By Olivia Lee
In early 2014, Olympic figure skater Rachael Flatt sat in her hotel lobby in Boston. She was surrounded by friends, family and former competitors, all scarfing down cannoli from one of Flatt’s favorite little hot spots in the city, Mike’s Pastry. With glasses of champagne raised, they toasted to Flatt, her final performance at the U.S. National Figure Skating Championships and her retirement.
“I was really content with how it went and the fact that it was my time [to retire], which is weird to say, because I was 21 years old. But as I like to joke around, I’m officially on career number two with being in graduate school now and doing my Ph.D.,” said the now 27-year-old Flatt. “But it’s so much fun to look back on that specific time, because I was really excited about what was coming next, even if there was a lot of uncertainty around it at that point.”
By 2010, Flatt was U.S. national champion and winner of four silver medals at the Grand Prix figure skating series and a U.S. national champion. That same year she competed in the Vancouver winter Olympics, won the attention of the audience and the judges, and finished seventh place.
Over the next four years, Flatt continued skating while juggling her responsibilities as a student at Stanford University. She also suffered from numerous injuries during that time, including a stress fracture in her knee and sprained ligaments in her ankle. She ultimately decided that it was time to stop fighting her body and retire her skates.
“I had literally been [skating] for as long as I can remember. It was woven into every fiber of my being. And to lose that was just…I mean, there was so much grief and a sense of loss around that, which I didn’t anticipate.”
Flatt said it took several months for her to figure out a new routine, one that didn’t involve skating. Although she was a biology major and was planning on applying to medical school, something didn’t feel right. So Flatt decided to explore different areas of study.
While at Stanford, she found herself working as a research assistant in the psychiatry and behavioral sciences lab and helped develop an evidence-based online screening tool for the National Eating Disorders Association.
Flatt recalled having struggled with body image concerns throughout her skating career as a figure skater and described the hurtful comments she read about herself online, including the nickname she received, “Rachael Fat.”
“I [also] had judges come up to me and say the week before my first championship that I needed to drop 20 pounds in order to improve my scores,” Flatt said. “In my mind, weight or shape really has nothing to do with the quality of your performance. At the end of the day, if you have skill and perform to the best of your ability, that’s all that should matter.”
Fueled by her desire to support fellow athletes experiencing the mental-health ramifications of competition, injury and media scrutiny, Flatt skated across the country to North Carolina in pursuit of a Ph.D. in clinical psychology. At the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, she joined Cynthia Bulik, an esteemed researcher in eating disorders.
The two are exploring the differences between eating disorders in athletes and non-athletes, and they recently received a grant to research using smartphones to predict when someone might be at risk for falling into troubled behavior.
“The goal of this is to eventually be able to predict when someone is going to binge or purge, that could be vomiting, excessively exercising, or using diuretics or laxatives, and sending them an intervention of some kind in that moment to prevent those behaviors from happening in the first place,” Flatt said.
Although she has moved on from skating, Flatt said that she has found a new kind of happiness outside of the rink.
“I am very passionate about where things are headed. There are a lot of things that we can do to help prevent and treat eating disorders. I’m just super excited to be doing what I’m doing,” Flatt said.