BY GRACIE GOLD
I first stepped on the ice when I was about 2 ½. My sister, Carly, and I were born near Boston, Mass. The winters were long and we were very active kids. To survive, my mom would bundle us up and take us skating on nearby frozen marshes. She laughs about those early trips and says it took longer to get us ready than the amount of time we actually skated!
We left the Boston area when I was 5 and I didn't skate again until I was in second grade. One of my friends celebrated his birthday party at the ice rink in Springfield, Mo. While I circled around and around in my brown rental skates, I studied a group of skaters spinning in the center. I was fascinated! When my mom picked me up, I began a campaign for skating lessons.
The rink was new and just developing its Learn to Skate program. I started in a 30-minute class held once a week. Carly and I were involved in an array of activities at that time. I was one of those kids who changed in the car, arrived moments before class began, and ran into the rink with my skates already on! In spite of my inauspicious beginning, I progressed rapidly. I loved everything about figure skating: the chilled air against my face as I flew around the rink, the sound of sharp blades ripping across fresh ice, the sense of accomplishment I felt after mastering a new skill, the exhilaration of landing a new jump, and the tight camaraderie between the skaters. Carly saw how much fun I was having and she began skating also. We have shared the best of times and some of the hardest together on the ice!
The more we skated, the better we got; and the better we got, the more we wanted to skate! The freestyle sessions were very limited, requiring me and Carly to wake up really early in the morning to be able to practice before school. My poor mother got up even earlier! As we progressed, our ice and coaching requirements grew. We began to travel and juggle schedules to meet the increasing demands.
Unless you begin skating at a training center, you eventually face the dilemma of moving or commuting to get what you need to advance in the sport. Our family moved once to accommodate our skating, but changing circumstances put us on the road again. Our challenge as a family has been to get the training Carly and I need, but still have as much family time as possible. Our family home is in Springfield, Ill., and we rent a house two and a half hours north in the Chicago suburbs. My mom, sister and I stay there during the week and try to get together with my dad on the weekends. We love to go home, but sometimes it's easier for him to travel to Chicago. Traveling back and forth is tiring, but in a way we have the best of both worlds. Our family home is wonderful and the best place to relax and recharge, but we have a great time exploring Chicago. There's always something going on!
My novice year was a breakthrough season for me. I finally qualified for U.S. Championships, winning gold at both regionals and sectionals. I won the pewter medal at U.S. Championships, and I thought I was on my way. My first junior year started off great. I had the highest score in the country going into the qualifying season. I won gold at the Upper Great Lakes Regionals, but when I got to Midwestern Sectionals, it all sort of slipped away from me. I finished sixth and missed qualifying for the U.S. Championships. I was heartbroken.
This disappointment became a life-defining experience. With the help of family and friends, I took a hard look at myself and situation. It was a time of reflection, defining, redefining goals, and then formulating a new plan to reach them. We changed our training base to Chicago, which cut down on our travel. Carly and I switched from public high school to the University of Missouri High School for distance learning, which gave us more flexibility and reduced some of my stress. I also began working with a sports psychologist. This had been suggested to me before, but I had not been open to the idea. Acknowledging nerves or performance anxiety felt like admitting to a weakness I didn't want to have. Working with this amazing woman has helped me develop strategies to manage the adrenaline, excitement and expectations of competition at the elite level.
I came back from that disappointing season as a new skater. My summer season was so strong that I was selected to compete at the 2011 Junior Grand Prix Estonia, where I placed first. Following that, I won the 2012 U.S. Championships junior ladies title. That win helped me to be selected to represent the United States at junior worlds. Such an honor! I was thrilled with my silver medal finish. And, my season wasn't over yet! In March or early April of last year (2012), I was invited to travel to Tokyo, Japan, to represent the United States at the World Team Trophy. It was an amazing opportunity for me to gain experience competing as a senior lady in a relatively low pressure situation. Being in Tokyo was the most incredible experience! The people of Japan are amazing! They are so gracious and accommodating, and do they ever love figure skating!
It was still quite an adjustment moving from the junior ranks to the senior Grand Prix. My junior season started so early and then extended so long with my WTT assignment, that I moved into the next season with little time to catch my breath.
