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Flatt looks forward to L.A. homecoming

Teen says triple Axel may be in her future

Flatt is looking forward to being back in her old stomping grounds.
Flatt is looking forward to being back in her old stomping grounds. (Getty Images)

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By Lynn Rutherford, special to icenetwork.com
(03/13/2009) - According Rachael Flatt, there just might be "something in the water" in Colorado Springs.

The 16 year-old is one of five U.S. world team members who train at the scenic city's mile-high World Arena. Two-time U.S. pair champions Keauna McLaughlin and Rockne Brubaker are coached by Dalilah Sappenfield, while Flatt, men's champ Jeremy Abbott and silver medalist Brandon Mroz all train under the leadership of Tom Zakrajsek, who heads a team including associate coach Becky Calvin.

"It's just great motivation for all of us to watch each other and push each other and make sure we do clean programs," Flatt said on a media teleconference yesterday. "We try to keep it a positive atmosphere and I think that really helps.

"Tom pushes us to be our best. He comes up with a lot of fun things to do that keep things interesting, for sure. He's a really good technician and he's had a lot of experience and worked with a lot of different resources getting information on technique, recovery, nutrition. He makes sure everything is there for us."

Zakrajsek, who also coaches former U.S. silver medalist Ryan Bradley and 2008 U.S. junior champ Alexe Gilles, summed up the reason for his success.

"I spend a lot of time with my athletes and I know how to motivate them," he said. "I give each of them what they need."

For Flatt, the 2008 world junior champion, his key ingredient is "a sense of perspective. She's still so young. She's achieved so much so quickly, and there are still things we can work on."

The teen has been the country's most consistent lady this season, placing fourth and second at her two Grand Prix events and successfully defending her silver medal at the 2009 AT&T U.S. Figure Skating Championships. Her biggest hiccup was a seventh-place finish at the 2009 ISU Four Continents Championships in Vancouver last month.

"I think this [season], yes, was definitely a learning experience," Flatt said. "I didn't have my best skates in some of my competitions but I learned a lot and I think it was a great start to my senior international career."

Zakrajsek thinks an added dose of speed could make a world of difference in his skater's international results.

"Certainly, Rachael needs to improve her speed and power, and that will help with the [judges'] grades of execution, what I call the 'hidden points,'" he said.

"Sometimes she does good jumps, but maybe doesn't skate as fast into them as she could, and doesn't get the marks. I think her spins, too, are underappreciated, because they're not as fast as some."

Flatt, along with U.S. champ Alissa Czisny, will carry the banner for U.S. ladies at the world championships in Los Angeles 10 days from now. As always in a pre-Olympic year, the two are under added pressure. To secure three spots at next year's Vancouver Games, their placements must add up to 13 or fewer.

"I think we're going to have to skate really well in order to get those three ladies' spots back for the Olympics," Flatt said. "It's just another challenge and I'm very excited for it."

Challenges are nothing new for the straight-A junior at Cheyenne Mountain High School, the daughter of a biomechanical engineer (father Jim) and molecular biologist (mother Jody) who races around Colorado Springs with a weekday schedule that would humble the most tenacious multi-tasker.

"I have [Advanced Placement] English is morning, that's my first class, and then pre-calculus 2, which is an honors class. Then it's AP biology and then French 4, which is also honors' class, and then AP chemistry."

Sandwiched in between classes are three or four 45-minute skating sessions a day, as well as ballet and stretch classes and workouts at the nearby Olympic Training Center. And, of course, homework.

"I try to fit in homework in between those times. I do work in the car sometimes just to make sure I get it all done," she admitted.

"I do try to watch a little TV. My favorite shows are The Office and Project Runway. And weekends are my big time just to hang out and have a little fun. I like to go walk the dogs with my parents at the local dog park. Every once in a while I see a movie with some friends, but weekends are also a big time to do homework."

Flatt and Zakrajsek took stock after Four Continents, dropping the skater's free program to Debussy selections in favor of last season's "Romantic Rhapsody."

"We had some negative feedback about the program in general, the music and the impression of it, and that's not really what we wanted to hear going into worlds," Flatt said. "So we decided to go back to my old free because it is a really good program for me, I'm able to express it a little better.

"It's going incredibly well, [choreographer] Lori Nichol came out for a couple of days to work with both me and Brandon. The entire middle section is different, but it's really coming along. In practice I'm doing a lot of clean programs so I'm really excited about how things are going."

Flatt is planning to include a triple-triple combination in both of her programs at worlds, something Zakrajsek believes is essential.

"She will need [triple-triples] unless she wants to be well behind skaters like Mao Asada, Yu-Na Kim and Carolina Kostner," he said. "They all do triple-triples, and Mao can do two triple Axels [in her free program]."

The three-and-a-half revolution Axel, done by only a few ladies in competition, is something coach and skater say is attainable next season.

"I worked on the triple Axel last summer a little bit, in the [pull] harness as well as off the harness, but I didn't acquire it as a skill," Flatt said. "I think it will be a reasonable goal to learn it for next year. I'm very excited to work on it again and hopefully put it in my programs if I get it."

"In practice, she has landed some [triple Axels] cheated," Zakrajsek said. "She can do it clean in the harness. It's definitely something we will work on."

Until then, there's plenty to occupy the skater's few free moments, including a big homecoming she and her parents -- who moved from Del Mar, Calif. to Colorado eight years ago -- have planned in L.A.

"My very first coach, Tiffany Mays, is going to be at worlds watching. It will be great to see her and her husband and son again. Some of the other coaches in California, not necessarily ones I took from but ones I knew, are coming up to watch, and most of my friends from both my old rink and my neighborhood are coming. I think we're going to have a big reunion while we're there at some point."