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Gracie Gold: Budding starstruck superstar

Dan Wetzel
Yahoo Sports
Gracie Gold of the United States skates during a practice session at the figure stating practice rink at the 2014 Winter Olympics, Tuesday, Feb. 18, 2014, in Sochi, Russia
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Gracie Gold of the United States skates during a practice session at the figure stating practice rink at the 2014 Winter Olympics, Tuesday, Feb. 18, 2014, in Sochi, Russia. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)

SOCHI, Russia – On the eve of skating her Olympic short program here on Wednesday, Gracie Gold sits at the crossroads of international megastar and months-ago anonymous, small-town-kid who still appears a bit in awe of her present station in life.

Just last week Taylor Swift tweeted to her 39.1 million followers how she was searching to see when Gold was skating next, while asking "How adorable and lovely is she?"

Yet days later Gold was so in awe of sharing a practice rink with reigning Olympic champion Yuna Kim of South Korea that she posted on Instagram a selfie with Kim skating unaware in the background – like a reverse photo bomb. Later when Kim actually posed for a pic, Gold celebrated by posting it with four exclamation points.

[Photos: Gracie Gold: Budding superstar]

So what is she? Cool enough to be Swift's sporting infatuation or starstruck fan who can't completely believe she's here?

Try both. And that's the beauty of Gracie Gold.

She carries herself with confidence and poise, but doesn't claim to have it all figured out. She's intelligent and well spoken, yet not jaded. She's excitable yet not so young that she lacks perspective.

It's cool having Taylor Swift know who you are, of course, but that's a fleeting fame and no more important than anyone else peppering her on social media from back home.

"She was probably one of the big ones, for sure," Gold said Tuesday morning after her final practice before the ladies competition. "But I've gotten so many nice tweets from just moms that I've known or little kids. All the way up to Taylor Swift. So I have a big mix of support.

"I mean, it's really nice to get that kind of support and for non-figure skating fans to appreciate what you do on the ice," she added. "I think that it's wonderful. It just encourages me and gives me hope for the future."

[Related: Yuna Kim is an even-money favorite for a second gold]

Perhaps she medals here in Sochi, perhaps she upsets a loaded field and becomes the first athlete named Gold to ever win one. Or maybe she does all she can and gets outclassed. This is not a sport, especially at the Olympics, for the faint of heart.

Mainly she wants to leave with no regrets. Gold appears on solid enough ground that she isn't going to proclaim her life a failure if she doesn't win. Yet she isn't conceding a thing, isn't writing herself off to anyone. She came here to climb the podium.

"It's hard to say who is an underdog or who is a dark horse," Gold noted.

The 18-year-old has been skating competitively since she was 8 in Springfield, Mo., although at the time it was mostly a recreational thing. Four years ago, she went to the U.S. Figure Skating Championships as a novice and decided to try to truly go for this.

The time, the training, the focus is considerable. Her family – sister Carly is also a competitive skater – had already given up plenty. Within a year, she dropped out of her high school and began taking online classes through the University of Missouri's K-12 program. She moved to California. She spent nearly every day with this singular pursuit in mind.

Even when it works out – with Olympic bids and magazine covers and spokesperson deals – it takes a toll.

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That's why Gold's parents are pushing her to be less task-oriented, at least initially, when her skating career ends. Her father, Carl, is an anesthesiologist. Her mother, Denise, was an emergency-room nurse. For a long time, the belief was Gracie would follow them into medical careers.

"They don't recommend medical school for me since I've already spent 10 years of my life dedicated to something," she said. "Then to quit skating and then dedicate my life to something equally rigorous … They'd like me to maybe relax and fall back into what I want to do, to enjoy life."

Gold said she is usually hesitant to speak about this in the media because it comes across all wrong. What kind of parent discourages their child from becoming a doctor?

Her parents want her to take a breath and find her own path, she says. If that means winding up as a doctor so be it; just don't jump immediately from one ultra-competitive challenge to the next. Go ahead, explore the world, be yourself and you'll be great at whatever comes along. She didn't become a national champion by accident.

"My dad went through med school, and he knows the long hours of studying and how much dedication it took," Gold said. "So if I was to throw myself into that instead of skating, I don't know, I've worked this hard for so long that maybe I'd want some freedom to do whatever I want, with some boundaries though."

She'll graduate from the online program this spring, and while she hasn't applied to any colleges yet, she will soon. Her grades are high. She's not worried about that. First though, money and opportunities are available that an average high school senior couldn't fathom. College can wait a year if necessary.

Then maybe she'll consider a culinary arts degree – "I'm really big on cooking" – or journalism, or perhaps just a liberal arts base. She experienced the traditional American educational system through freshman year. She's been more isolated since, but calls it a different perspective considering all the people she's met globally.

"It's a trade-off," she said.

[Photos: Team USA's Sochi Games report card]

One of the things she asks whomever she meets, regardless of career or country, is what they studied to get where they are.

"A huge number say, 'Just English,' or something," she said. "Or journalism. And they've branched into [other things]. … Being able to meet all these different people, it's really opened my eyes that [even with] one major … you can do all these different things in life."

The rest of her life, in a sense, will begin after Thursday's long program. Until then, the focus is intense. She's a competitor and this is a competition. She says she is strong and confident. She says the nerves she feels are natural – the polish on her fingernails is chipped, perhaps as a coping mechanism.

She is a fine balance of awe and perspective, of Taylor Swift praising her and her praising Yuna Kim; in the middle of the swirl, on the verge of so much, Gracie Gold smiled a lot Tuesday and seemed eager for whatever comes next.

"I am definitely ready," she said. "We'll just have to see where everybody lands."

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