You could see it. In the pressure cooker of the Sochi Olympics, you could see the forging of the future.
You could see it in Gracie Gold’s poise, in all but one of her jumps, in the way she did not crumble in Thursday’s free skate.
You could see it in Polina Edmunds too-slim arms, ones that seemed to stretch to the roof, an elegance not yet fully realized.
Gold finished fourth at the Sochi Games, a distant 11 points from a bronze medal, but not all that far in development from bronze medalist Carolina Kostner of Italy, a veteran at age 27 finally realizing the skate of her dreams.
If we’re lucky, Gold and Edmunds—who finished ninth—won’t take that long.
Don’t say it too loud, but the U.S. might be experiencing a revival in women’s figure skating.
Gold will be 22 at the 2018 Olympics in South Korea. Edmunds, whose first senior competition in front of international judges was at these Olympics, will be 19.
"The judges haven't really seen me skate for years like some of the other competitors," Edmunds said, per Rachel Cohen of The Associated Press. "I knew that the only thing I could do is skate a great program and show them what I could do for future competitions to come."
On figure skating’s biggest stage, the two both fell and did not win a medal but delivered something almost as sweet: promise.
"I definitely have two Olympics in me," Gold told Cohen, who won her first national championship in January.
Put the results in historical context, and it’s a depressing view. It’s the first time the U.S. women failed to win a figure skating medal in back-to-back Games ever.
If not for the new team skating event—in which the U.S. won bronze—and a gold from veteran ice dance stars Meryl Davis and Charlie White, this year’s Olympic team would have been in line for another dubious first: breaking a streak of 17 Olympics in which at least one American has won a medal, dating back to Dick Button’s gold in 1948.
But, with Ashley Wagner's seventh-place finish, three U.S. skaters placed in the top 10. It feels much different than the feeling after the 2010 Olympics, when Mirai Nagasu was fourth and Rachael Flatt seventh, the U.S. having qualified just two spots for the Games and neither one generating hopes beyond Vancouver.
It’s not just the U.S. experiencing a breath of fresh air, either, as the world saw in Sochi.
"We need a skater that's compelling, magnificent and knows how to draw a crowd, to step up and say, 'I'm rebuilding the professional ranks,' " Scott Hamilton said recently on NPR's All Things Considered when asked about women’s figure skating. "And you'd see hands go up and say, 'Hallelujah.'"
With Russia leading the way and the U.S. not far back, Hamilton is seeing that now.
Surprise gold medalist Adelina Sotnikova of Russia, just 17, did what some thought was impossible—defeated reigning queen Yuna Kim, 23, for the Olympic title. Sotnikova has had inconsistent results the past two years but won the 2011 world junior title.
Sotnikova is the four-time Russian champion, winning her first at age 12. She was not even considered the most promising talent in her own country, as Olympic watchers saw in Sochi. She was passed over for the team event in favor of Julia Lipnitskaya. Lipnitskaya triggered spasms of breathlessness from fans worldwide when she won the ladies’ short and long programs in the team event, helping Russia to early gold.
Lipnitskaya fell twice Thursday, and after her tumble in the short program, shocked everyone into remembering she’s only 15. As the youngest gold medalist in Olympic figure skating history, Sochi was her coming-out party.
It also set the stage for years of competition pitting U.S. skaters against their Russian counterparts—a teenage party on ice.
One note of caution: Youthful promise hardly guarantees anything in the fickle world of Olympic or international figure skating.
That’s when Nagasu won the national title, leading a troupe of talented teenagers (Rachael Flatt, Wagner, Caroline Zhang) tracking perfectly for the 2010 Olympics. It didn’t pan out. After peaking a year or so later, Flatt, now attending Stanford University, announced her retirement last month. Zhang suffered from injuries.
Wagner is still in the game, as is Nagasu, 20, who was left home from Sochi after placing third at nationals.
Skating officials controversially picked Wagner for the U.S. Olympic team, and she proved she belonged with a feisty performance that didn’t get the marks she deserved.
This time, post-Olympics, it feels different. Even Wagner, an alternate in 2010, has noticed. She wants to be along for the ride.
Wagner, the team veteran at 22, spoke about this being her final Olympics earlier this year. By the end of Thursday’s free skate, she had changed her mind.
"It's a changing of the guard now, and I want to be there," Wagner said, per Fox Sports.
Anybody who has been watching women's figure skating does, too.
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