High stakes on ice skates
This story appeared in the Jan./Feb. edition of ESPN RISE Magazine.
"The Lost Symbol" sits unopened on Rachael Flatt's desk.
Dan Brown's latest best seller -- following "Angels & Demons" and "The Da Vinci Code" -- is at the top of Flatt's reading list. The only problem is, the Cheyenne Mountain (Colorado Springs, Colo.) senior hasn't been able to find time to start it.
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The 17-year-old Flatt is one of two high school students -- along with 16-year-old Mirai Nagasu of California -- whose year has been dominated by a push to make the U.S. Olympic figure skating team for the Winter Games in Vancouver from Feb. 12-28. Flatt was America's top-ranked skater at press time, while Nagasu was the 2008 U.S. champion. Along with a handful of others, they are competing for one of only two slots on the team.
Somehow, they've both managed to balance school with chasing the Olympic dream, all while finding time to watch reality TV and update Twitter accounts. It's a high-stakes game with an incredible amount of pressure. One slip and the dream can become a nightmare.
"Being 16 is such a great age because I'm still really young and I'll still have a lot of chances," Nagasu says. "But the Olympics only come every four years, so you don't want to waste an opportunity."
It's easy to see why Dan Brown has to wait.
For 30 minutes every Thursday night, Flatt's schedule is the same as many of her peers'. Regardless of what she's up to with skating or homework, she makes sure to watch "The Office." But after hanging with the Dunder Mifflin crew, it's back to the grind.
Every weekday during the fall semester, Flatt would wake up at 5:30 a.m. to arrive at school for her two early-morning AP classes, English and physics. She'd leave school at 8:30 for a skating session from 9-10, then attend a ballet or stretch class before hitting the ice again from 11-11:45. Flatt would eat lunch in the car on the way back to school, where she had AP calculus and AP French classes in the afternoon.
Then there was another two-hour afternoon skate. Two days a week she'd also head to the Olympic Training Center for additional workouts in the evening. Upon arriving home, she could finally get around to homework. And if you look at Flatt's transcript, it's clear schoolwork isn't an afterthought. Despite all her AP courses, Flatt has a straight-A average and would like to attend either Stanford or Princeton.
"She's never had a single B," says Cheyenne Mountain assistant principal Tracie Cormaney. "She'll be in Beijing or someplace, and we'll get a call: 'Can you run to my locker, get my chemistry book and fax me chapters 2 and 3?'"
While Flatt has managed to excel in the classroom, she's had to miss school dances and can't participate in some of the extracurricular activities she'd like to. During the summer, she usually has more time to hang out -- going to the movies or mini-golfing with friends. And she loves getting away with her family.
"When we go on vacations, I definitely like to relax," Flatt says.
Of course, vacations have been few and far between in the run-up to the Olympics. But Flatt doesn't mind.
"Sometimes I wish I had a little more free time, but honestly, I don't think I'd know what to do with myself," she says. "I think I thrive on this kind of schedule."
Nagasu burst onto the international scene in 2007, winning gold at the U.S. Junior Championships and the Junior Grand Prix and a silver at the World Juniors. The following year, she upped the ante, claiming the 2008 U.S. Championships and stamping herself as America's next great figure skater.
She became the second-youngest U.S. champ (behind only 1998 Olympic gold medalist Tara Lipinski) and the first skater since the 1930s to win the U.S. junior title and U.S senior crown in consecutive years.
Nagasu was skating in Rockefeller Center on NBC's "Today" show. She was on the cover of Sports Illustrated for Kids. But she was only 14 and struggling to adjust to her newfound fame.
"After nationals, a lot of media attention was on me," Nagasu says. "I just wasn't ready for everything that came with the title. I let it get to my head and didn't practice as hard as I should have."
Nagasu's stumble upon reaching the top shows just how easy it is for a prodigy to get off track.
In many ways, Nagasu is a typical teenager (albeit one with her own publicist and website). She's obsessed with Harry Potter, "So You Think You Can Dance" and her pet Chihuahua. One of her favorite activities is "wasting time on YouTube."
Up until this year, when she started getting home-schooled in order to focus more on skating, she attended high school at Arcadia (Arcadia, Calif.) and loved nothing more than hanging out with her classmates.
"I really liked the socializing," Nagasu says. "I was always getting in trouble for whispering in class."
Nagasu started skating at age 5, when a rainy day canceled a golf outing with her father. They went ice skating instead, and she never looked back. By the time Nagasu was 10, she was competing on the national stage and following a regimented schedule.
She would wake up at 5 a.m. for a two-hour practice before school. Once classes ended, she'd have an afternoon practice before heading off to her parents' sushi restaurant, where she would eat dinner, do homework and fall asleep in a storage closet until it was time to go home.
"I grew up on that schedule," Nagasu says.
After winning nationals in 2008, she grew out of it. Almost literally.
A serious growth spurt (she was 4-foot-11 in 2008 and is now 5-foot-4) made certain jumps more difficult than ever. And an ankle injury hampered her 2008-09 season. She initially hurt the ankle in the summer of 2008 and was advised to take a couple of weeks off, but she tried to fight through it. The injury only got worse and was a key factor in her disappointing fifth-place finishes at October's Skate America and January's U.S. Championships. Finally, the pain became too much and she withdrew from the 2009 World Juniors.
On top of all that, she was rebelling against the very schedule that helped propel her to the top.
"I couldn't skate that much, so I had more time to hang out with friends, go to the mall and watch movies," Nagasu says. "I got lazy."
It was fun, but not necessarily a recipe for success.
Determined to regain her old form, Nagasu hired a new coach, Frank Carroll. The former coach of Michelle Kwan, Carroll is "a great disciplinarian," according to Nagasu. Home-schooling has made her schedule much more flexible, and she's spending about five hours a day at the rink with Carroll and his other pupils, including men's Olympic gold medal hopeful Evan Lysacek, the 2009 world champion.
The results have been encouraging. At this past November's Skate Canada, her final big meet before the U.S. Championships, Nagasu finished in fourth place, just two points out of third.
Flatt, meanwhile, headed into the U.S. Championships as a favorite to make the Olympic team. (Held after press time in mid-January, this year's nationals would determine which two skaters made the U.S. Olympic team.) She had the best finish among Americans at the 2009 World Championships (fifth), while winning the 2008 World Junior Championships and finishing second at 2009's Skate America, behind only South Korea's Kim Yu-na, who's favored to win gold in Vancouver next month.
There's a lot of pressure on her, but Flatt holds herself to a pretty high standard.
"I'm a perfectionist," she says. "It's hard to know that everything you do in your program has to be exactly right, but at the same time, I love putting myself on the edge like that."
And when she succeeds, as she has so often over the past two years, it makes all the stress and early-morning workouts worth it.
"When everything goes well, it's so exhilarating," Flatt says. "I have the time of my life when I'm out there and it's just me, my skating and my music."
Compared to the rest of her hectic schedule, it's a nice change of pace.
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