Creating a 'distinctive style'

Rachael FlattOnly a few months past her 17th birthday, two-time U.S. Championship silver medalist Rachael Flatt is like any normal high school senior, focusing on Advanced Placement courses and preparing college applications. But when classmates are headed to the mall after school, Flatt is headed to the ice rink, where she trains 25 hours a week with the hope of representing the United States at the 2010 Olympic Winter Games in Vancouver, Canada.

Flatt showed her worth at the 2009 World Championships in Los Angeles, placing fifth at the most important yearly competition only a year after winning the gold medal at the World Junior Championships. Her next chance to show she’s Olympic material comes at her first international event of the season, Cup of China, Oct. 29-Nov. 1, in Beijing, China, and continues through January, when the two-woman U.S. Olympic team will be chosen in Spokane, Wash.

“It will be a difficult year due to the fact that I have to continually improve with each competition and peak at exactly the right times. Pacing myself is key this year,” Flatt said. “The Grand Prix circuit is crucial because it is now a part of the Olympic selection process, so I need to be consistent. Competing well at all of my events will also give me more confidence. But most importantly, I need to have fun this year since it is an incredible opportunity and it is senior year in high school.”

Flatt has the technical elements that will help her compete with the best skaters in the country and the world. In the short program, she is attempting the triple flip-triple toe combination. The combinations in her free skate are the triple flip-triple toe, triple lutz-double toe and triple flip-double toe-double loop. But she’s not just relying on jumps for her ticket to Vancouver.

“This year, I am working to improve my component scores, especially increasing my speed,” said Flatt, a Del Mar, Calif., native who now lives in Colorado Springs, Colo. “I really want to create a distinct style to my skating because in the end, that is what will separate me from everyone else. Because the technical difficulty is approximately the same among the top skaters, it comes down to the execution of those elements as well as the overall package. Perfecting the little details and adding refinement to my skating is the ultimate goal for this year.”

In between homework and training, Flatt, who visited several colleges over the summer, including Columbia, Dartmouth, Harvard, Tufts and Yale, sat down with Figure Skaters Online to answer questions from her fans.

____________________________________

Jamie (Oklahoma, USA): Thanks for taking questions from your fans Rachael. You have already won two summer events but the season officially kicks off for you at Cup of China, Oct. 29-Nov. 1, in Beijing, China. Can you give us some of your thoughts on the months ahead?
Rachael: Hi Jamie! Although my “official” season begins with my international events at the end of October with Cup of China in Beijing, I have already competed at Colorado Championships in early August and Golden West over Labor Day weekend  this year. It has been only two full seasons since my debut internationally as a junior lady at the International Challenge Cup (The Hague, Netherlands) but I still typically compete at summer club competitions as a way to gain feedback and tweak the programs as they are trained. And, this year is no different.

With two competitions completed, as well as my in depth evaluation and competition readiness monitoring with U.S. Figure Skating officials , I am training six days a week with my coaches and have set specific goals for the senior Grand Prix series of events. I will also have the opportunity to work with Lori Nichol and Dorothy Hamill before the Grand Prix series begins.  It’s going to be a very exciting autumn season and an important one as USFS has included the Grand Prix and Grand Prix Final results as a factor, along with U.S. nationals and 2009 Worlds, as a determining factor for the Olympic team.

Aside from skating, I have the pretty typical workload for a senior in high school—lots of homework, and I am working on college applications and essays as well taking my SAT subject tests.  It’s probably a pretty typical autumn for many seniors in high school.

Kathleen (Ohio, USA): I read that you watched a lot of the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, which is where your first Grand Prix event is this season. Are you excited about that? Do you plan to see the sights?
Rachael: Absolutely! My parents are coming with me as well, and we are very excited to see Beijing together. I don’t know how much free time we will have to sightsee while we are in Beijing, but I would love to see some of the 2008 Olympic Game venues—The Bird’s Nest, the Water Cube—as well as some of the amazing wonders of China like the Great Wall, the Forbidden City, the Temple of Heaven, the Summer Palace, Tiananmen Square, and of course the Pearl and Silk Markets. There is so much to see, so little time. I think we will literally get a small taste of China, its culture and its people, and that will be incentive to go back for another visit.

