American figure skater Gracie Gold, ever the perfectionist as the discipline demands, at least looks the part along her desired path to prominence.
Sitting at attention on stage in Park City, Utah, late last year, cross-legged in front of a group of reporters, the 18-year-old had a faultless smile and not a hair out of place among her blonde locks. Gold appeared as if she awoke wearing her perfectly applied red stiletto lipstick—sponsor CoverGirl, of course—which she also modeled via Twitter and Instagram after setting down at the Olympic Village. She maintained that focusing on the task at hand, medaling for at the winter games, won’t be a problem.
“When I travel to Sochi,” Gold perkily pronounced, “the competition will be the first thing on my mind and enjoying the moment. But also just doing my job, which is to represent the United States and just put out two solid performances and really enjoy the moment.”
In the absence of alpine skier Lindsey Vonn to injury, like always, America seeks a darling of these games, and Gold, the 2014 U.S. champion, may just fit the bill. She even has American pop stars salivating for her symbolic arrival.
Off a convincing performance in the team event earlier in Sochi, Gold is trying to prove she has substance to go with style. She has her work cut out for her. It has been eight years since an American has medaled in the international ladies singles competition. Some quick math tells you that’s only two Olympic cycles, just six total spots to do so, meaning, end result: No big deal.
But on the contrary, that span also includes eight World Championships, dating back to 2006, when Kimmie Meissner took gold and Sasha Cohen the bronze at the championships in Calgary shortly after Cohen earned silver at the Olympics in Turin. America hasn’t seen such a drought dating back to before World War I.
Besides Cohen, champions like Peggy Flemming, Dorothy Hamill, Kristi Yamaguchi, Michelle Kwan, Tara Lipinski, and yes, even Nancy Kerrigan and Tanya Harding, come to mind in a sport where the United States has traditionally at the minimum been in contention. Following their time though, a whopping 0-for-24. Not great for morale.
It’s not great for interest in the sport within the United States either. As New York Daily News sports columnist Filip Bondy noted before the start of the Winter Games, “If you chart the popularity of figure skating, it’s directly correlated to whether we have a female star.” America’s ladies have waned for approaching a decade and so with them has the allure to their sport from the general public.
So will Gold be the next in the prestigious lineage of American women, the sport’s savior for the country? The Midwesterner (Illinois by way of Missouri, but currently residing in Los Angeles) certainly has strong ambitions of the former, while not necessarily surmising she needs to become the latter.
“I don’t believe that there is a huge void to fill,” she said in Park City before the start of the Olympic qualification process. “And I wouldn’t even call it a slump, we had Mirai Nagasu take fourth at the 2010 [Olympics]. We have a very good group of ladies and I don’t feel any pressure to fill the void.“I mean, it’s hard to say,” she continued of the American downturn. “When the U.S. was on top, perhaps some of those other countries were a little bit lower, but most countries have a rich history—Japan and Russia—in medaling. It’s just when the U.S. is on top, Japan and Russia had an off day and vice versa. So I just feel like they’re coming back up, but the U.S., Ashley [Wagner] and I, are training really hard and we’re just going to try to be in the top with them this year, and years to come.”
Wagner, 22, the first two-time (2012, 2013) national champion since Michelle Kwan, joins Gold at the Olympics along with 15-year-old Polina Edmunds, who took the skating world by storm by placing second at the 2014 national championships and securing her ticket to Sochi. Of the trio, Gold remains America’s brightest hope at breaking the dry spell, especially after her segment of the brand new team competition that yielded the United States the bronze.
In the ladies long program portion of the event, Gold turned in a nearly flawless performance that brought her U.S. teammates to their feet at its conclusion and ultimately placed her second, but with her best score of the season. Satisfied, but not content, Gold strives to live up to her surname, as well as stamp it on the long list of American greats.
“Now that I have an Olympic medal in my room,” she said last week, “it makes me hungry for another and a different color one.”
Gold will need more than appearance to make her name at the Olympics, however, and she’s hoping some drastic changes this past September are just the recipe.
“I was tired of being called a cardboard cutout,” Gold said recently, opting to dump her previous coach Alex Ouriashev in favor of Frank Carroll, who has a proven track record with the likes of Kwan and Evan Lysacek, both Olympic medalists. The switch also required a considerable move cross-country to California, but so far, so good.
“It’s been wonderful, I love California, especially the L.A. area,” she said last year. “My mom was born in San Diego, around Vista. So we’ve always been California people. And truthfully, life is all about change. People change, situations change, and it just became clear to me and those around me that I needed a change. And Frank is arguably one of the best coaches in the world, so that was appealing and he was able to take me on, which was great. I think it’s just what I needed.”
Not longer after the transition, the runner-up at the 2013 U.S. Championships went on to amass the best total score in event history on her way to the 2014 crown in Boston, not far from where she was born in Newton, Mass.
“I can tell that my consistency on my jumps, especially in the run-throughs, has already gone up,” she said after the change in direction. “He trains us all to be cat-like, in the sense that no matter what you’re feeling in the air, that you’re able to get over to your landing leg and stick a landing and hold it. That’s what he believes in and you can tell that’s what Evan believes in, and Michelle, is that they have that landing and they held it. And the mental training, how you approach each thing, and we’re working on the pace of the long program so I have more time to relax, take a breather, mentally prepare for the next step of the program.”
Regardless, Gold, quite articulate for a teenager, will still need to overcome the perception that she is a little too measured, too polished—too practiced, as the Daily News’ Filip Bondy put it—in temperament in order to be fully embraced.
But if she can podium in Sochi and also successfully complete the image refinement her eight big-name sponsors, from Nike and Visa to United Airlines and Smucker’s, are laboring over, then—no matter the color of the medal—to the American audience, she’ll be worth her weight in, well, you already know.