NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Thursday night at the U.S. Olympic figure skating trials, as younger women started to secure their places on the 2022 Olympic team, another woman, an older skater with the name that everyone still knows, offered a glimpse of her magical past on her singular journey back from the depths of depression.
Gracie Gold, now 26, once again commanded the stage she used to own, shining brightly on the national championship ice that lured her back with the dream of just this kind of curtain call. If this is in fact it for Gold, if her illustrious career ends here, it will end not in despair, but delight.
She has come full circle. She is skating in the final group of Friday night’s long program at another Olympic trials. Making the Olympic team is the longest of long shots, but that really doesn’t matter. Being here, skating well, bringing the crowd to its feet even before her ending pose, closing her eyes and soaking it all in — that is her victory.
"I wasn’t perfect perfect” she said, “but what more can I want?”
— NBC Olympics (@NBCOlympics) January 7, 2022
For the first time since 2014, she performed a short program without any mistakes, ending up in sixth place on a night of very strong skating. That’s eight long years, going back to the time of her greatest success, when she won the first of her two national titles and went on to finish fourth at the Sochi Olympics in the women’s event and win a bronze medal in the team competition.
That is not an insignificant achievement: two minutes and 40 seconds of skating, spinning, jumping and landing on a quarter-inch blade of steel on the slippery ice. Most important, she nailed her triple-triple jump combination. She was everything she hoped she’d be.
“As far as I was concerned, every jump was going up, we were rotating and we were coming down as practiced,” she said.
A few minutes earlier, she wasn’t entirely sure it was going to happen. As she warmed up before her turn to skate, she grew alarmed.
“I felt more tense than I wanted to. I told myself, ‘You’ve got to calm down. You are not doing this again. You’re not doing another bad short at nationals.’ I did not train double run-throughs at 26 to mess up another short, so to really feel my training kick in and to override those nerves with sheer will and training and to actually deliver ...”
She didn’t finish the sentence. She didn’t need to. Her satisfaction was obvious. Gold came back and didn’t screw up. She was great again.
With all her talent, her grace under the spotlight and her pitch-perfect last name, Gold seemed destined for the career of her dreams.
But everything started to unravel when the pressure of living up to expectations, and that name, became just too much. She underwent treatment for depression, anxiety and an eating disorder in 2017, missing the 2018 Olympic season. She began to speak out about her mental health a couple of years before the topic exploded in the sports world, and throughout our culture, in the summer of 2021.
“This little mental health movement that is a big health movement, not just in figure skating but in sports and all of these conversations that we’re having — I did not anticipate the effects that it’s had.”
She said she hears from younger skaters “all the time, actually in a way that is sometimes overwhelming. ... I’m often left speechless, that so many people from so many walks of life can relate to my story, or part of my story has resonated with them in such a personal way, it’s incredibly touching.”
They look up to her because of her courage to speak out, and because of her perseverance. Three women in particular were asked what they thought of Gold’s comeback performance not long after it happened. They all were busy, so it would have been understandable if they had missed it, but each knew exactly what had happened.
They were the top three finishers in the short program, the three women most likely to go to the Olympics should all go as planned Friday night. As girls growing up in skating, they couldn’t help but look up to Gold. Now, as peers, well, they couldn’t help but look up to her all over again.
Mariah Bell: “I was actually backstage and I saw her ending and then people standing behind her and I genuinely was so happy for her. I don’t know all the things that she went through. I know it was very tough. But what a fighter to continue to come back to obviously something she loves and she deserves that moment.”
Karen Chen: “I also just happened to get a glimpse of her finishing her program, and being so happy and so emotional. I’m just so proud of everything that she’s gone through and her passion for the sport really shines and it’s very admirable.”
Alysa Liu: “I respect her so much. She’s spoken out and said so much stuff and she really put herself out there and that’s really brave of her because a lot of skaters are probably a little bit scared of what other people might say. Because of the topics she brought up, no one should judge but a lot of people do judge so I respect her a lot for speaking up about stuff like that because I know it’s really hard.”
Hopefully Gracie Gold will never again doubt herself or her place in her sport. If she does, she only need remember a night in early January 2022, when her competitors stopped what they were doing to witness what she was doing, because no one wanted to miss it.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: US Figure Skating Championships: Gracie Gold charms at Olympic trials