Jeff (Arizona, USA): Congratulations on everything that you have accomplished Rachael. Every accolade to your name is well deserved. Not only are you a remarkable skater, you are a great person, and I hope my daughters grow up to be like you, both on and off the ice. My question: Are you excited to return to Skate America this year?
Rachael: Jeff, thank you so much. 2008 Skate America in Everett, Wash., was my first senior Grand Prix event and as a result, Skate America will always be very special to me. With this year’s Skate America event taking place in Lake Placid, N.Y., it will even be more special as it is the 30th anniversary of Skate America, and the event is taking place back where it all began —and on the 1980 Herb Brooks Rink. It just doesn’t get any more exciting than that. I competed at the 2003 Junior National Championships in Lake Placid in juvenile singles and pairs. I think back to how inspirational the whole experience was for me. So, I think all of the U.S. athletes will feel the energy of the rink, and add that to fever of the fans, it’s going to be a thrilling competition for everyone — fans and athletes alike.

Brittney (Colorado, USA): What are your goals for the season?
Rachael: This year, I am working to improve my component scores, especially increasing my speed. I really want to create a distinct style to my skating because in the end, that is what will separate me from everyone else. Because the technical difficulty is approximately the same among the top skaters, it comes down to the execution of those elements as well as the overall package. Perfecting the little details and adding refinement to my skating is the ultimate goal for this year.

Matthew (California, USA): Rachael, what do you think you need to do in your Grand Prix events this season in order to compete at your best at the U.S. Championships? As a follow up, is it a little bit different of an approach this year than in the past? You essentially have to peak twice, the U.S. Championships and the Olympic Games, but still perform well elsewhere. It seems like a real challenge.
Rachael: It will be a difficult year due to the fact that I have to continually improve with each competition and peak at exactly the right times. Pacing myself is key this year. The Grand Prix circuit is crucial because it is now a part of the Olympic selection process, so I need to be consistent. Competing well at all of my events will also give me more confidence. But most importantly, I need to have fun this year since it is an incredible opportunity and it is senior year in high school.

Jennifer (California, USA): Do you ever get nervous about competing?
Rachael: Hi Jennifer! Well, I have to say that I get excited—pumped—the adrenalin gets moving. I love to skate and I love the challenge of competition. It is kind of like taking an exam at school—you have put all the hard work into your studying/ training and preparation, and the exam/competition is the time for all your hard work to shine. So I just enjoy the process.

Lindsay (New Jersey, USA): What is more nerve-wracking for you—skating at nationals or skating in an international competition, or do you have the same amount of nerves for both?
Rachael: Lindsay, that’s a good question. I think it is different for each skater. My approach is something like this: Competitions are all the same but all different. Does that make sense? Again, I think it goes back to preparation and setting specific reasonable goals for each event and if you have trained based upon your goals. “Practice like it is a competition and you will compete as you practice.” And one of my consistent goals, year in and year out is to demonstrate my love for skating and that skating is fun.

Melissa (California, USA): What can I do to not be so nervous at competitions and shows? When you step on the ice, you never look nervous so that is why I am asking you. You always look so calm. I have only seen you skate on TV but that is going to change because my grandma is taking me to watch you at nationals next year. I think you’re going to do a good job Rachael.
Rachael: Melissa, how exciting that you will get to go to nationals this year. My first nationals was when I was 9 years old and my parents took me to Los Angeles to watch the 2002 U.S. Championships, which were the Olympic qualifying event for Salt Lake City. I was absolutely enthralled with watching all the skaters and it made a huge impression on me.

