With every ounce of her fire(bird), Gracie Gold becomes champ again

 Gracie Gold using her arms as the Firebird's wings during the dazzling free program that won her second U.S. title.  (U.S. Figure Skating / Jay Adeff)

Gracie Gold using her arms as the Firebird's wings during the dazzling free program that won her second U.S. title.  (U.S. Figure Skating / Jay Adeff)

ST. PAUL, Minn. – Polina Edmunds looked a little tentative, which was understandable.  Edmunds never had been in the position she was Saturday night, having won Thursday’s short program to take a substantial lead over past champions Ashley Wagner and Gracie Gold into the long program at the U.S. Championships.

Edmunds did not crack.  She nailed jump after jump, spin after spin, making just one small mistake, an under-rotated triple jump.  When her scores went up, Edmunds was first in the free skate and still first overall with only Gold left to skate.

“I’m happy I skated a clean long program,” Edmunds would say.  “That was my goal, to skate two clean programs.  I really think I showed a good champion mentality.”

She is not the champion, though, because Gold delivered one of the greatest long program skates in the history of nationals, making the short program brain cramp that left her 7.69 points behind Edmunds seem like the aberration it was.

Gold, the 2014 champion, owned the XCel Energy Center rink for four minutes.  Her jumps were huge and secure, her poise complete, her skating to music from Stravinsky’s “Firebird” a performance that showed the polish of a mature, experienced athlete.

“Wonderful, wasn’t it?” said Gold’s coach, Frank Carroll.

The judges heartily and justifiably agreed with Carroll’s appraisal, giving Gold a free skate score 10-plus points higher than Edmunds’ and the overall victory by 2.95.

Gold’s total was 210.46 to 207.51 for Edmunds and 197.88 for Wagner, a three-time champion.

For the third straight season, those three will represent the United States at the World Championships, which take place in Boston in late March.  They also had earned the three U.S. women’s spots at the 2014 Olympics.

Now they will be trying to end a U.S. women’s singles medal drought at worlds and Olympics that dates to 2006.

“Major props to Polina for coming out there and doing two clean programs,” Wagner said.  “That just goes to show how difficult a national championships is mentally for all of us.  Anyone who can keep it together, it’s impressive.”

Wagner dropped 7.78 points behind Edmunds after falling on a jump in the short program.  She was blazing through a free skate to “Moulin Rouge” until the last jump, which she turned from a planned triple lutz to a single.  But even the triple might not have been enough for her to catch Edmunds.

“It was a spectacular program from the start to the triple lutz, so beyond that I’m really happy with how today went down,” said Wagner, champion in 2015, 2013 and 2012.  “My main goal was to make the world team.”

It was the second silver medal in three senior national appearances for Edmunds, 17, who dropped to fourth a year ago.

Last year’s bronze medalist, Karen Chen of Fremont, struggled in both programs and wound up eighth.

"It was a great learning experience,” Chen said.  “I really messed up my short.”

For Edmunds, even a flawless program would not have been enough to hold off Gold, 20, who recovered from singling what was supposed to be a triple-triple combination to open the short program.  What Gold did in the free skate was what Carroll had expected, saying a day before the competition began she was as well prepared as she had ever been.

“I told you she was ready to do that, but nobody believes it because she goes and (messes) it up,” Carroll said.

Gold felt the same way.  Despite the mistake, she was confident about skating the Firebird program from having done it flawlessly over and over again in practices, including Friday’s.

“It was almost better going out there knowing I couldn’t miss anything,” she said.  “I needed every single point.  Every ounce of the Firebird had to be left out there.”

Her skating was as magical as the bird in the Russian fairy tale that Stravinsky turned into music for a ballet.  The choreography Gold would interpret was sophisticated and difficult.

Edmunds, who still has a mouthful of braces and a demeanor more of a girl than a young woman, skated her long program to light, uncomplicated music from “Gone With The Wind.”  In the short, she had given a thoroughly grown up, tour de force performance to Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata.”

“I’m just very happy with how I did overall,” Edmunds said.