#TBT Flatt’s reprimand: The double standard of competing hurt

This is a throwback to a post I wrote five years ago after the 2011 Worlds, when Rachael Flatt was reprimanded by US Figure Skating for not disclosing an injury and competing with that injury at Worlds. A recent revelation by gymnast Gabrielle Douglas that she competed at last year's World Gymnastics Championships with a knee injury brought this story to mind.

Original post date: June 25, 2011

No doubt one of the biggest stories of the off-season so far has been the plight of former U.S. champion Rachael Flatt, who did not disclose her stress fracture to U.S. Figure Skating prior to the World Championships. Flatt subsequently finished 12th after two watered down performances and, for all intents and purposes, failed to qualify the third spot for the U.S. ladies for next year’s Worlds (most, if not all, would argue that Alissa Czisny, finishing fifth did her part).

And subsequently, all sorts of hullabaloo ensued. And two weeks ago, Philip Hersh reported that, in an unprecedented move, U.S. Figure Skating reprimanded and fined Flatt as a result of her and her camp’s decision to keep the injury under wraps.

But was it fair?

It’s certainly understandable from the side of Mirai Nagasu, the first alternate, and her coach Frank Carroll. That’s the whole point of having alternates, right? The comfort of knowing that if a skater is unable to compete for whatever reason, there would be someone ready to take her place. Carroll insisted that Nagasu was ready to skate and more than implied that her appearance and placement would’ve combo’d with Czisny’s fifth place would have qualified those three spots for the U.S.

What about U.S. Figure Skating, which has seen its previous dominance in ladies figure skating diminish in recent years? Remember when Yamaguchi, Kerrigan, and Harding swept the World podium in 1991? When everyone was fighting for the bronze in Nagano because Lipinski and Kwan were just too strong? When Hughes, Kwan, and Cohen took 1-3-4 in Salt Lake City? Now, the U.S. ladies haven’t even had three spots at Worlds since 2008.

Coming into Worlds this year, most people were on pins and needles about the historically more inconsistent Czisny (recall that the last time she won Nationals, she finished 11th at Worlds). They thought that three spots was more than feasible, if Czisny could keep it together. So when Czisny came through brilliantly (and some, including me, felt that she was worthy of the bronze), everyone looked at Flatt as the one to blame.

As a skater who competes internationally for the U.S., Flatt had to sign a competition readiness agreement. As part of the “Training Commitment, Injury & Case Management” section, skaters agree to the following:

In the event that I become injured and/or ill to the extent that I requires surgery and/or ongoing medical treatment, and/or is otherwise unable to train consistently, effectively, and according to the seasonal plan, and which may therefore jeopardize my ability to compete for Team USA, I agree to communicate the situation with U.S. Figure Skating’s Director of Sports Sciences & Medicine and/or Senior Director of Athlete High Performance. Under such circumstances, I authorize U.S. Figure Skating to request a Return-to-Plan Plan & Status Report … from me and/or my healthcare provider(s) and that this information may be shared with select members of the International Committee Management Sub-Committee.

The rule was clearly violated, as USFS had no idea that Flatt had a stress fracture, which certainly is an injury that “requires surgery and/or ongoing medical treatment.” Had she given notice to USFS of her injury, they could have called in Nagasu or they could have very well allowed her to compete. Based on her two skates in Moscow, she was certainly still able to skate fairly effectively. Had even her triple flip not abandoned her in the free, this whole thing may not even be an issue right now.

But that’s exactly the point. In the scenario that Flatt finished eighth* instead of 12th and giving the U.S. that third spot, I can’t imagine that U.S. Figure Skating would have disciplined her. She would have been the heroine who fought through the pain to help the U.S. earn that third spot. We would be hearing words like “brave” and not “irresponsible.” Most people who have been railing against her decision would have turned a blind eye – after all, the most realistic goal was to qualify three spots for next year. The end would have justified the means.

*Note that she needed 12.50 to take eighth, and her two singled flips cost her a base total of about 11 points, a combo with a double toe included. Flatt did land a triple flip-double toe in the short. WIth GOEs, 10% bonus, and likely higher PCS, the scenario was possible.

Still, those who have defended Flatt have brought up athletes in skating and in other sports who have competed injured, and brought up the resilience of the athlete. Many will remember when Elvis Stojko skated through a severe groin injury and limped to the podium for his silver medal at Nagano. In sports, those who discloses injury, particularly at the biggest stages of their sports, gets flack for not being tough enough (Dirk Nowitzki, anyone?).

Flatt was noble to skate through pain, but her unwillingness to disclose the injury, and subsequent post-competition disclosure, opened her up to all sorts of liability, though no one would have figured that USFS would actually discipline her for it. For me, the reprimand and fine, particularly the publicity of it through the news media rather than via its own channels, were unnecessary. Where was the news on U.S. Figure Skating's website? Why was Hersh the one to break the news? As much as I like Nagasu, there was no guarantee that she would have finished high enough to earn that third spot. Flatt was still training, still skating, still landing jumps – remember that she did not fall in either program in Moscow. But it sure will make athletes and their coaches think twice about what to do with an injury (hide or disclose, but don’t do both, that’s for sure).

As an athlete of her caliber, you train for so long to have a shot at proving yourself amongst the best that giving up when you’re still willing and able becomes a hard pill to swallow. Who knows? With her sights on Stanford, maybe she was seeing this as her last real chance at Worlds.