When I am ready to go out on the ice, either in a six minute warm-up or when I take the ice to skate a program, I am usually very focused on the specific elements or mood for that program. So, what you see is a very focused “game face.” Practice and warm up sessions at competitions require focusing on the work you have to do—warming up jumps, spins, footwork, transitions, and there really isn’t time to get nervous. Generally, I do get a little anxious about two weeks before hand, but it is just extra excitement. But if I ever do get a little antsy, I concentrate on something that is very relaxing. Most of the time, it just takes a few seconds to calm down while I put myself in that setting or mood, and then I am ready to go.

Anne (New York, USA): You did a fantastic job at Golden West. Congratulations on beating such a strong field of competitors Rachael. When I was watching the programs, I noticed that the short program is a bit of a departure from what you have been doing while the free skate is very similar to what has worked for you in the past. Is there a reason you decided to kind of depart from your usual style for one program while keeping the other in the same style? Was it Lori Nichol’s idea to go this route? I think it works for you but I am surprised that both programs are not classical. Good luck. May all your dreams come true this season and beyond.
Rachael: Anne, thank you. Golden West was a good starting point for this season and serves as a building block for each subsequent competition as the season progresses. I enjoyed returning to Southern California to compete and to catch up with skating friends that I had not seen in a few years.

My short program this season is “Sing, Sing, Sing,” a version from the Fosse musical Dancin’. Lori Nichol, Lenore Kay [Nichol’s music editor] and I listen to music year round and file away ideas for new programs that are created in the late spring or early summer. Two of my goals this season are No. 1 to improve my speed and No. 2 to allow my personality to really show on the ice. Lori had listened to this particular orchestration of ‘Sing, Sing, Sing” for several months and kept writing it down in her little notebook as she felt this particular piece of music would help me achieve those particular goals. And, as it turns out, but Lori did not know this, I am a huge Jazz fan. I find it hard to sit still to this kind of music. It just makes me smile, my feet start tapping, you want to dance and clap to the music, and I think that comes across in the program that Lori created for me when I am on the ice. It’s just too much fun.

Dancenpointe: Do you connect more with abstract classical music or music that already has a story?
Rachael: I connect with lots of different kinds of music. I do appreciate abstract classical music because when Lori Nichol choreographs my program, we enjoy creating a story to compliment the music. Although it is difficult to come up with a storyline that is easily presented and comprehended by both the audience and judges, it allows for lots of creativity. As for music that already has a story, it is very fun portraying a character, but adding a little of my own style to make the program and character my very own. So, it is a toss-up because I love both types of music. I just enjoy music in general because it is very inspiring.

Mary (Michigan, USA): What are the jump combinations you’re doing this season? Are we going to see triple-triple combinations from you? Good luck Rachael. I know it is a long season ahead but I have faith in you. God bless.
Rachael: My short program jump combination this season is the triple flip-triple toe, with footwork into a solo triple lutz, and the axel element. The combinations in my long program are triple flip-triple toe, triple lutz-double toe, and triple flip-double toe-double loop.

Curt (Texas, USA): Should a skater step out of his or her comfort zone and throw technical elements into an Olympic program?
Rachael: It really depends on the skater. For me, I wouldn’t mind increasing the technical difficulty for the Olympic season because I love challenges. Some skaters like to stay in their comfort zone, which I respect because there is a certain confidence that comes with knowing you have a little bit more competitive experience with an element.

Lindsay (New Jersey, USA): Do you ever watch skating competitions you are not in, such as the other events on the Grand Prix series, on television, Ice Network or YouTube, to “keep an eye” on your competition? Also, do you have any interest in watching any of the other skating disciplines?
Rachael: Funny you should ask! I do watch my competitors to “keep an eye” on what they are doing, but I have always been that way. I am naturally a fairly competitive person—OK, I may be putting it lightly. I am very competitive and hate to do anything less than my best. When I first began competing, I would watch my entire group, including everyone before my and after me. I do not think my coaches appreciated it at the time, but I was just curious. I am intrigued by how people function when it comes to practicing and translating that to the competition. As for interest in other disciplines, I used to skate juvenile and intermediate pairs with Andrew Speroff. Together we won the intermediate pairs title at the U.S. Junior Championships in the 2003-04 season.

