Struggles follow defending champion Gold to KCPrevious hardships continued to haunt 21-year-old throughout title defense
Gracie Gold stood on a riser 10 yards from the ice surface at the Sprint Center, in an area where athletes who have just finished skating talk to the media. The music for the skater who followed threatened to drown out Gold's words, even as she spoke into a microphone.
Her upper lip trembled a few times, but Gold's voice never cracked as she faced the music again in a season when her skating has struck one sour note after another.
After winning two titles and finishing second twice at the U.S. championships the past four years, Gold had just done a free skate with mistakes on six of her seven jumping passes. She doubled planned triples, singled a planned double, landed one jump on two feet and threw an invalid jump onto the end of a combination.
"Obviously," she said, "I had a very terrible program at the national championships."
Gold was ninth in the free skate, fifth in the short program and sixth overall. She was 35 points from first, 18 from third.
She held her head high, graciously and honestly answering painful questions, but her spirits were low. For the fourth time in four competitions this season, she was trying to understand how the bottom fell out, how she had stumbled to the middle of the pack after being at or near the top of U.S. skating for five years.
"I'm glad this was not the Olympic year," Gold said.
It was too soon to discuss the future, to decide whether she should leave coach Frank Carroll in Los Angeles and return to her previous coach in Chicago or find a completely new environment. Skaters often rush quickly into change after a bad patch, but this slide has been so wide and a dramatic move would not look hasty. And now, with her competition calendar suddenly clear for several months, she has the needed time to weigh all options carefully.
"I'm just not processing the emotions yet," she said. "I'm just choosing not to process them because again there are more bad feelings despite the changes I made and the improvements I made."
Gold said she wouldn't let U.S. Figure Skating down if they chose to give her one of the three ladies spots on the world championships team. Yet, she knew how unlikely that sounded, and, indeed, the team announced Sunday morning included Karen Chen, Ashley Wagner and Mariah Bell, the top three finishers, respectively, at the 2017 U.S. Figure Skating Championships.
"This has been a rough season, but I think I'm still one of the best skaters in the United States and the world," Gold said.
She tried to salvage the season after what would be its lowest ebb, a sixth-place finish at a B-level event in Croatia last month, where Gold received her lowest international scores since 2012. Two weeks of repair work with Alex Ouriashev, the coach she had left before joining Carroll in 2013, had produced encouraging results, but the fixes clearly were short lived.
"It's just something about this year," she said. "I've just been in a funk."
Gold, 21, had been in that funk since last year's world championships, when she won the short program but came undone in the free skate and wound up fourth. She was mercilessly self-critical about that failure and said two weeks ago that it was only during her reunion with Ouriashev that she forgave herself for it.
Carroll suggested Saturday night that the negative effects still lingered.
"She has been in a deep, deep, deep depression," he said.
In a recent telephone conversation, Gold told me the problems were limited to her time on skates.
"I never felt I was in an actual depression and I needed a psychologist," she said. "I was fine out of the rink. It was just in the rink and in skating I wasn't myself.
"I was still a normal human being, regular by all standards," she continued. "I'm just trying to do something above and beyond, trying to be a national champion, a world champion, an Olympic medalist."
She won U.S. titles in 2014 and 2016, and finished fourth at the 2014 Olympics and at the previous two world championships. Yet there was always a feeling she never overcame the confidence issues that held her back until the 2012 season, when she emerged from nowhere to become U.S. junior champion and had people talking immediately of her medal chances at the 2014 Olympics.
The way Gold skated Saturday epitomized how little buffer she has when her confidence is wavering.
She opened with a strong triple lutz-triple toe combination, then had a two-footed landing on her next jump, a triple loop. That relatively minor mistake seemed to provoke a 'here-we-go-again' reaction that deflated her entirely.
A double axel became a single. A triple toe loop was a pop. Both a triple lutz and triple flip wound up as doubles. The switch Gold hoped had been reset to 'on' during the time with Ouriashev kept short-circuiting.
"Even when my switch was on, I just wasn't having the clarity and the confidence to do it," she said. "I opened up with the triple-triple, one of the best starts to a program you can have, and I still didn't do it."
That was the final thing she said before stepping off the riser and walking away. Chen and Wagner were about to skate their way to the top two places in the event and berths on the world team.
Gracie Gold will not skate in competition again until next season.