HOFFMAN ESTATES, Ill. — Dressed in sparkling gold, Gracie Gold arrived at Skate America, the kickoff event of the new figure skating season, hoping to reassert herself as the nation’s pre-eminent skater 16 months before the 2018 Winter Olympic Games.
Instead, she followed a shaky short program Friday evening with a poor long program Saturday afternoon, falling twice to drop to fifth place in the 11-woman field, finishing 12 points behind the winner, Ashley Wagner, her American teammate and rival who is still riding the momentum of winning the world silver medal last spring.
But that wasn’t the worst of it. Within minutes of leaving the ice, Gold, 21, the two-time U.S. national champion, spoke alarmingly about the pressure she feels.
“We just need to adjust my physical shape and mental shape to see if the program can be salvaged for the rest of the year,” she said.
When asked if she was talking about her stamina and needing more time to practice the long program, Gold replied haltingly.
“You don’t often see — there aren’t that many — you just don’t see overweight figure skaters for a reason. It’s just something I’ve struggled with this whole year and in previous seasons. It’s just difficult when you’re trying to do the difficult triple jumps. It’s something that I am addressing but it’s obviously not where it should be for this caliber of competition.”
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A journalist picked up immediately on her use of the word “overweight,” saying correctly and appropriately that Gold looks slim.
“Oh, that’s lovely, thank you,” she replied. “It’s just not what’s required for this sport. It’s a lean body sport and it’s just not what I have currently, but, thank you.”
I’ve covered sports involving young women for years, but this was the first time I had ever heard one of them speak so jarringly about her weight in public. I echoed my colleague’s compliment, but Gold was not comfortable accepting any praise at that moment.
“This summer, I just wasn’t in athletic shape mentally and certainly not physically, just dealing with after worlds," she said. "But I have all the support that I need. I just have to rely on them more.”
Those close to Gold said she lost several pounds quickly preparing for this competition and was not as ready as she would have hoped. It’s also clear that Gold has not yet put the painful memories of the 2016 world championships in Boston behind her.
Trying to end an unprecedented 10-year medal drought for U.S. women at the worlds or Olympics, Gold took the lead after the short program but then wilted under the pressure, finishing a disappointing fourth while Wagner rose to the occasion and finished second.
Wagner and Gold have been sharing the U.S. skating spotlight for five seasons now. If anyone can understand what Gold is going through, I thought it might be the 25-year-old Wagner, so I asked her.
“I would have to say every athlete has that one Mount Everest that they have to climb,” Wagner said. “For me, it was deciding to leave my house and take my skating over for myself. That was my biggest challenge and that’s what turned me into the athlete I am today.
“For her, I think that losing that world title was devastating for her, understandably, because she had it and then the next day, she didn’t. The hardest part about all of this is you see someone struggling and hurting and no one can help her right now except for herself. It’s going to be her having enough and getting herself out of it. I think that we have a very supportive federation and everyone is doing their best to give her the tools that she needs to get through this. But it’s going to come down to her wanting to use them and getting ready to let go."
Wagner said she feels nothing but empathy for her rival and teammate.
“You know, at the end of the day, a person’s a person and you see them in pain, you want to do whatever you can to help out. We’re not very close but I think she’s a sweet girl and I think that she just kind of needs to find a way to push through this. She’s an awesome athlete and I respect her so much for what she is capable of.
“This is not the end of Gracie, I know that for a fact.”