By Amy Rosewater | Jan. 27, 2013, 7:30 p.m. (ET)
Gracie Gold reacts with her coaches, Scott Brown and Alex Ouriashev, to her score after competing in the ladies free skate during the 2013 Prudential U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Omaha, Neb., on Jan. 26, 2013.

After the women’s short program, Gracie Gold was in ninth place, so far out of the picture that even her ardent supporters were finding it tough to factor her onto the world team. Only two women will represent the United States at the 2013 ISU World Figure Skating Championships in March and those two women have the responsibility of trying to earn a third spot for the all-important Olympic Winter Games almost a year from now in Sochi, Russia.

But Gold, all of 17, apparently never got that memo. Instead, she thought about the what-ifs and how could she make the podium instead of the what-nots and what would happen if she didn’t.

She stunned the skating world by winning the free skate portion of the Prudential 2013 U.S. Figure Skating Championships, vaulting from ninth place to second overall. And many in the sport are arguing that her long program, which included a triple Lutz-triple toe, was so strong that she should have finished ahead of champion Ashley Wagner.

Wagner squeaked out the victory with 188.84 points; Gold finished with 186.57.

“I actually thought that it could be possible because I have a very loaded long program with difficult elements,” Gold said. “So I knew if I skated a perfect program, I knew I would be able to pull up into the podium. I was thinking maybe fourth at best and I ended up being second. I am so happy and so proud. But I did think it was possible.”

Meanwhile, Wagner, who became the first back-to-back U.S. women’s champion since Michelle Kwan in 2005, was a gracious victor, noting publicly her win was partly built on her past performances.

As Wagner put it, “I think that I definitely lucked out this competition.”

There will be many who debate the scoring and the final order of placement – Wagner didn’t skate her best, falling twice but the strength of her short program kept her on top – but the bottom line for Team USA is that the two strongest women will be competing at the world championships in London, Ont., and they are the women who have the best shot at earning three spots for the United States for Sochi.

One of the people who believe this theory happened to witness the women’s competition in Omaha, Neb.: Tara Lipinski, the 1998 Olympic women’s champion.

“Yes, I do see it that way,” Lipinski told TeamUSA.org . “I definitely think we’re sending a great team over there. Ashley is very experienced and has had a great season and Gracie is so talented.”

And the Lipinski did see a little resemblance between herself and Gold.  Both have proven to be fighters and that is a skill Lipinski said cannot be taught by any coach.

Lipinski saw that gutsiness in Gold in Omaha.

“Every skater has a bad day,” Lipinski said. “You want to be able to prove you belong there. You have to be competitive and all sorts of emotions are running through you. You know that’s not what you’re made of and sometimes, when the pressure’s off, you have more freedom. Gracie showed that.”

From experience, Lipinski knows how important it is for Gold to be at worlds this year. The jump from juniors to seniors can be daunting – as Gold found out not only in the short program at nationals but also in her senior Grand Prix debut in Canada earlier this season when she placed seventh.

“I was super scared,” Lipinski said when asked to recall her own jump to the big leagues. “It’s the real deal.”

Lipinski vividly remembers making her worlds debut in 1996. Her short program was so bad that she was actually thrilled to finish 15th overall. That’s because she placed 23rd in the short.

If Lipinski did not have that experience in 1996, however, she almost certainly would not have won the world crown in 1997. And she had that pedigree, even though she remained an underdog to Kwan, going into the Nagano 1998 Olympic Winter Games.  None of that would have been possible without that 1996 experience.

Sarah Hughes, who won the gold medal four years after Lipinski at the Salt Lake City 2002 Olympic Winter Games, also credits her rise to the top in part to having been able to compete in the 1999 world championships. She finished seventh in those championships and steadily improved each year after that. And Hughes was able to rally from fourth after the short program to first in Salt Lake City, a catapult act of historical proportions.

Neither Lipinski nor Hughes would have wanted their first major international competition to be the Olympic Winter Games.

Just making the world team won’t be enough for Wagner and Gold. The pressure will be on both of them to finish high enough to earn a third spot for the United States for the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games.

Wagner learned the hard way how tough it can be when the United States only has two spots. At the 2010 nationals, Wagner wound up third and the United States only had two spots for Vancouver. Mirai Nagasu and Rachael Flatt became Olympians; Wagner did not.

The United States has not had a woman win a world title since Kimmie Meissner did so back in 2006. Wagner was the highest U.S. woman finisher last year, placing fourth. Gold will be making her senior worlds debut and it is important for her to get that experience at the international level, both for her own nerves and to be showcased in front of international judges.

Even though Wagner did not perform the way she had much of this past season, her coach, John Nicks, still is confident in this duo.

“It is the strongest team,” said Nicks, who was awaiting his flight back to Southern California in the Denver airport. “These are two girls who have the potential of finishing right up there at worlds.”

ICE CHIPS

In addition to the surprise skate by Gold in the women’s competition, another up-and-comer, Max Aaron made the men’s competition equally exciting. Landing two quadruple jumps (both quad salchows), he racked up 255.00 points for his first senior title. Ross Miner also landed a quad salchow to place second (251.29) while prohibitive favorite Jeremy Abbott fell on his quad attempt in a mistake-prone program to finish third (249.33). Neither Evan Lysacek, the 2010 Olympic champion, nor Johnny Weir, competed in the event. Aaron, by virtue of winning the title, earns a berth to worlds. The second spot was granted to silver medalist Ross Miner.

Leading the way for Team USA at worlds in ice dancing are 2010 Olympic silver medalists Meryl Davis and Charlie White. They won their fifth national crown and are hoping to the reclaim the world title they won in 2011. Also named to the team are Madison Chock and Evan Bates (he was a member of the 2010 U.S. Olympic team) and the sister-brother duo, Maia and Alex Shibutani, who were third at worlds in 2011.

U.S. Figure Skating also named newly crowned champions Marissa Castelli and Simon Shnapir in addition to 2012 champions Caydee Denney and John Coughlin to represent Team USA in pairs. Denney and Coughlin did not compete in Omaha as he is recuperating from hip surgery.

Amy Rosewater is a freelance contributor for TeamUSA.org. This story was not subject to the approval of any National Governing Bodies.

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