All of us who heard Gracie Gold’s words after she came undone in the free skate at last year’s World Figure Skating Championships in Boston were stunned by how extreme her reaction sounded.
She called her performance "unfortunate and sad." She said she was ashamed of how she skated. She apologized to the country and the crowd for doing so poorly and finishing fourth after having won the short program. She nearly wrote off her chances for doing well at the 2018 Olympics.
Truth be told, Gold’s really poor skating was yet to come. She staggered to fourth and eighth at her two Grand Prix events this fall and then a dismaying sixth at a lower-level Croatian competition in which she barely could land a jump and wound up with her worst scores in nearly four years.
Only recently has Gold, 21, realized that her feelings about Boston were an overreaction that kept compounding the problem. She could not move on because she would not pardon herself. For a woman who always has fought confidence issues, that was guaranteed to make things much worse.
The reigning U.S. champion had that epiphany after going back for a refresher with her old coach, Alex Ouriashev, in suburban Chicago after Christmas. Gold’s idea was primarily to have Ouriashev help her recapture her jump technique. But the change also allowed her to step back and see the mental picture as clearly as the bio-mechanical before next week's U.S. Championships in Kansas City.
"After three years of being so close to the top-top but not being it, she lost a lot of confidence," Ouriashev said when we spoke Thursday evening. "I said, `Let's forget about everything. Let's go back to where things were three years ago.'"
Gold found herself in a better place when she returned to her primary coach, Frank Carroll, in Los Angeles.
When asked during a Thursday media conference call the simple question, “What happened?,” Gold unburdened herself in a four-minute-long answer:
“After worlds it was just a disappointment in myself. I never felt so disappointed in myself. I had trusted my training, and really felt I had done everything right, and I had come up what I felt was so short.
“I know fourth in the world is not in any way traumatic, but to me it was. . . Then to go from there right on tour with a lot of previous and first-time world medalists was also hard. Everyone was extremely kind, but for me it was just a reminder I could also have a world medal, a gold medal, and I didn’t.
“Really, I should have just gotten over it and picked myself up like any other disappointment and just gotten on with it. But I just didn’t, and I couldn’t get my feet back under me, and I continued to spiral down.
“I loved (this year’s) programs, but I just didn’t love myself and my skating. When I took some time off, instead of taking time off to recharge and reboot the system, I just became more and more distant from the sport.
“Every time you take time off and get back on the ice, of course you’re not as good, so I felt less and less capable. . .I just felt like a shell of my former self, which seems dramatic, and it is a little bit. But I could never grow up and just start training.
"Really, just being back in Chicago, it brought me back to my roots in some way. It was kind of crazy, like flipping a switch, a jump start. . .I just needed to get out and get away for a second.
“I’m feeling so much better. I’m kind of falling back in love with the sport and with my programs and, most importantly, with myself.
“I’m forgiving myself for failing. There is too much at stake to hold in to something like that for so long.”
Going back to Ouriashev was hard. The two had not parted amicably in September 2013 and had not talked since then until the aftermath of her December disaster in Zagreb. She wasn’t even sure Ouriashev would answer her calls.
“I was really scared,” she said, “but then we started talking, and he said he would help me however he could.”
Ouriashev told me Thursday he and Gold had not even said so much as "hi" and "bye" to each other when their paths crossed at competitions. He had been so heartbroken by the split he consciously avoided watching Gold skate live or on TV or the web.
At Carroll's request, an intermediary, U.S. Figure Skating high performance director Mitch Moyer, called Ouriashev last month to tell the coach Gold wanted to discuss working with him again.
"I was in shock," Ouriashev said. "I never expected it. But it was a good shock."
There also was the matter of Gold telling Carroll what she wanted to do without having him feel insulted. Gold said Carroll was “100 percent” behind the idea, which became a two-week stay.
"She had been skating like shit, and she was very depressed," Carroll said in a telephone conversation Thursday night. "Denise (Gold, the skater's mother), thought, `What if we shake this up a little bit? Maybe a change of scene woulds help her."
Carroll said it was he who suggested Ouriashev after Denise Gold had mentioned some other coaches.
"Whether we (Carroll and Ouriashev) do things a little differently isn't important," Carroll said. "If anything helps anybody, I'm open to that. You cannot be, `I am the Great Frank Carroll, the Oracle of Figure Skating in America.'''
Ouriashev said he has not talked with Carroll about the situation and does not know if he will work with Gold during practices in Kansas City.
"We are both working for Gracie," Ouriashev said of he and Carroll. "We are not competing with each other.
"I honestly feel she is like my stepdaughter as a skater. For me to help her is a big honor."
With Ouriashev, Gold won a U.S. junior title, a silver medal at the World Junior Championships and, in her first year as a senior (2013), was second at nationals, winning the free skate. With Carroll, she has won two U.S. titles (2014 and 2016), finished second in another and taken fourth in consecutive world meets and the Olympics.
Ouriashev said he and Gold worked on "nothing but jumps" during their two weeks together. "She was out of shape," he said. He felt her physical condition was holding her back more than any major technical problems. Carroll agreed.
When I spoke privately with Gold after the conference call had ended, she intimated her commitment to all phases of preparation had been less than total.
“It wasn’t like Frank and everyone here in Los Angeles hasn’t been there for me,” Gold said. “I felt like I wasn’t there for them.
“It’s not like Frank hasn’t been doing everything he can. Sometimes skaters need a change of pace. I had kind of been in a rut.
“Alex was really the one who helped me forgive myself. He kept telling me that it (worlds) really wasn’t a big deal.”
Gold, the top U.S. woman at the 2014 Olympics, began to understand that better when a young skater at the suburban Chicago rink was so flustered by being near her idol on a practice session that the younger girl had to get off the ice to compose herself.
“To know that, after I felt I botched everything and let everyone down, and it didn’t even register to her. . . I realized it was time to forgive and time to forget and time to be better again.”
Ouriashev thinks Gold has improved enough that there is no risk at nationals of another embarrassment like the one in Zagreb.
"She was in a really bad situation," Ouriashev said. "Now she believes she can do it. She is still not 100 percent what she used to be, but there was a huge difference in what I saw when she came and what I saw when she left."
On Monday, her first day back in the ice in Los Angeles, Carroll said Gold skated "the worst I ever have seen in the history of the world, but I think she was tired and jet-lagged." Tuesday, he saw her look "quite good." "Wednesday," Carroll said, "she was fabulous."
"Things are better," Carroll said. "She looks like she is really trying. She is not thinking, `I'm not good enough.' She looks like she has snapped out of her melancholy. I just hope to God it's not too late."