Skating102: Rachael, who do you see as your biggest competitor?
Rachael: For me, my biggest competitor is myself. I am always trying to improve upon my best. I do compare myself to the other top skaters, but I don’t focus all of my attention on everyone else. My goals are just to continue to better myself and have fun.

Jonah (Minnesota, USA): What has been your favorite competition Rachael? No matter what you say, I hope the answer changes to the “2010 Olympic Winter Games” in a few months. Good luck on your journey. No matter what happens, you are a champion.
Rachael: Thank you Jonah! My favorite competition so far was 2009 World Championships. I had a blast not only because I skated well, but because I enjoyed the whole experience. Having the chance to compete in the Staples Center was incredible to begin with and receiving a standing ovation after my long program topped it all off. I also learned a lot about how I compete under a different kind of pressure. I had lots of friends come up from San Diego and Del Mar, so having a hometown crowd made that pressure a lot easier. Overall, it was a great experience because I had so much fun, which is sometimes hard at a competition where everyone is incredibly focused on trying to be their best. But, that is the true competition when everyone is striving to be their best and loving that hard battle to make it to the top.

2names4me: Rachael, which rink have you skated that was the most memorable? The grandest, wow rink of any.
Rachael: I have several memorable rinks, so here is a briefing on each: The first time I skated at Rockefeller Center Ice rink in New York City was in November of 2001, shortly after 9/11. I can remember how the rink was an island of smiles during a very sad time in the city. Also, the 1980 Rink in Lake Placid, N.Y. I think that pretty much says it all.

We took a family vacation to Sun Valley, Idaho over 2003 Fourth of July weekend and I absolutely loved skating on the outdoor rink. I thought it would pretty cool to be invited someday to skate in one of the Summer Ice Shows. Well, my dream came true, and Kurt Browning introduced me last summer to the audience at the July 4, 2008 shows with the thoughtful words about how when a skater has “made it” as the Sun Valley Summer Ice Shows are a rite of passage for up and coming elite skaters.

Last, but not least, at the rink where I skated skating—the La Jolla Figure Skating Club in San Diego, CA at University Towne Center Shopping Mall. The rink isn’t even NHL size, but when you are 3 1/3 yrs old and can’t see over the boards, it seems miles long. We go back to San Diego almost every year and I love to skate there with the new “up and coming” skaters.

Teagan (Alberta, Canada): How many hours do you skate in one week?
Rachael: I skate about 25 hours on the ice every week.

Isabella (Netherlands): What is it like working with Tom Zakrajsek?
Rachael: Tom is a phenomenal technician. He trains us incredibly well, so I always feel prepared when entering a competition. His attention to detail is what makes him such a great coach. Although the daily grind is difficult, he pushes his students through it so we are confident in our abilities. He also encourages us to work with other coaches at our rink so we are able to incorporate their expertise into our skating as well. The collaboration between all of our coaches, both on-ice and off-ice, makes the whole journey more enjoyable and meaningful because it is a team effort.

Elizabeth (Pennsylvania, USA): Hi Rachael! You are my favorite U.S. lady right now. Congratulations on your accomplishments last season! What is it like training at the World Arena? Are there skaters of all levels or just advanced ones? And, what advice would you have for a skater who has big dreams, but skates at recreational rink?
Rachael: Thank you Elizabeth! Training at the World Arena is wonderful. We have all levels of skaters training here, from the beginning stages with the USFS Learn to Skate programs, all the way to senior-level skaters at the international and World level such as Brandon Mroz, Ryan Bradley, Alexe Gilles and myself. There is a really good atmosphere because we are all training to be our best, and we constantly push each other to go the extra mile in our training. We help each other get through the occasional rough days, so it is amazing to have that support not only from your family and your coaches, but from your peers as well.

