Gracie Gold knows one tough outing on the ice isn’t the end of the world. She told Reuters reporter Pritha Sarkar last week what she experiences as an ice skater is nothing like the adversity some people have to go through in the real world.
Maybe that’s why she’s able to fight through tough skates like Wednesday’s short program, the first portion of the women’s two-day individual figure skating competition in Sochi.
Gold appeared nervous during her performance, but she made no significant errors. Meanwhile, two of her top rivals for a place on the podium made major mistakes, leaving Gold—now in fourth place—in great position to try to steal a medal on Thursday.
The pressure of becoming America’s next big thing in figure skating may have gotten to her a little bit on Wednesday.
Despite a great showing in the team event at the beginning of these Games—as well as looking flawless to former U.S. figure skating darling Michelle Kwan during practice skates this week, per Jere Longman of The New York Times—when the lights hit the ice for the short program, Gold appeared to skate tight.
While she was precise and accurate in her movements, she did not get the kind of lift in her jumps she’s recently come to expect, and she struggled to make her skate appear as effortless as it looked when she took gold at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships back in January.
“I had butterflies,” Gold admitted afterward to Andrea Joyce for NBCOlympics.com's live-streaming audience. “My legs felt like jelly.”
Still, Gold fought hard through her struggles and ended up putting herself in a reasonably good position to medal. Where Gold may have lacked her typical grace, she made up for it with grit and determination.
The three top performers of the day were lead by defending Olympic champion Yuna Kim of Korea. Kim set the bar high in the short program, almost instantly separating herself from the field with a season-best 74.92.
But by the end of the day, Kim had maintained just a slight lead over Russia's 17-year-old sensation Adelina Sotnikova (74.64) and surging Carolina Kostner (74.12) of Italy. The three are essentially in a three-way tie for first place going into Thursday’s free skate, with Gold hot on their heels.
Gold’s fourth-place score of 68.63 makes her the most likely U.S. skater to medal. Teammate Ashley Wagner currently sits in sixth after scoring 65.21, and America’s 15-year-old Polina Edmunds earned a distant seventh with a 61.04.
Gold wasn’t the only skater to feel the pressure. Russia’s best medal hope, 15-year-old superstar Yulia Lipnitskaya, struggled in her program. The breakout star of the team competition, Lipnitskaya took a tumble during an attempted triple flip and ended up scoring 65.23, good enough to make the top five but well below heightened expectations.
Going into the free skate, 2010 silver medalist Mao Asada, a pre-skate podium favorite, is virtually finished after a rough run on the ice. She scored 55.51, only good enough for 16th place heading into Thursday and well behind the top competitors.
Shaky skates by Lipnitskaya and Asada leave Gold in prime position to battle the top three finishers for a medal. While all three skated near-perfect routines on Wednesday, Gold has the talent and mental toughness to make up ground in the free skate.
In fact, Gold has already shown some of her best moves in Sochi at the time it mattered most. She delivered a clutch season-best free skate score of 129.38 to help the U.S. team win bronze last week.
But perhaps most importantly, Gold will hope to have finally gotten through her Olympic jitters. Thursday will be her third time on the ice. The media crush on Gold has been outstanding, something that has to be new for the 18-year-old.
But for a skater like Gold, that kind of pressure to perform is to be expected. According to her coach, Frank Carroll, she’s the total package.
"She has a beautiful face like Grace Kelly, a beautiful body and she's long and she jumps high and she floats through the air... she had all the ingredients when I took her over," Carroll told Sarkar.
Whether or not she can ultimately put everything together for Thursday's free skate will determine whether she's truly America's next big thing in figure skating or just an Olympian who happens to have a bright smile and a catchy name.
Gold has the goods, but now it's time to show it.