Speaker: Rachael Flatt

An Olympian's Take on Mental Health and Success

Rachael Flatt is an American former competitive figure skater who is devoting her energy to researching mental health.  Currently pursuing her Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology at the University of North Carolina, she is studying technology-based tools for eating disorders and athlete mental health.  She graduated from Stanford University in 2015 with a degree in Biology and a minor in Psychology, shortly after retiring from competitive skating while in her junior year of college.

Rachael is the 2008 World Junior champion, a winner of four silver medals on the Grand Prix series, and the 2010 U.S. national champion. She represented the United States at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, during her senior year in high school, and placed 7th.

Flatt began skating at age four.  When she was 8, her family moved to Colorado for work – her father is a biotech executive, and her mother is a molecular biologist – and she threw herself into gymnastics and skating.  She says she was probably better at gymnastics, but she felt a stronger connection to skating: "For some reason, it resonated more with me."  She soon mastered triple jumps – essential  in international competition – and in 2005, she won the U.S. novice national title. "Maybe I should stick with this," she remembers thinking.

Flatt was drawn to the thrill of competition and the focus required to execute a program. She rarely got nervous, trusting her preparation and training. "At the end of a program, you tune back in, and the audience is going nuts, and it's the most exciting, rewarding feeling," she says. "It's like euphoria."
Flatt kept an eye on the Olympics, but she also pushed herself hard in school, maintaining a 4.0 GPA while training eight hours a day. "For whatever reason at a young age, I just had this very practical view going into sports," she says. "You never know if it's going to work out; you could always get hurt; something could happen that could end your career prematurely."

Following her Olympic season in high school, Flatt won the silver medal at the 2011 U.S. Championships and qualified for the World Championships. However, a week before the event, Flatt was diagnosed with a stress fracture in her right tibia and ended up finishing 12th in the event.  Following that season, Flatt relocated to the Bay Area where she attended Stanford University.

"Balancing school, training, other skating-related obligations, rehab for injuries, all my other on-campus activities and trying to have some semblance of a normal college social life...it was pretty exhausting," Flatt said.

Injuries continued to plague Flatt during the 2012 and 2013 seasons. It was also during those years that Flatt says she received a lot of flack and criticism from fans, coaches, judges and the media.

"I was known for being very mentally tough and very competitive," Flatt says. "I always delivered." Her performances, however, weren't enough to protect her from cruel social media commenters. "I was teased constantly about my weight and all that stuff. The running joke was 'Rachael Fat' instead of 'Rachael Flatt.'" She knew better than to pay attention to it, but sometimes curiosity won over and she'd scroll through YouTube to read what people wrote. This level of public scrutiny only piled on to the self-esteem and body image issues that any teenager might have.

The injuries eventually got the better of her athletic career. "To go from winning the 2010 U.S. Championships and competing at the 2010 Olympics to being a cast-off just over a year later, it's absolutely crushing and heartbreaking," she explained. "I was at such a low point being injured and pushed to come back too early – all while starting college at one of the most prestigious schools in the country. I felt conflicted all the time about quitting skating because there was a huge lapse in support."

Yet, Flatt decided to finish her career on her own terms, competing three more seasons despite extremely rough outings. "I left skating when I was emotionally ready and injury-free for the first time in almost eight years. Even though it wasn't anywhere near my best, it was the right time for me," she explained. "That made the transition to focus solely on my last year at school more manageable, and I am still proud of the decision I made."

The following year, she graduated from Stanford, and then worked at a Stanford lab doing research on mobile mental health technology, focusing on eating disorders and healthy body images.  She now is a Ph.D. student at the University of North Carolina under Dr. Cynthia Bulik, who herself was a competitive figure skater.

Flatt understands the prevalence of eating disorders among athletes, especially within the skating community. She said several of her peers suffered from eating disorders and poor body image, due to the "aesthetic nature" of the sport. While she said her support system helped her keep her head up, it was difficult to hear constant remarks on her weight.

"I, for one, definitely dealt with poor body image from the time I was a teenager," Flatt said. "Unfortunately, being in the spotlight, and when you're getting judged based on how you look in an arena full of 18,000 people and nine judges, it's really challenging to not come away with any of those perceptions about yourself."

At least 30 million people in the United States suffer from an eating disorder, according to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders. Out of all American women, 1.5 percent suffer from bulimia nervosa in their lifetime, while 2.8 percent of adults suffer from binge eating disorder.

Flatt also hopes to do research regarding transitioning athletes out of competition and into everyday civilian life, a process she found particularly challenging.

"Having some people to talk to about it – friends, family, athletic peers – in addition to taking those small steps forward and trying some new things that are outside of your comfort zone were the two things that helped me move forward and find something new in my life that I was really excited about and really motivated to be successful at again," Flatt said. "I found another passion."

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