It was my goal, as a senior lady, to show more maturity and increase the component aspect of my skating. My coach and I also spent a lot of time working on two new elements to really push the envelope technically. My short program was a feisty and fast piece, and the plan was to have a triple flip-triple toe as my combination jump and a "Rippon" triple Lutz as my solo jump. This is a move credited to Adam Rippon, in which the three revolutions are executed with arms extended over your head. It's a tricky, high risk move because your position needs to be perfect to be successful. I am actually very accomplished with it, but it became a burden for me in my short program. The adrenaline of competition combined with the inherent uncertainty of that jump seemed to keep me off balance in my short programs throughout the season. In addition, I began the season with a very ambitious arsenal of jumps in my free skate program. I opened with a triple Lutz-triple toe combination, followed by a triple flip-half loop-triple Salchow. Those two elements are worth a huge amount of points, and I can perform them readily on most days. I just wasn't very successful performing them at competition. Plus, I was really trying to put more energy into my artistic performance. I struggled a bit and we decided after a couple of outings to revert to the triple Lutz-triple toe and double axel-triple toe combinations that had worked so well for me the previous season.
My senior Grand Prix experience was truly about learning how to compete in "The Big Show." I was very disappointed with my performance at my first assignment, Skate Canada. I finished seventh overall, which effectively removed any hope of me making the Grand Prix Final. That was a bitter pill to swallow, but my goal was to make the U.S. world team, so I refocused and kept working. My performance was greatly improved at my second assignment, the Rostelecom Cup in Russia, where I won the short program and finished second overall.
The 2013 U.S. Championships is, arguably, the most important competition of any season. I wanted to medal there as much as I have ever wanted anything! I was in prime shape. My program run-throughs were immaculate. I was so very ready…and then, I bombed my short program. I'm not completely sure what went wrong, but I think, basically, I just tried too hard. There were too many voices in my head and too many expectations (mostly from myself), for me to achieve the relaxed focus needed for a great performance. Luckily, I had a day in between my short and long programs to regroup and refocus. I will be eternally grateful to my family, friends and coaches who stood by me and supported me. My mom and sister, especially, were able to comfort me and, more importantly, refocus me on what I still needed to do. Jason Brown and Alex Johnson (senior men competitors) were on my practice ice the following morning. They really pumped me up. In addition to be being great skaters, they are really great people!
Going into my free skate, I thought about the advice my sports psychologist, Jenny, had given me. She told me all I could do was enjoy the moment and do the moves and elements how they felt right. She said to soften my smile and hands. She told me the chips would fall where they fell. She said I just had to believe in myself and it was a perfect opportunity to practice. I was able to go out and skate the way I knew I could. It was one of life's unforgettable moments! I earned the silver medal and it really was as "good as gold" for me!
As a result, I was assigned to the ISU Four Continents Championships and the World Championships! Hurray! It was my ultimate goal for last season to make the U.S. world team. I didn't have my best skate at Four Continents; in fact, I felt really upset with myself. But, I'd gained a little more experience with regrouping after disappointment and Ashley and I still had an important job ahead of us at worlds. Talk about "the three spots" was rampant. It was a strong motivator. My personal goal had originally been to finish in the top-10 at worlds, but with Olympic spots on the line I was hoping to do even a bit better. I was able to deliver two solid, although not perfect, performances. I finished sixth, and that placement combined with Ashley's fifth place finish was enough to qualify the United States three spots for the ladies event in the 2014 Olympics!!!
To cap off my first senior season, I was again invited to compete for the United States at the World Team Trophy. This year we were the champions! It was so amazing to be standing on the top of the podium with my teammates, singing the national anthem, and watching them raise our flag. Victory was so sweet and I got my first "gold" of the season!
At the end of April, the USOC partnered with NBC to do a promotional shoot for the Sochi Olympic hopefuls. I am honored and thrilled to be one of the selected athletes! It was a total blast! They housed us in the luxurious Beverly Hilton, a short walk up Wilshire to Rodeo Drive and some of the best people-watching and window shopping in the world! Just being at the hotel with all the other top U.S. athletes was enormously inspiring. They rented out a set at Smashbox Studios for the shoot and it was just an unbelievable experience. It’s a whole other world behind the scenes; I was amazed! I can’t tell you how “Hollywood” I felt going out to the trailers to get my lunch and latte!