as long as that part of the sport is still there for me," Flatt said. "Once my season is over, I will re-evaluate, but I've always taken skating on a year-to-year basis. As much as I'd like to commit to the next three, four or five years, I am being realistic about the demands of school. Skating definitely takes a lot of work and time."
She knows this much already.
It's a new academic quarter, and she's still making adjustments to her routine. Instead of spending hours behind the wheel in her car, commuting to training sessions 45 miles away in Oakland three days a week, Flatt is now taking the train.
She takes the CalTrain from Palo Alto, switching to BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) in San Francisco for the rest of the ride to downtown Oakland.
"It's so much easier," Flatt said. "It's been so much more productive. The first couple of weeks I was driving I didn't realize how taxing it was. It's exhausting. Last quarter [taking the train] didn't work with my schedule, but this is a much better schedule for me."
Now she uses the time for homework and rest.
"It's three extra hours of homework time, so I'm not complaining," Flatt said.
Flatt is taking four classes this quarter, including organic chemistry, a continuation of last quarter's computational math class and a humanities class with an emphasis on literature "that's going to take a lot of time because there's so much reading."
The fourth class is a Zumba exercise class.
"It's just for fun, to be active, to take my mind off academics for a little bit," Flatt said.
Flatt spends 45 minutes or so on the ice in Oakland; a little less than her usual session. She comes off the ice to talk things over with Dillon and to greet seamstress Lilya Dukler, who has created Flatt's new costume for the long program.
Dukler pulls it out of the plastic bag -- metallic sequins, a halter bodice and black shirt -- and Flatt's eyes light up.
"Oh, wow. I love it," Flatt said.
She heads back to the dressing area to try it on.
Dillon wanted to give Flatt a more mature look for this competition.
"She's not 16 anymore, she's 19. She's in college," Dillon said.
"I started college, it's been a huge transition. I moved to California, I started working with new coaches," Flatt said. "Honestly, the dress reflects that change for me. It's a fabulous dress."
Dillon and Flatt look over the costume. Flatt skates around the ice in it. They take photos and chat and request a couple of small changes.
Flatt said her ankle, which is painful because of a malady similar to tendinitis, is "still hurting."
She went through physical therapy in Colorado and came back to California with new skates that include silicone padding and a reconstructed tongue to minimize pressure.
"I started breaking those in at the end of last week," Flatt said. "It's really close to competition to be breaking in new skates. It's a little nerve-racking, but it was a last-ditch thing. I haven't been able to do my triple-flip or triple lutz for quite a while. It's really been frustrating."
But it's time to put the frustration away. Flatt will scale back her training schedule a bit as the competition in San Jose approaches. She will go to class the first couple of days that week and stay in a hotel to ensure a better night's sleep than she might get in the dorms.
And then she will take the ice.
"Once I start competing, nationals come first," Flatt said.