SOCHI, Russia – Gracie Gold was beaming, and for good reason. She'd just delivered a dream performance in the ladies free skate of the team figure skating competition here, soaring through jumps, whipping through spins and enthralling the judges.
This isn't the singles competition, the top prize; that comes next week. She merely helped the United States win a bronze medal (Russia took gold). This was a show of force, though, a statement that in a crowded field of contenders, the 18-year-old is here to win.
"No one with the last name Gold has never won gold, or so I've been told," she said with a laugh as she stood in a back hallway of the Iceberg Skating Palace, basking in her 129.38 score.
It was that kind of feel-good night for a kid on the verge of becoming America's newest Olympic darling. She's the total package with skill, looks, personality and, yes, name. NBC is going to love her.
Yet as she spoke, a flat-screen television over her shoulder showed the action back on the ice. And if a petite, ponytailed 15-year-old twirling around to the classical score of "Schindler's List" can possibly be deemed menacing, well, Julia Lipnitskaia is it.
In a lot of Olympics, Gracie would be the favorite for the ladies' gold. Here, it's going to be a fight. It might take the best of her best just to find the podium in the singles competition held February 19-20.
If the presence of reigning champion Yuna Kim of South Korea, who dominated in Vancouver, reigning silver medalist Mao Asada of Japan and another Russian teenager Adelina Sotnikova weren't enough, the sweeping performances by the upstart Lipnitskaia the last two nights during team competition may be a sign everything is going to get upended.
And Gold is the first to admit it.
"She's dynamite," Gold said. "Let's be real, she's 15."
Suddenly, 18 felt old.
"She has no spine – [good for spins] – yet she has iron in her bones – [good for jumps]," Gold said. "It's like, 'ding, ding, ding, I'm done with my long program. I'm not tired.' She's incredible."
Incredible enough that Lipnitskaia finished with a flair and scored a 141.51, just running away with the free skate. The place went nuts as flowers and stuffed bears rained down on the ice. This is a sport that is subjectively scored, and when someone can make the place electric, it matters. There is no doubt Julia has that ability in her.
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Gold finished second, still feeling great, conceding nothing, but understanding that it'll take even better to medal, let alone win. She is self-confident and grounded enough to sing others' praises and acknowledge the obvious – the Russians are good, especially at home.
"[Lipnitskaia] and Sotnikova, they are tough cookies," Gold said.
To say the crowds here love Lipnitskaia is to understate things. There is almost nothing that excites skating fans like watching the next young, ultra-talented kid come along and put grace to the athleticism at the perfect time. That's Lipnitskaia, who is precociously confident.
After her long program, she was mobbed by the sizeable Russian media, this small teenager in the middle of a storm, yet she casually soaked it all in. Even as Russian press agents tried to shuffle her along, she stayed and answered more questions, took a phone call and looked like it acted like it was any old night.
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She skated a short program for Russia on Saturday and yet brushed off the challenge of going back-to-back days – Gold and the others had a different teammate skate the first part of the team competition.
Instead, Lipnitskaia said she just sat around Sunday in Sochi as calm as can be, laughing, she said, at how nervous everyone else was – coaches, parents, teammates. They all worried that the kid could do it. Please.
"I wasn't nervous at all," she said, according to an IOC translator. "All the people who were with me were nervous."
The best sign for Gold on Sunday was she wasn't nervous, either. The team event is new and allowed skaters to get a chance on Olympic ice, under the pressure of competition, without it affecting their shot at an individual medal, which remains the ultimate.
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So Gold skated out to center ice and as the first bars of "Sleeping Beauty" began, unleashed a tremendous and athletic performance. She produced not a single obvious mistake. She finished with a huge smile and pumped her fists in delight.
"I am really pleased," she said. "It is kind of what I wanted to do … Guys, it's the Olympics. To skate like that …"
So into one of the most competitive fields in recent Winter Games, here comes the Springfield, Mo., high schooler. Like the other skaters, she'll leave Sochi for a few days to refocus and train in Europe. Then she vows to come back, just as relaxed, ready and hopefully even better than ever.
Gold is here to win and whether she's a favorite or not, there is no sense in apologizing for dreaming that dream.
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"Obviously [a gold medal is] everybody's dream," she said. "I just need to focus on my performance. I have a chance to win two medals [team and individual], but we were just really looking to have [tonight's] kind of showing at these Olympics."
Lipnitskaia may have stolen the show here. She may be the upstart that threatens to topple the entire world order of women's figure skating. The other big names are still looming. Yet the American wasn't going to let anything ruin her mood.
"It's the Olympics," she said smiling.
After this performance, Gracie Gold will take her chances against the world, even with the new kid dazzling on the TV behind her.
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