As for advice… Well, the motto I go by is “Work hard, play harder.” My parents and I live by that because we all work incredibly hard at what we do, but more importantly, we enjoy it. Sometimes, it is difficult to find enthusiasm in the daily grind of training, but reminding yourself how much you enjoy skating is crucial. I admit that there are days when I get to the rink that I am tired of doing programs or triple-triple combinations or even working on components. But it is on those days that I try to get the most out of my training because I push myself through it. Sometimes, I do something that I absolutely love to do even if it involves doing a little piece of choreography from an older program for a few minutes just to go back and remind myself how much I love to skate. So, it comes down to being passionate for what you do. Having fun and enjoying the journey as a whole is the most important part of skating.

Rachel (Colorado, USA): I just wanted to let you know that I love your name Rachael. Some of the skaters who trained with you, like Jeremy Abbott, left Colorado Springs over the summer to train other places. Has their absence changed your training at all?
Rachael: Thank you Rachel! At first when Jeremy left, it was strange. There was a gap on the ice, literally and figuratively, and we all still miss him a lot. It is difficult when someone that you see everyday leaves, and now we only occasionally see him at a competition. It is nice to see him and catch up on things, but we do miss him.

Amanda (Ohio, USA): Rachael, thank you for answering my question. I really look up to you because you were so good when I saw you skate at the Skate for the Hope show this summer in Columbus. My mom took me and my best friend Katie to watch the show. It made me want to practice hard so I can skate in the show in a couple years. Are most of your friends skaters? Some of my friends are from school but most are from skating because we spend so much time together. My best friend is a little bit better than me and she is testing for novice. Do you ever get jealous of your friends who skate? Does your best friend skate?
Rachael: Hey Amanda! I would have to say that most of my friends are skaters, since that is where the majority of my time is spent. I do have friends at school that I spend time with, but matching our schedules is typically much harder because most of them are involved in sports or volunteer work.

One of my best friends is Alexe Gilles and I compete against her. But we are really close because we help each other get through tough times both on and off the ice. We skate almost all of the same sessions, so we cheer each other on in programs and throughout the daily training exercises. It is really nice to have someone there for you that is your peer and understands everything that goes on between school, skating, and trying to maintain a high level at both… and have a little bit of a social life.

I don’t really get jealous of my friends that skate. Mostly, I am happy for their successes, and that just makes me a little more motivated. I try to have a positive energy in every situation, even though that is tough when I am a perfectionist and pretty competitive. So, when one of my friends is having a great day or a great session, I love to use that positive vibe to make me motivated and determined to improve and inch closer to becoming my best.

Olivia (Massachusetts, USA): What is it like working with Dorothy Hamill?
Rachael: Working with Dorothy is unfathomable! She is such an incredible woman. She has had so many life experiences that I can only dream about. Every time I see her or talk to her, I am in awe that I am actually talking to the Dorothy Hamill. We had the chance to work together for five hours in the 1980 rink when we were in Lake Placid for a show this summer and I had so much fun. She made training so much fun, not only because I haven’t had the chance to train with her, but we goofed around for the last half hour or forty-five minutes. We did lots of edge exercises that she had learned from working with John Curry, so needless to say, those were incredible. And some were pretty difficult to do with the correct body line and edge quality. But she is just amazing.

Grace (California, USA): I hear you are taking all Advanced Placement courses this year. How do you manage to keep up with the school work during competition season?
Rachael: Managing the AP class load is difficult. That is all there is to it. Before I leave for competitions, my mom sends out a letter to my teachers saying I am going to be gone for a few days. This way, my teachers have a chance to get some materials for me to do while I am gone so I keep up with the class work. It makes life much easier when I can jump right back into a class discussion, rather than be completely behind and be lost for a few days.

Doing homework at a competition actually helps to keep my mind focused on something besides skating. When I competed at Worlds this year, I had to work on an analysis of The Great Gatsby for my AP English class, and it was the longest paper I had written to date — eight pages. It was a lot for me at the time but papers seem to gradually get more lengthy. Taking my mind off of skating really helps me to focus entirely on skating when I arrive at the rink for the competition.

