For Gracie Gold, hope that a step sideways will help her move forward

Gracie Gold during one of the best performances of her career: the free skate that gave her the 2016 U.S. title.  (U.S. Figure Skating / Jay Adeff)

Gracie Gold during one of the best performances of her career: the free skate that gave her the 2016 U.S. title.  (U.S. Figure Skating / Jay Adeff)

The first time I met Gracie Gold, in late fall of 2011 at a suburban Chicago rink, she allowed me a glimpse into her psyche after a previous season filled with disappointment.

“I had zero confidence in myself,” she said, refusing to use physical growth as an excuse for the inconsistent jumps that had kept her from qualifying for the 2011 U.S. Junior Championships.

By the time of our first conversation, after her eye-catching performances that season at both a Junior Grand Prix event in Estonia and Midwestern Sectionals, the skating world already was anointing Gold, then 16, as the sport’s next star.

The expectations would be enormous, especially for someone whose psyche always remained fragile.

She bore up to them remarkably well, winning two U.S. senior titles (with two second places), finishing a solid fourth at the 2014 Olympics (with a bronze medal in the team event) and fourth twice at senior worlds.  She built a résumé that would be the envy of nearly every little girl who puts on figure skates and dreams of such achievements.

Of her winning free skate at the 2016 U.S. Championships, I wrote:   "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."  

Little did we know that such performances sometimes masked the truth, that she was a Pagliacci laughing for the crowd while crying inside.

The one thing she finally could not bear up to was pressure unrelated to skating, personal issues involving herself and her family.  They came crashing down on her last season, when she staggered through poor performance after poor performance, was essentially fired by her coach and never got herself back to the finely-honed level of fitness necessary to succeed at the elite level of this stunningly demanding sport.

Still, with the Olympic year ahead, she lurched forward.

Until Friday, that is, when Gold announced – with characteristic honesty – she is taking a step sideways and seeking help of an unspecified nature that will hopefully allow her to move forward with her life, whether she ever puts on figure skates again or not.

She turned 22 only two weeks ago.  There is a lot of life ahead of her.  There is no reason at this point for her to keep tormenting herself in an effort to meet expectations, others or her own.

“My passion for skating and training remains strong,” Gold said in a statement.  “However, I realize I need to seek some professional help and will be taking some time off while preparing for my Grand Prix assignments (in November.)  This time will help me become a stronger person, which I believe will be reflected in my skating performances as well.”

For now, she has withdrawn from just one event, the Oct. 7 Japan Open.  It seems unlikely she will be ready to compete in those Grand Prix events.  That also is irrelevant to the big picture, of a young woman for whom figure skating should be just one phase of a rewarding life.

In January, after Gold told a telephone press conference she had finally cauterized the deep psychological wound left by a medal-denying free skate at the 2016 worlds, we spoke for a few minutes privately.  I told her what I had heard, that she was seeing a psychologist for depression.  (Two weeks later, as she finished a dismaying sixth at the U.S. Championships, her coach at that time, Frank Carroll, would tell the media, “She has been in a deep, deep depression.”)

"I never felt I was in an actual depression and I needed a psychologist," Gold had said to me. "I was fine out of the rink. It was just in the rink and in skating I wasn't myself.

"I was still a normal human being, regular by all standards," she continued. "I'm just trying to do something above and beyond, trying to be a national champion, a world champion, an Olympic medalist."

Clearly, saying she was fine out of the rink begged the question of how much what was happening to her away from the ice was affecting what she did on it.  Her statement Friday showed that she has come to terms with the connection and is seeking the best way to deal with that piece of the problem.

In the first two years that followed our initial interview, when Gold hit the radar of national and global media, she became more and more hesitant to reveal any of her innermost thoughts.  So it was surprising to hear them spill out during an interview with me and Jere Longman of the New York Times after a practice at the Sochi Olympics.

She spoke of the intense fear she had experienced that she would not make the Olympic team.  Gold said she sometimes would burst into tears at dinner over the uncertainty that would follow if she did not make it.

I asked what had led her to feel comfortable again with expressing what really was on her mind.  She smiled.

“I was getting tired of being called a cardboard cutout,” she answered.

She was, and is, a gifted and accomplished athlete with all of our human dimensions, including the doubts that accompany finding one’s place in the world.  For most of us, that journey is not always smooth sailing; for Gold, it has been fraught with internal turmoil few could have handled as well as she did for as long as she did - until the coping effort made her founder.

The important things for Gracie Gold now have nothing to do with the 2018 Olympics or triple lutzes or the sponsors whom she may have felt a need to satisfy as she pressed on through roiling seas.  Her record in the sport may lack some of the medals people predicted for her, but that record needs no further enhancements for her to look back on it with immense pride, no matter what her future brings.

The important thing now is for her is to find ways to be happy in whatever that future is, wherever it takes her.  Count me among those who hope she finds them soon - and forever.