BOSTON - Much has been made of the U.S. ladies' nine-season medal drought at the World Figure Skating Championships. But it also had been five seasons since a U.S. skater even won one of the small medals given to the top three after the short program.
So Gracie Gold ending the second of those fruitless stretches was an achievement of no small significance. That she did it by finishing first Thursday afternoon at TD Garden when the skating quality was higher and deeper than it has ever been at a world championships was of even greater consequence.
"I can kind of see the light at the end of the tunnel that, maybe, the drought is ending," Gold said.
She and teammate Ashley Wagner, who sits fourth after a career-best score, now have four minutes of Saturday's free skate to show that the light is not coming from the oncoming train that has derailed U.S. hopes since Kimmie Meissner and Sasha Cohen finished first and third, respectively, in 2006.
The way both skated Thursday -- and the scores each received in a competition that was as good as it gets -- makes it seem likely this will be the year that almost anything can happen, even if the standings are so close from first to sixth.
Gold had a career-best 76.43 points, giving her a margin of 2.45 over surprising Anna Pogorilaya of Russia (73.98), who avoided the bone-jarring falls for which she has become notorious.
Evgenia Medvedeva of Russia (73.76), who has won each of her competitions this season on the way to worlds, and Wagner (73.16) were just a whisker behind Pogorilaya.
Gold, the reigning U.S. champion, had the highest technical and component scores. Wagner was second in components, an encouraging sign.
This was the Gold that coach Frank Carroll has long been waiting to show up at a major championship.
"A magical moment," she said.
She fought for the opening triple lutz that had, in her own words, left her "flummoxed" at the U.S. championships, then added a triple toe for a big combination and commanded the ice for the final two minutes of the 2-minute, 50-second program. Gold put her hands on her head with a look of joyous disbelief when it ended.
"She skates so consistently, day in and day out (in practice), that when she doesn't, it's maddening," Carroll said. "The long program, she better do the same thing, or she's dead."
Skating next to last in the 38-woman field, Gold was not able to see any of the captivating stuff that preceded her. The final eight, including Gold and Wagner, did programs with no major error.
Earlier, their teammate, Mirai Nagasu, also had a memorable performance, spoiled only by an under-rotation on the second jump in her triple-triple combination. Nagasu, subbing for the injured Polina Edmunds, placed 10th with 65.74 points, but the crowd gave her a deserved reward with a roaring, pulsating standing ovation.
Nagasu had been the only U.S. skater to be in the top three going into the free skate at a world championships since 2006. She was first after the short in 2010 before dropping to seventh.
In her three previous worlds, Gold had placed ninth, fifth and eighth in the short.
"I'm just a piece of the puzzle, but it looks like we (the U.S.) are in pretty good shape this year."
Gold, Pogorilaya and Wagner had positive Grades of Execution throughout. So did seventh-place Rika Hongo of Japan and eighth-place Gabrielle Daleman of Canada.
Medvedeva saved her program after a clumsy landing on her opening jump made her scratch that planned combination. She made up for it with a triple-triple barely 10 seconds from the end.
Japan's Satoko Miyahara, the reigning silver medalist, was exquisite as always but good enough only for sixth after an edge problem on her triple flip.
And Gold, 20, was clearly better than them all. Think about that. She was struggling to wrap her mind around what she had done, about beating such formidable efforts by the others.
"It's validating," she said. "It really means a lot. I don't know if it has really sunk in yet, the gravity."
Gold could see the potential for such splendid skating from the practices the three U.S. ladies shared with the three Japanese skaters. She also has had a first-hand view the last few years of how good the Russians can be.
"There have been practice days when we all have been throwing down clean (free skates)," Gold said. "That's a worlds when, if you're in the top 10, you're an incredible skater."
Like Mao Asada, for instance. Imagine if the three-time world champion from Japan could have nailed the triple axel the way she had in practices instead of falling on it as she did in the short program. Asada wound up ninth (65.87).
Wagner could laugh about her fall, when her feet got tangled and she wound up on her rump as she started to celebrate her performance.
"It just shows I am human after a superhuman skate," she said.
Wagner had finished 11th, eighth, fifth, seventh and 11th in her previous short programs at worlds. Her best overall finish is fourth, in 2012, after the eighth-place short.
"[The free skate] is definitely the tougher part for me," she said. "(But) a great short program isn't going to do anything for me in the long program."
Wagner's was among so many great short programs. This was a day when the magic filled the arena for much longer than only Gold's moment.
(This article originally appeared on icenetwork.)