Elizabeth (Wisconsin, USA): Rachael, I am a high school sophomore in Wisconsin, and I also skate competitively, although I am not as good as you are. I read in an article that you are taking all Advanced Placement courses in school even though you are busy with your skating and other commitments. How do you stay organized? Do you have any tips that can help me?
Rachael: Hey Elizabeth. Taking all AP classes at school is time-consuming, as I am sure you know. Therefore, time management is a huge skill that helps me keep everything organized. With college applications due this fall, I have not had much spare time to hang out and relax.

My daily planner always helps me to keep my school assignments organized, but I often use my Blackberry to keep everything else organized including interview times, meetings with my nutritionist, due dates for paperwork for U.S. Figure Skating, etc. I do try to keep that paperless, so I “go green” with that aspect. Keeping a planner with due dates for assignments for school is wonderfully helpful. As for skating, I find keeping a notebook with goals and some inspirational quotes is a great way to intensify my motivation and determination on a daily basis.

My mom also does a lot to keep me organized by double checking my schedule, booking flights for competitions, and filling out some of the paperwork every once in a while.

Mary Beth (Massachusetts, USA): Rachael, I teach adults how to read at my local church, so I am a big fan of your work with Reading is Fundamental. You probably do not have much chance for leisure reading nowadays but I thought I would send this question anyway. Can you recommend any good books? I am always looking for new reads, no matter the level.
Rachael: Mary Beth- I admire your volunteer work, as I constantly wish I had more time to volunteer in the community! But yes, I adore reading! Currently my favorite author is Dan Brown, so The DaVinci Code, Angels and Demons, Digital Fortress, and anything else he has written! I have not finished his newest book, The Lost Symbol, but so far I am definitely enjoying it. I am sure you are familiar with classic literature, and The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald is one of my favorites. I was required to read Atonement this summer for my AP English Literature and Composition class, so that was my most recent read. I am a huge Harry Potter fan as well, so I love those books. I also really liked books by Mitch Albom. They are quick to read, but they always make you think. One of my all-time favorite books is Marley and Me, and yes I have seen the movie and I cried! I love animals and my two dogs were both pretty crazy when they were growing up—although not quite as bad as Marley.

Felicia (Illinois, USA): I am one of your followers on Twitter. Do you really Tweet? I was wondering because it seems like you are so busy that you would not have time to go on the Internet. Do you also run your own Facebook and Web site?
Rachael: Yep it is really me when I tweet. Sometimes, I update my status in between a session when I have a ten-minute break thanks to my new Blackberry. Most of my updates are done that way because I don’t have time to log on to my computer everyday and check my Facebook and Web site. I don’t exactly run my Web site because I am not that technologically savvy. So I had Figure Skaters Online set it up along with getting input from my parents and my agent. I provide a lot of information and pictures.

Michael (Nevada, USA): You Tweeted that you like to watch episodes of the Office on the plane when you are not doing your homework. Who is your favorite character? Do you regularly watch any other shows?
Rachael: The Office is pretty amazing. But I couldn’t choose just one character as my favorite. Michael Scott is enormously funny, and the pranks that Jim constantly pulls on Dwight are hilarious. I do like to watch Project Runway, but now that it is on Thursday nights at the same time as The Office, I can’t watch both, so I watch the re-runs. I also enjoy House because I love medicine, and Hugh Laurie’s quick humor is fantastic.

Jamie (Oklahoma, USA): Thanks for taking the time to answer questions from your fans Rachael. Is there anything that you’d like to add?
Rachael:
Thank you for all of the questions. It was really fun answering all of them. Remember to keep visiting my official Web site www.rachaelflatt.net for new information and pictures throughout the season.

Jamie (Oklahoma, USA): Thank you to everyone who submitted questions. For more information on Rachael Flatt, visit her official Web site Rachael Flatt Online at www.rachaelflatt.net. Fans can also become a fan on Facebook and follow her on Twitter.

__________

Figure Skaters Online strives to be an accurate source of information related to the sport of figure skating. To report an error, please e-mail the news editor. Include the article date and title in your e-mail.