Drama On And Off The Ice

By Lynn Rutherford | Jan. 14, 2014, 6:39 p.m. (ET)
L-R: Polina Edmunds (silver), Gracie Gold (gold), Mirai Nagasu (bronze), Ashley Wagner (pewter) pose during the awards at the 2014 Prudential U.S. Figure Skating Championships on Jan. 11, 2014 in Boston.

There was plenty of drama surrounding the women’s competition at the Prudential 2014 U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Boston last Saturday — not all of it on the ice.

Gracie Gold, an 18-year-old who trains in Southern California, however, was only the woman among the top finishers who has stayed away from the controversy, easily earning her spot on the U.S. Olympic Team that will compete next month in Sochi.

Gold won her first U.S. crown with a commanding free skate that opened with a spectacular triple-triple

Gracie Gold skates her free skate during the 2014 U.S. Figure
Skating Championships at TD Garden on Jan. 11, 2014 in Boston.

jump combination, mixed in difficult spins and steps and even featured some fist pumping. Gold, who had already built a solid lead after the short program, finished nearly 20 points ahead of the field.

“It was kind of unreal,” she said. “I was in my step sequence and I was like, ‘Did I just nail the first three jumps of my long program?’ It was like a fairytale.”

Gold was one of the few women in the field who could sleep relatively at the end of the free skate. Even though the national champion was not guaranteed a spot in Sochi, her title, along with her international experience, combined with her silver medal last year, made her selection to the U.S. Olympic Team fairly simple.  

Getting to this point, however, has not been easy. She left her longtime coach in September to train under Frank Carroll, the veteran who guided Evan Lysacek to the 2010 Olympic gold medal and Michelle Kwan to national and world titles. At Carroll’s urging, the teen changed her short program shortly before the U.S. championships, as well as aspects of her mental preparation.

“The nerves are something I’ve battled with and let them get into my head, but tonight I felt strangely calm,” she said. “And Frank [Carroll] has got an eye. He just found a quiet corner, and we waited.”

The skater’s golden moment was nearly overshadowed by controversy. The United States earned three women’s figure skating spots at the Sochi Winter Games, thanks to strong finishes by Gold and Ashley Wagner at the 2013 World Figure Skating Championships.

But controversy plagued the rest of the field. Polina Edmunds, at 15, took the silver at nationals behind Gold, and some wondered if she filled the criteria of making the U.S. Olympic Team because she has never competed in a senior-level international event.

Mirai Nagasu, meanwhile, placed third but has been plagued by inconsistency since placing fourth at the 2010 Olympic Winter Games. And then there is Ashley Wagner, the two-time defending U.S. champion and most accomplished American women’s skater internationally recently. Yet she struggled at these nationals, falling twice in her free skate and finishing a disappointing fourth.

Rarely has U.S. Figure Skating gone with anything other than the order of finish at its pre-Olympic U.S. championships. Exceptions have occurred in the case of injuries in the past: in 1992, when Todd Eldredge (back injury) was named to the Albertville team, and in 2006, when Michelle Kwan was nominated for Torino even though she suffered a groin injury and missed nationals that year. Nancy Kerrigan was named to the U.S. Olympic Team in 1994 when she missed nationals for the infamous Tonya-Nancy knee whacking incident that prevented her from competing, and the pairs team of Jenni Meno and Todd Sand had to withdraw from 1998 nationals with an injury but competed in Nagano.

However, the U.S. championships are not Olympic Trials. Decisions on international assignments are made by a committee of officials including judges, coaches and former U.S. competitors. Results at the U.S. championships and the prior season’s competitions, including the world championships, are considered, as are performances at the fall ISU Grand Prix events. No specific weight is assigned to any competition, allowing the committee flexibility.

“We have selection guidelines in place, that are vetted through the athlete’s committee and vetted through the USOC,” U.S. Figure Skating President Patricia St. Peter said. “This competition is not the only event U.S. Figure Skating considers in selecting the team.”

Wagner, who entered nationals as the heavy favorite to compete in Sochi, turned in nervous performances in Boston. However, the 22-year-old has the best recent competitive resume: she placed in the top five in the world the past two seasons, and earned a bronze medal at the ISU Grand Prix Final held in Japan in December.

“It’s embarrassing as two-time national champion to put out a performance like that,” Wagner said. “I did what I did and now we’ll see what happens. Luckily I had a decent season; that definitely helps my case, but other than that I’m embarrassed for that program.”

The Twitterverse and figure skating message boards lit up with speculation: Should Wagner, considered a virtual lock for the Olympic team heading into Boston, compete in Sochi at the expense of either Edmunds or Nagasu? If so, which of the two skaters would be left behind?

“I skated two clean programs and I’m the only one with prior Olympic experience,” Nagasu said.

Edmunds also spoke up for herself.

“I think tonight was the night we all needed to prove ourselves, and I think I proved myself,” she said.

As reporters buzzed around the media center gathering details on the selection criteria and interviewing skaters, about the only person sitting pretty was Carroll, secure in the knowledge that Gold’s stellar performances had earned her a berth.

“I’m glad I’m not the one who has to decide, I’ll tell you that,” Carroll said.

After about 18 hours of speculation, St. Peter announced the decision at a pre-planned press conference shortly after noon on Sunday: Wagner would join Gold and Edmunds in Sochi, and Nagasu was named first alternate.

“If you look over the course of the last year plus at Ashley Wagner’s credentials, she has the top credentials of any of our female [single skater] athletes,” St. Peter said. “That is why we made the decision we did, and our guidelines are posted on the USOC site.”

Wagner, who missed the 2010 U.S. Olympic Team in Vancouver after placing third at that season’s U.S. championships, was visibly relieved.

“I am at a loss for words right now,” she said. “It’s been a really long four years, working really hard. Last night wasn’t my night, and I’m happy my federation was able to see beyond one bad skate.”

Nagasu delivered a tearful performance at the Boston post-competition exhibition event that drew standing ovations before, and after, she skated. She declined requests for interviews but issued a statement though U.S. Figure Skating that read: “I’m disappointed in the decision. Though I may not agree with it, I have to respect the decision the federation made.”

Gold, meanwhile, appears ready to go for Sochi, and even offered a suggestion for headline writers saying, “Grace gets gold.”

Lynn Rutherford is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.

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