ST. PAUL, Minn. – A day before the women’s short program at the 2014 Winter Olympics, I joined two colleagues in a conversation with Gracie Gold after she had finished one of her consistently strong practices in Sochi.
Gold already had delivered her season-best free skate to help the U.S. win a bronze medal in the debut of a team skating event at the Olympics. Nine days later, she was brimming with a confidence that had sometimes been absent earlier in her career, and she spoke with an effusiveness and ease that had been rare over the previous two seasons.
As I wrote back then, “She has dropped the robotic Stepford Wife answers and starched smile that previously characterized her interviews for a willingness to let everyone get a sense of who she is, insecurities and all.”
The difference in her demeanor was so striking one of us asked what accounted for it.
"I was getting tired of being called a cardboard cutout," she said.
For two reasons, I couldn’t help but think of that answer again while listening to Gold, now 20, on a media conference call advancing the U.S. Championships here in which the women’s short program is Thursday night.
She was just as candid.
And she was just as burdened by insecurities, despite having been the top U.S. women’s singles finisher at the Olympics (fourth) and the last two worlds (fourth and fifth) and having finished second-first-second at her three senior nationals,
To wit, Gold’s response to her having unraveled at December’s Grand Prix Final in Barcelona after a season in which she had finished a close second at Skate America and had won the short program at the French Grand Prix by a whopping margin before the free skate was cancelled after the murderous terrorist attacks in Paris.
“I was physically prepared,” she said. “I had done the mental training work. But when I got to the competition, I just choked.
“Nerves? No. I just got in my own head and kind of freaked myself out. I just got in my own way.”
The result: Gold wimped out of triple jumps, doing a double flip in the short program that gave her zero points and a poorly executed single flip in the free skate that amounted to .48 of a point. She finished fifth of six in each phase of the event but close enough overall that those jump failures may have kept her from the podium.
That was, in a way, a reprise of Skate America, when the same mistake on the flip in the short program and a double salchow rather than a triple in the free skate, which she won, cost Gold enough points to leave her second overall to the latest Russian phenom, Evgenia Medvedeva.
“It’s always two steps forward, one step back for me,” Gold said. “Being competitive and being a strong competitor are two different things. I’m tired of going down without a fight by doing doubles.”
Gold, buoyed by having twin sister Carly make nationals for the first time, insists she is even better trained for this year’s meet than she had been for the Grand Prix Final. Her coach, the venerable Frank Carroll, agrees.
“She is as prepared as she has ever been or any human being could be,” Carroll said while walking to Gold’s Wednesday afternoon practice at the Xcel Energy Center. “If she doesn’t do well here, it’s psychological.”
I will let a psychologist to decide whether it is better or worse for Gold to lay out all her anxieties to the media. What it shows is Gold remains comfortable in her own skin and determined to have people know she is not what their perception of her might seem.
“When I first heard people not so fondly call me an `Ice Princess,’ I didn’t know that was a bad thing - because I was skating to `Sleeping Beauty,’ and I was an ice skater, and everyone wants to be perfect,’’ she said. “What could be wrong with being an ice princess?
“Then I realized it was because they thought I was cold and frozen, which totally caught me off guard. I said, `People think of me like that?' I don’t think anybody who has met me would describe me as a cold, frozen person. So I made some changes.”
I certainly didn’t find her distant when we first met her in December 2011, at the moment she was going from anonymity to the next big thing in the blink of an eye. She talked of her struggles, of having had zero confidence, of the fun in having “stirred up a buzz” with my skating.
At that point, when she had failed even to qualify for a junior nationals, a top U.S. judge and a rival’s former coach already saw Gold in the Sochi Olympics. Such expectations brought pressure that would lead her to retreat into clichéd answers and put a mask over her personality.
“You can say, `Oh, I’m great, and I just want to go out and skate my best’ when it’s not what’s going on and it’s not real,” she said. “It’s so much easier to be real and face the fact that in Barcelona I went in totally prepared and made a problem where there wasn’t one, and I tripped over my own feet.”
Similar discomfort seems to affect Gold most in major international events, even if her finishes, other than at Four Continents, have been more than respectable. Like every U.S. woman singles skater after 2006, she has yet to win an Olympic or world medal.
Yet she already can see the finish line for her competitive career.
“Assuming all goes well, and I reach my goals, collect some medals and titles, get an Olympic medal in 2018 in the team event and singles, I would probably retire,” she said.
Such accomplishments would add the one thing missing from a career fact sheet in which the measure of Gracie Gold no longer can be taken in one dimension.