Rachael Flatt bounced from the highest of highs to exasperating lows during the 2010 figure skating season.
First, the Cheyenne Mountain High School senior put together two sterling performances and won the ladies title at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships, earning her a berth in the 2010 Winter Olympics with an outside shot for a medal.
But those hopes faded into frustrations at Vancouver, where Flatt appeared to skate a near-perfect long program — only to be downgraded for slightly under-rotated landings on several jumps, dropping her from what looked to be a possible fourth-place finish to seventh. Later, at the World Championships, she wound up ninth.
Given that she already was accepted to attend Stanford, Flatt could have decided to phase down her training while at college. Instead, she asked for delayed admission, giving her this competition season to focus entirely on skating with no academic distractions.
Was that decision worth it? Flatt will find out this weekend at the 2011 U.S. Championships in Greensboro, N.C., starting with the short program Thursday night and leading to the climactic, nationally televised free program Saturday night (8 p.m., NBC, Channel 5).
In a real sense, Flatt is facing two competitions in North Carolina. To the outside world, the 18-year-old faces a serious challenge in trying to repeat as American champion. She has to contend with fellow Olympian Mirai Nagasu, who jumped into that fourth spot at Vancouver and has evoked comparisons to former world champion Michelle Kwan. Then there's Alissa Czisny, the 2009 national champion, as well as Ashley Wagner, a past contender.
Those are the headliners, but next come the spoilers, whom Flatt knows all too well. She trains along with two of them at the World Arena's Ice Hall. So, in effect, underneath the battle for national supremacy and U.S. World Team berths is the unofficial Colorado Springs city championship.
Flatt certainly has the most credentials, but 19-year-old Alexe Gilles will be trying to make a big improvement from her eighth-place Nationals finish last year. Gilles, a former classmate of Flatt's, won't have to deal with the same kind of pressure that comes with the highest expectations. If Czisny and Wagner falter, Gilles could be in position to take advantage.
But even more whispers of anticipation have surrounded the Broadmoor Skating Club's other entrant, 16-year-old Agnes Zawadzki, making her senior-level Nationals debut. Zawadzki, the 2010 U.S. junior champion and World Junior runner-up, made strong impressions at recent international events in Canada and Russia. She's also in a good spot, timing-wise, to work toward the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.
The question now is whether Zawadzki can break through the glut of veteran skaters this quickly, which also would help her considerably in terms of financial assistance for her ice time and training expenses. If she can leap as high as the top five or six, she'll easily accomplish that. And if her programs are technically clean, she wouldn't be the first senior-level rookie to benefit from "encouraging" judges.
Still, the biggest question has to be Flatt.
From all reports, she has appeared more confident and relaxed off the ice. A slight foot injury bothered her at the Grand Prix Final last month in Beijing, where she finished sixth, but her consistency in landing the tough triple jumps in national competitions has never been in question. If she can nail a triple-triple combination, she'll become all the more formidable. But if Nagasu revives the on-ice charisma she showed in Vancouver, and the two are close technically, Flatt could be in trouble trying to defend her title.
Regardless of how they finish this week, Flatt and Nagasu, who became friendly rivals at the Olympics, would make for a strong team for the 2011 Worlds, set for March 21-27 in Tokyo. There, the goal will be to regain a third Worlds berth for the U.S. ladies in 2012. That means the two placements adding up to 13 or less, which Flatt and Nagasu achieved at the 2010 Olympics (where it didn't matter) but not at Worlds, where they were seventh and ninth.
So, this weekend, they'll start proving themselves all over again.