SOCHI, Russia — Once you get here, it’s not about your program, your choreography, your costume. All of the top contenders at Olympus have a triple-triple jump combination. They all have designer dresses and an expert adviser to link movement to music.
“The Olympics is about throwing everything and saying, ‘This is what I have, can you beat it?’ ” says Gracie Gold.
Until a decade ago, the top US woman had the golden trump card at the Games more often than not. From 1956 through 2002, seven of them — Tenley Albright, Carol Heiss, Peggy Fleming, Dorothy Hamill, Kristi Yamaguchi, Tara Lipinski, and Sarah Hughes — won the crown, usually bringing a teammate to the podium with them.
Since Hughes and Michelle Kwan went gold and bronze in Salt Lake City, though, the Americans have been ladies-in-waiting to the Asians, who’ve won the last two Olympic gold medals and six of the last seven world titles.
Now comes the 18-year-old Gold with her Massachusetts roots, her Midwestern sensibility, and her California flair hoping to turn the spotlight her way. As these Games come down to their final few days, America still is looking for a fresh female face in a glamour sport.
With Lindsey Vonn out of commission, Mikaela Shiffrin is her heiress apparent on the slopes.
Meryl Davis won a dance gold on Monday, but she has a male partner and she was on the Olympic podium four years ago.
Gold hasn’t yet won an individual global medal and isn’t favored to make the stand here Thursday night, but she already has made the cover of Sports Illustrated.
After she won the US championship last month on Causeway Street, Gold found herself labeled the “It Girl” of these Games, America’s next Ice Queen.
“She’s a gorgeous girl,” says her coach Frank Carroll, who tutored Olympic medalists Linda Fratianne and Kwan. “She looks like Grace Kelly. She has star quality.”
Gold has a last name that’s a headline writer’s dream and a look that cameras can find among a thousand faces. She already has been on Leno, juggling lemons (“Definitely up there as one of the strangest things I’ve done”) and has more than 30,000 Twitter followers.
The challenge for Gold, who’ll skate the short program Wednesday night, is to block out all of the cyber-chatter and remember why she’s here. That’s what she did when the team was training in Germany before the Games and again when they skipped out to Austria after the team event to train in relative seclusion.
Flying under the radar is a pragmatic approach at Olympus, and it’s a bit easier for Gold than it was for the Flemings, the Yamaguchis, and the Kwans, all of whom were world champions coming into the Games.
The biggest hubbub surrounds the trio that have been tapped as the likely medalists: South Korea’s Kim Yu Na, who is bidding to become the first woman to retain her crown since Katarina Witt in 1988; Japan’s Mao Asada, the two-time world champion who was runner-up in Vancouver four years ago; and Russia’s Julia Lipnitskaia, the 15-year-old European titlist who’d be the Motherland’s first champion in the event.
“Yu Na’s coming in as the reigning,” says Gold. “Julia’s the new hope. Mao is silver. Is she going to get gold? Everybody has a different bag of expectations they carry.”
Gold’s has nothing to do with her but with her immediate predecessors and with her countrymen who last week submitted the worst combined performance at the Games (ninth and 12th) since 1936. The American women haven’t missed the podium in consecutive Olympics since 1948, which shouldn’t count because war wiped out the 1940 and 1944 editions. If they don’t win a medal here, it’ll be the first time since 1936 that both the US men and women have failed in the individual events.
The way Gold sees it, that burden shouldn’t be hers to carry alone.
“It does seem like unreasonable expectations to have just one world championships under my belt and then expect to medal for the United States,” she says. “I think I did my part last year getting the third [Olympic] spot and being able to send three ladies. I assisted in the team medal. I just have to go out and skate the best that I can for the US.”
That doesn’t require jumping out of the Iceberg Skating Palace. Carroll has been drilling that into Gold for months.
“ ‘Do what you do’ is a very important thing for us,” she says.
‘An experienced guide’
Gold, whose twin sister Carly is also a figure skater and who also trains with Carroll (“we sort of come as a package deal”), is competitive by nature. She was born in Newton-Wellesley Hospital (her parents, an anesthesiologist and a nurse, worked at Massachusetts General Hospital) and learned to skate on the frozen marshes near where the family lived in Easton.
Gold was a swimmer, a tennis player, a gymnast, a dance teamer.
“Any competition that has a gold medal at the end,” she says.
But her skating aptitude was paramount; she went from fourth at the novice nationals to second in the seniors to Ashley Wagner in three seasons. Less than a month before the Grand Prix season she split with coach Alex Ouriashev and moved from Illinois to California to work with Carroll, who long has been a one-man finishing school for Olympic medal hopefuls, most recently Evan Lysacek (gold in 2010) and Kazakhstan’s Denis Ten (bronze here).
“It’s always great to have an experienced guide on this journey,” Gold says. “Frank’s been a rock these past couple of months. He’s never thrown off or surprised about anything. He’s so calm. He’s been a great influence.”
Carroll, a Holy Cross man, is a stickler for thorough preparation.
“Clean run-throughs standing up,” says Gold. “That’s what he’s all about.”
“Clean” doesn’t necessarily mean perfect, a distinction that Carroll has been driving home since Gold first arrived. Japan’s Yuzuru Hanyu, who knocked off Canada’s Patrick Chan, the three-time world champion, fell twice in his long program and still won.
“Rarely in history has the Olympic champion skated a perfect program,” says Gold. “[Hanyu] fell on his opening jump but he was able to land the next quad. It’s just sticking to the program.”
The New Gracie, as she now refers to herself, finishes what she starts. And she’s learned to stop hyperventilating.
“Calm down, take a breath,” Gold will tell herself when things start spinning away from her. All that she has to be to win the gold medal is to be the best on the day.
Gold’s programs are competitive with her top rivals, as she proved in the team event.
“She was brilliant,” says Kwan. “That’s what she’s capable of doing tomorrow and the day after.”
Her biggest hurdle was simply getting here.
“My mentality is completely different than it was in Boston,” Gold says. “There’s nothing to qualify for here.”
The big squeeze is on Kim, who missed the Grand Prix season with a bruised foot and who thinks she peaked in Vancouver.
“Four years ago I was much better,” the world champ said Tuesday. “It was my time, my era.”
Asada, who would complete for Japan the first men’s-women’s sweep since Carol Heiss and David Jenkins in 1960 if she wins, hasn’t been landing her hallmark triple axel.
And Lipnitskaia, who’d be the youngest ladies’ champion since Lipinski in 1998, is a girl among women.
“She will mature with time and be fantastic, but I don’t think that time is now,” muses Carroll. “The jumping is incredible and she’s great fun to watch, but is she the ladies Olympic champion? I don’t know.”
Hughes had her day in Salt Lake, and Gold could be gilded here if she lets herself go for it.
That’s what she picked up from Phil Jackson’s book, “Eleven Rings: The Soul of Success.”
“When you let go of the fear,” Gold says, “that’s when you love not just sports, but life.”