SOCHI, Russia – Gracie Gold was in the middle of the first jump of her short program, a triple Lutz that was to be followed by a triple toe loop. Almost immediately, she could feel it falling apart.
She had a couple of options. She could bail out, go safe and make it a double and accept fewer points from the judges. Or she could try to power through and simply find a way to land upright. Or, of course, she could crash.
"When I was in the air I thought, 'Is this my Olympic moment? Am I going to be on my butt?' " Gold said.
She decided she would stick with the planned triple and just will her way to remain upright.
"I just had to trust my training and say a little prayer," she said. "I said, 'This is what the Olympics are about. It's not playing it safe with a double toe or a triple Lutz. It's about doing it.' "
And so she did it. She landed that jump, landed the next triple and even made it through a double axel that also appeared destined for disaster.
Gold and fellow Americans Ashley Wagner and Polina Edmunds were not the best skaters in the short program. They did not soar and land quite like South Korea's Yuna Kim. They did not spin quite as eloquently as Italy's Carolina Kostner. They did not electrify the crowd like Russia's Adelina Sotnikova.
The Americans did something else, though. They battled, they fought and, heading into Thursday's free skate, they are still hanging around, even as each flirted with disaster. These were gutsy performances.
"Shooting the fear in the face is what I am all about now," Gold said.
Kim, the defending Olympic champion, leads with a score of 74.92. Kostner is second at 74.64 and Sotnikova is third at 74.12.
Gold is in fourth place with a score of 68.63. Wagner is sixth at 65.21 and Edmunds is in seventh at 61.04.
All three remained upright. All three performed admirably through similar concerns. None fell apart and in an event that packs more pressure than perhaps anything in sports, and they all rightfully left smiling about the accomplishment.
"Honestly, I am happy with that performance," Wagner said. "I worked my butt off every single day since nationals, and I have been way too tired and sweaty and exhausted and angry with training to not go out there and do it."
"I just tried to stay in the moment and remember ice is ice and to go out there and perform," said Edmunds, the 15-year-old from San Jose, Calif.
This was a bit of American resolve. Even if the U.S. lacks someone with all the natural gifts needed for a gold medal in ladies' singles, its team is maximizing what is possible.
And a podium spot is not out of the question.
Gold will need some stumbles from the three skaters ahead of her, but as they say in figure skating: ice is slippery. The 18-year-old sounded excited about the chance to take a shot at a silver or bronze medal at least on Thursday, when the longer and more athletically challenging free skate takes place.
Since it's worth more points than the short program, there are more opportunities to gain ground. And lose it. It's what Gold, a natural leaper, lives for.
"The long program is my bread and butter," she said. "I'd rather do a long program. With seven jumps, it's a lot easier to get momentum than just three [in the short]. … Let's just get it going. It's an athletic event, and once I get that ball rolling, it's easier."
Meanwhile Wagner, of Alexandria, Va., is expected to ramp up her program with additional challenges in an effort to make up ground and force the Olympic judges to respect her free skate. She isn't as naturally graceful as, say, Yuna Kim, so she has to try something.
Even the American coaches were fighters. Frank Carroll, who coaches Gold, suffered a massive nosebleed before the competition, had to leave his skater's side for about half an hour and then watched the performance with tissue stuffed in his nose. He had to stay a few feet from Gold at all times so he didn't bleed on her dress.
"I've been bleeding all over the place," Carroll said.
Yet he made it. Just like Gracie.
"She landed everything," Carroll said. "I think it could have been dead on more. But I'll take it. She fought that first combination. She didn't make a mistake, so that's all in her favor."
[Photos: Gracie Gold and her twin sister Carly]
No one wins a medal on the first night of the Olympic competition. You can lose one, though. You can knock yourself so far out of contention that you skate early in the night, hours before the big moments of the final group, which is what every kid dreams of reaching.
Not the Americans. They did what they needed to stick around. They don't have the ceilings of the very elite, so they have to be consistent.
Maybe they can make a move. Maybe someone stumbles. At least they were talking about "maybe" and not how it felt to be sprawled out on the ice.
"When I was in the air on some of those jumps," Gold said, "I was like 'Oh, my gosh, what is this? This is not a good feeling.' I knew I had to fight. I have come too far not to land this stupid jump. I have not come this far to mess up. I am landing it with a smile on my face."
"I did it. So …"
She exhaled. It's on to Thursday, when just about everything is still possible.