As Rachael Flatt stepped onto the Spokane Arena ice last Saturday night at the end of the U.S. Figure Skating Championships, it's safe to say the door was not wide open for the unassuming 17-year-old from Colorado Springs.
Granted, Flatt had put herself in good position to challenge for a spot in the 2010 Winter Olympics. She was in third place after the short program; she had finished second at the previous two skating Nationals; she had placed fifth at the 2009 World Championships and won the 2008 world junior title; and she brought the kind of personality and intelligence that America has embraced in the past, overachieving in the classroom at Cheyenne Mountain High School and applying to colleges from the Ivy League to Stanford.
But despite all that, in some ways the skating world seemed to like others better. There was Mirai Nagasu, the 2008 U.S. champion from Pasadena, Calif., with a strong West Coast following. There was Sasha Cohen, the polished veteran making a comeback for her third Olympics, with the national media poised to make her the darling of Vancouver. And there was Ashley Wagner, from Delaware with lots of East Coast support and several years of being close to the top.
Against that group, Flatt knew she would receive no favors. That had been reaffirmed in the short program, with the judges appearing to give others (Nagasu and Cohen, in particular) more leeway in scoring their imperfections.
So often, facing difficult odds and the numbing pressure of trying to make it to the Olympics, skaters come up short. In the past, some have totally disintegrated, unable to conquer the moment.
But Flatt looked as if she had spent her whole life preparing for this chance — which, in a real way, she had — and nothing would stop her now. The door to Vancouver was open just enough to see inside.
Instead of somehow sneaking through that threshold, Flatt knocked the door down. She landed triple jump after triple jump, seven in all, looking more relaxed and confident with each solid landing. And where others began to fray in the final minute, Flatt found an extra reserve — don't forget the added value of training at 6,000 feet above sea level — and finished her program flawlessly with an assured grin that won over the crowd.
Others skated cleanly, especially Nagasu and Wagner, but they couldn't match Flatt's technical prowess or stamina. And when the final marks came, Flatt wasn't just going to Vancouver — she was heading to the Winter Games as the U.S. ladies champion.
If you're looking for somebody to watch at the Olympics, who will represent Colorado Springs as well as her country, look no further. It's up to NBC and other national media now to catch up and introduce Flatt to America, but that won't be difficult. As anyone inside the local skating scene knows, Flatt is warm and engaging in person, obviously well-grounded and unpretentious. Where other instant skating celebrities might want (or need) an entourage around them for support, Flatt isn't like that at all. And her coaches, led by former skater Tom Zakrajsek, have nurtured her skills and artistry as well as mental strength.
Also, the timing could not be better. Flatt becomes the first Broadmoor Skating Club member to win the U.S. ladies championship since Jill Trenary, who prevailed in 1987, 1989 and 1990, the last time adding a world title.
But if you're wondering about the last time a Broadmoor skater earned the national ladies title in an Olympic year, that would take you directly to a legend: Peggy Fleming in 1968. She reached her zenith at the best possible moment, winning Olympic gold that year in Grenoble, France.
Flatt has the potential to do the same in Vancouver. She'll face some stout competition, topped by defending world champion Kim Yu-Na of South Korea, plus one of Canada's most loved athletes, Joannie Rochette, who was second at the 2009 Worlds.
But that's not an impossible challenge. Just like in Spokane, the opening is there for Rachael Flatt.
All she has to do is knock down another door.