NASHVILLE — This wasn’t like 2014 because nothing can be 2014 again for Gracie Gold — a year when she was on the cusp of becoming America’s next great women’s skating star, still young and soaring and an Olympic bronze medalist skating with so much joy. But after everything that has happened, the depression and the fall, what she did Thursday on a snowy night in Tennessee brought the crowd at Bridgestone Arena to its feet.
For nearly three minutes she twirled across the ice during her short program at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships, hitting jumps long from the past, with the fans in the half-filled stands almost breathless, as if everyone — perhaps even Gold herself — was waiting for the collapse that has come so many times for her in the past. And yet the doubts and the tumbles never came. Her skates came down clean, her legs never wavered.
And when she was done, with every trick performed smoothly, with the rotations as close to right as they are going to get for her at age 26, she stopped, listened to the applause pouring down around and put her hands to her face.
“I was just overwhelmed that I really did everything that you could want,” she said.
Nothing Gold did Thursday will probably land her on the Olympic team when it is announced this weekend. Her inclusion in the nationals seemed more nostalgic, less like a real shot at one final Olympics. The 67.61 she received in the short program placed her sixth, a ways behind Mariah Bell, Karen Chen and Alysa Liu going into Friday’s free skate. But it came from nowhere on a gloomy day when slush-packed roads kept the crowd small inside the arena nestled in the middle of Nashville’s music strip.
Gold’s performance soon was followed by Bell’s 75.55, Chen’s 74.55 and Liu’s 71.42.
It was the kind of night American figure skating needed from its female stars. The sport is dominated now by women competing for the Russian Olympic Committee, their grasp on the top spots so strong that Chen, on a recent conference call, admitted that it’s sometimes deflating to think about.
This dynamic has left the United States without a clear top two or three female skaters and has made the nationals an almost open competition on the women’s side.
And yet the sense going into Thursday’s short program was that the story would be Liu and Chen with some uncertainty about who will join them at the Beijing Olympics. Nobody much was thinking about Gold. Her story is famous now, how she rose quickly a decade ago, winning two nationals in four years as well as getting an Olympic bronze in the 2014 team event. Then came the crash two years later, her suicidal thoughts, the stay at a treatment center and the recovery. Her skating was never the same, her appearances at major events sporadic.
But quietly she had been plotting these nationals, finding a way to take control in her mid-20s, choosing the song she had always wanted, “East of Eden,” and wearing the dress she had always imagined, green with sequins. The program she selected, the strength of her performance, made it as if she had found what she had been chasing all these years.
“I built a whole career of bombing shorts at nationals and not from a lack of training,” she said.
Gold sat on a chair in a room far beneath the arena stands. On a table behind her sat the teddy bear, tossed to the ice by a euphoric fan, that she had picked up in the moments after her performance. For 10 minutes she talked, with legs crossed, a black puffer jacket over her green dress, skates still on her feet. She was at times euphoric, sentimental and sassy. She has been through so much it almost felt like a victory even when it wasn’t.
“To nail almost everything,” she said, pausing for a second. “Not perfect-perfect, but what can you want?”
On the night no one could have imagined what might be the last great Gracie Gold moment, it seemed like more than enough.
Note: Earlier on Thursday, the pairs team of Ashley Cain-Gribble and Timothy LeDuc posted a 79.39 in the short program for the first-day lead. They will attempt to win the nationals for the second time on Friday (having won before in 2019), a pursuit aided by Wednesday night’s withdrawal of last year’s champions, Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier, following Frazier’s positive coronavirus test.
Knierim and Frazier still can be named to the Olympic team this weekend even without competing in Nashville.
Robert Samuels contributed to this report.