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For Flatt, skating and school go hand in hand

World junior champ hopes triple-triples lead to senior success

Rachael Flatt worked on two triple-triple combinations during the summer.
Rachael Flatt worked on two triple-triple combinations during the summer. (Paul Harvath)

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By Lynn Rutherford, special to icenetwork.com
(10/21/2008) - When you're a 16-year-old world junior champion, balancing elite figure skating with advanced placement classes, no time goes to waste.

For Rachael Flatt, a 10-minute drive turns into a chance to tackle a trigonometry exercise; a five-minute trip is spent in the back seat doing some extra stretches.

"Everyone tells me the apple doesn't fall far from the tree," Flatt said. "I love my classes and my teachers this year, especially my AP [advanced placement] chemistry and biology classes. My dad is a biochemical engineer, and my mom is a molecular biologist, so I come by it honestly."

Tom Zakrajsek, who trains the teen at Colorado Springs' World Arena, admitted there was very little give in his pupil's schedule.

"Everything is very organized," he said. "It has to be, because she's so intelligent and enjoys school and loves the challenge of AP classes. Academics, plus her skating, take up 95 percent of her time."

In the 1980s, Debi Thomas combined pre-med studies at Stanford University with world and national medals. The 1987 world champion is now an orthopedic surgeon.

While it's way too early to draw parallels, Flatt is intrigued by sports medicine and biomechanics and is "thinking about" eventually pursuing a medical career. The Cheyenne Mountain High School junior is already a pro at balancing priorities and says she loves every minute of it.

Flatt's summer began with a trip to Toronto to work with Lori Nichol on two new programs -- a short to Henry Mancini's "Moon River," the theme from Breakfast at Tiffany's, and a free skate to Debussy selections.

"This is my third season working with Lori, and each new season when I return to Toronto I anxiously await what Lori and Lenore Kay [Nichol's music editor] have in store for me," Flatt said.

"I love my new programs. Lori is an amazing choreographer, and she really understands my love for music. She has so much experience and has worked with so many skaters, yet she seemed to understand what I was looking for as 'Rachael' instead of as yet another skater."

Flatt hasn't yet seen Breakfast at Tiffany's, the 1961 film starring Audrey Hepburn in her iconic role, but did read the Truman Capote novella it is based on.

"I have seen Audrey Hepburn in other movies, and I love her style," she said. "As I'm getting older, I'm looking to increase my artistry and elegance, and what better role model than Audrey?"

"The aim [of these programs] is not to show Rachael as mature beyond her years, but to demonstrate her personality on the ice," Zakrajsek said. "She is still 16, but she has a very high capacity to appreciate all different kinds of music, especially classical music."

When the skater returned home a week later, a large package was waiting.

"I received two letters and summer homework packets from my AP English teacher and my AP chemistry teacher, lots of reading including [Mark Twain's] Huckleberry Finn and problem sets for chemistry," she said.

The Flatt family, including mom Jody and dad Jim, also took a quick trip back to their original home town near San Diego, where Rachael performed in the summer ice show of her first skating club, La Jolla Figure Skating Club. While there, Jim ran in the San Diego Rock 'n Roll Marathon.

"He ran this marathon the first year it was held in San Diego, and we try to get back every year since we moved to Colorado to visit with our best friends, skate at my first rink and visit with my first coach," the skater explained.

When the family returned to Colorado Springs, Flatt buckled down with Zakrajsek and trained her programs. But after attending U.S. Figure Skating's Champs' Camp at the Olympic Training Center, it was time to focus on scholastics again, and she headed off to Boston to attend the National Youth Leadership Forum on Medicine.

"This is a series of programs that are held across the country for high school students from around the world interested in pursuing careers in medicine, technology or government studies," she explained.

"The program gives you the opportunity to experience many different aspects of medicine, from watching orthopedic surgery -- we watched a knee replacement surgery -- to visiting medical schools. We even did a human anatomy class with a cadaver. Some of the kids were grossed out by that."

Among many other activities, the students also attended a day-long seminar on AIDS projects in Africa.

"The medical schools, teaching hospitals and colleges that are involved in the forum are amazing," she said. "And my dad went to MIT, so he gave me the grand tour of Boston."

After a trip to Sun Valley over the July 4th weekend, where Flatt performed in one of the famous weekend summer ice shows with Kurt Browning, Anita Hartshorn, Frank Schweiting and "Jumpin' Joe" Sabovcik, the remainder of the summer was spent refining her programs. She competed at three summer competitions -- the Liberty Open in Aston, Pa., and the Colorado Championships and Colorado Springs Invitational closer to home. These events gave her a chance to put some mileage on two triple-triple combinations, the flip-toe and flip-loop.

"The triple-triples are something Rachael intends to complete in her free skate this season, and I am confident she will," Zakrajsek said. "She wants to be on the world podium at some point, and she sees top contenders, especially Mao Asada, doing two triple-triples in their programs. She did get credit for the flip-loop this summer; a couple of times the flip-toe was not clean.

"I know people in the sport look at me as being very aggressive as a coach so far as putting out elements is concerned, but Rachael drives this decision. She is very much looking at her long-term development. A lot of people would say this is risky, but she is aggressive in setting goals and I don't see that changing as her career moves along."

Most of all, Flatt is determined to make judges and fans move past her junior-level successes and view her as a mature, senior skater at her Grand Prix events and beyond.

"I can't wait to perform at Skate America and Cup of Russia," she said. "I've been training hard and am feeling great. I'm looking forward to traveling to new places and to a very successful season."