SAN JOSE, Calif. -- Debi Thomas knows how big Thursday night was for Rachael Flatt at HP Pavilion. She walked in Flatt's shoes 25 years ago.
Thomas was a Stanford premed student when she was training for the 1988 Calgary Olympics, where she won a bronze medal. Flatt is competing in her first U.S. championships since she began classes at Stanford in the fall.
With three former national champions on the ice in the ladies' short program Thursday, Flatt popped a double axel -- "a jump she could do in her sleep," said coach Lynn Smith -- and tumbled to ninth in the standings.
All three former U.S. champions had mistakes in the short program. Mirai Nagasu, the 2008 winner, nearly fell backward after her opening triple loop and is in fifth place, while two-time champion Alissa Czisny popped a double axel in her program as well. Czisny finds herself in second place, behind 17-year-old Agnes Zawadzki, who has the lead heading into Saturday's deciding long program. Ashley Wagner is third.
Flatt has struggled with an ankle injury, and disappointing finishes in two international events in the fall lowered expectations for her here. Her skate on Thursday didn't do much to change that.
Flatt conceded she was disappointed in her scores, even as she smiled brightly at the mention of the two dozen Stanford dorm mates supporting her. They wore Cardinal red, made signs such as "Flatt-en the competition" and cheered for her enthusiastically while she was on the ice.
"That was so great," Flatt said. "We had our own 'Red Zone' right here."
Flatt said her skate slipped going into the double axel.
"I got spooked and I didn't force myself to do it," she said. "It was silly."
Thomas knows this experience well. She arrived at Stanford in 1986 with plans to be a surgeon. She remembers gaining weight in her freshman year, and how difficult it was to balance skating and school.
"I wasn't skating well," said Thomas, who was at the arena Thursday as part of a tribute to Bay Area skaters, including Brian Boitano, Peggy Fleming and Rudy Galindo. "She's 10 times more disciplined than I was."
A mutual friend in the skating community asked Thomas to give Flatt a call before she started classes at Stanford in the fall.
"It's hard, because of lot of people are going to give you advice," Thomas said. "But only you know yourself and what you are capable of. I think she appreciated somebody telling her that 'You can do it,' because there are a lot of people out there telling you that you can't."