This is the first installment in a semimonthly series following the life of 2010 U.S. champion and 2010 Vancouver Olympian Rachael Flatt, focusing on her adjustment to college and the pursuit of her skating career.
STANFORD, Calif. --This was going to be a long weekend, and Stanford freshman Rachael Flatt could already see it. She'd wanted to go to the Stanford-UCLA football game, but she wasn't sure if there was going to be enough free time.
"Depends on how much homework I have," Flatt said.
Flatt, the 2010 U.S. national figure skating champion, had two essays due on Monday. And she had to be on the road before daybreak, heading to San Jose, Calif., for training before making the drive back up Highway 101 to San Francisco, where her dorm was holding a 12-hour scavenger hunt around the city.
She has chosen a college life, one with classes and dorm living and the pursuit of a degree in chemical engineering. And she has chosen a skating life, one with training and competition and travel and the pursuit of an Olympic medal.
In truth, she didn't really choose at all. She's doing everything she wants.
"It's been amazing so far," Flatt said, two weeks into her first quarter as an undergrad at Stanford. "It's been a lot of fun, but it's a lot of work."
Flatt knew that going in. It's the reason people in the figure skating community tried to talk her out of going to college while she's still competing.
"A lot of people in skating told me it would be all right if I took a few years off from school, but I would eventually like to do an M.D. or a Ph.D. program and I really don't want to extend my academic career to that point," Flatt, 19, said. "I wanted to go to school and I did not want to put this opportunity off. I really wanted to get going."
But in a nod to reality, Flatt, who graduated from Cheyenne Mountain High School in Colorado Springs, Colo., in 2010, deferred her Stanford acceptance for a year while she made arrangements for her new life in California. She needed time to establish herself with new coaches and prepare for the move to California. She needed rest.
Flatt has battled through injuries in 2011, winning silver at nationals then sustaining a stress fracture in her right leg before the world championships.
She competed with the injury and finished 12th. U.S. Figure Skating fined her in June for not letting them know of her injury in advance.
But she has had time to heal and time to prepare for her college life.
"The two months [to get ready] I would have had [last year] wasn't going to be enough, it was going to take more planning," Flatt said. "I didn't realize how much I needed that break and it was amazing to focus on skating for the year, but I also realized that I really need to combine school and skating."
Flatt is training with Justin Dillon and Lynn Smith. She is also spending some training time with former Olympic bronze medalist Charlie Tickner. Dillon is the "overseer of the operation," Flatt said.
Flatt is rooming with another athlete, freshman basketball player Jasmine Camp.
They've barely spent any time in their room together.
Flatt got an exemption from Stanford that allows her to keep her car on campus so that she can get up at 5 on most mornings, before anyone else in her dorm, and hit the road for San Jose or Oakland or Redwood City for training.
She's trying to keep her dorm room refrigerator stocked with fruits and vegetables to help her avoid the temptation of eating too much cafeteria food.
She will leave at the end of the month to compete in a Skate Canada event near Toronto.
In the meantime, she's a college student with three classes: computational mathematics, writing and rhetoric, and humanities. She has joined her friends to cheer on dorm mates who play on the men's and women's soccer teams.
She is among her people on the Stanford campus, where elite athletes preparing to compete at the highest levels of their sport are commonplace.
"That's one of the reasons I chose Stanford," Flatt said. "This is the kind of environment that I need. Other athletes who are majoring in engineering have told me that I can do this, that you just have to have great time management."
Flatt will compete throughout the fall, preparing for the U.S. nationals, which will be held down the road in San Jose.
"I know I am going to be sleep deprived by the time finals come around," Flatt said.
Flatt, an only child, has seen her parents recently move, too. They relocated a few weeks ago to the San Diego area, returning to their California roots after 10 years in Colorado, where Jim Flatt was working and Rachael was training. Theirs was not a story in which the skating-prodigy daughter was sent away to train and live far from home. They've been their own home base for all of Rachael's career.
Now they've sent their girl off to college.
"I miss her," said her mother, Jody Flatt. "But I think this is a good transition for all of us. I used to see her every night and now I'm talking to her a couple times a week. We usually text every day. But this is another mantle of responsibility for her. I was talking to her on Saturday and she was talking about doing laundry and I thought, 'OK, laundry.' For me, it's kind of fun to see her take on these things."
Flatt is hoping college is the more typical experience that her high school years were not.
"I don't know what a typical experience is anymore," Jody said. "But as a high school student, she was missing 12 weeks a year to compete and I think she's looking forward to the social component at Stanford and she's gotten involved in campus stuff."
Rachael is just enjoying her time as a college student.
"At this point, it's trial and error and I'm going to make it work," she said. "It is supposed to be the best four years of my life, so I'm going to go with it."