Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Rachael Flatt balances Olympic hopes, scholarly dreams

Ask anyone who's ever laced up a pair of ice skates and they'll tell you about the precariousness of balance. From the hack who can't make one revolution on a city ice rink without clocking a child to a hockey goalie to Michelle Kwan, balancing on an eighth-inch steel blade is one of life's physical Rubik's Cubes.

Then talk to Rachael Flatt about balance. How the 17-year-old lives her life makes ice skating look like walking down a movie aisle.

Not only does the Cheyenne Mountain High School senior skate, not only does the two-time national runner-up have a good shot at making the U.S. Olympic figure skating team, but she also has academic achievement that dwarfs her athletic prowess.

She has never received a B in a class. Ever. While most elite skaters try learning Western Civ online (yeah, right) or their moms teach them in their living rooms, Flatt is taking a full load at Cheyenne Mountain: Advanced Placement English, AP physics, AP calculus, AP French.

In between, she's practicing up to five hours a day in preparation for next month's national championships. She will then apply to the nation's top universities — she's leaning toward Stanford.

If all that makes you tired, don't feel bad. Flatt has amazed family and friends ever since she was 4 years old when she lifted off the back of the commode to see how a toilet worked.

"We actually said, 'Rachael, education's for life and so that should be your priority,' but we've always encouraged a work-hard, play-hard attitude," says her father, Jim Flatt. "To have a semblance of a normal high school life has been part of her success formula."

Normal life, however, doesn't equate with anything Olympian. If she earns one of the two Olympic spots allotted the U.S., Flatt will be thrust onto the world stage with a much more intensive spotlight than anything she has experienced on international ice or in a public school classroom.

Though an American skater is not favored to medal in Vancouver — the sport has been dominated recently by Asian athletes — women's figure skating breeds Olympic surprises. After all, ice is slippery.

Flatt will have nothing to lose — the same situation for American Sarah Hughes in 2002, when she shocked the world by winning gold in Salt Lake City, and for Shizuka Arakawa, the Japanese veteran who did the same in Turin in 2006.

Excelling in handling pressure

Yet Flatt doesn't sit around her house dwelling on the two biggest skates of her life, the ones that will make or break her Olympic dreams. She's too busy conjugating French verbs or solving a physics equation to fear pressure.

"It's a good pressure," she says. "Don't get me wrong, I don't try to ignore it, but I take it in stride. I've learned how to deal with it."

It helps to have family support. In that department, Flatt won the gene-pool lottery. Jim Flatt is an MIT grad with a Ph.D. in chemical engineering and is president of a biofuels company. Her mother, Jody, has a Ph.D. in molecular biology and is a retired biotech scientist.

"The apple doesn't fall far from the tree," Rachael Flatt says.

She is sitting in the lounge of the World Arena Ice Hall, where she spends much of her life. It's not always her escape from academics. Sometimes she combines the two, studying in between arduous skating sessions.

No comments: