It is simple, really, what Gracie Gold wanted out of her eighth and possibly final appearance at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships.
“This nationals for me is the cherry on top of what I consider a pretty successful comeback attempt,” Gold said a day before the women’s singles event began with the short program Thursday in Nashville.
Truth be told, just coming back constituted a considerable success for Gold, given the multiple issues – eating disorders, depression, anxiety – she had dealt with for several years. She missed the 2018 and 2019 nationals and battled just to qualify each of the past three seasons.
At 26, Gold came to this one in a better place competitively than she had been in a long time. At her final qualifying event last November in Georgia, she showed flashes in her short program of the skater who had won national titles in 2014 and 2016 and finished fourth in the 2014 Olympics.
“I’ve had lots of good training over the past two or three months,” Gold said Wednesday. “I have been really proud of myself and my team and all the hard work that we’ve done, so my goal is to really show that and kind of show off a little bit like old times.
“The short program in Georgia was really nice and long overdue. I hope to have a similar outcome tomorrow.”
This one was even nicer – on the score sheet and in the way Gold reacted, a wide smile on her face for nearly the final minute of a 2-minute, 40-second program that ended with the crowd at Bridgestone Arena on its feet to applaud.
“It was really amazing, just a huge emotional moment on so many levels,” she said.
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Gold’s score, 67.61, was her best for a short program since the one that put her first at the 2016 World Championships. It was 13 points better than her short program scores at the last two nationals, when she finished 13th and 12th overall.
“What a fighter,” said Mariah Bell, who won Thursday’s short program with 75.55 points. “She has continued to come back. She deserved that moment.”
Bell’s victory was her first in the 17 short programs or free skates she has done in her nine appearances at nationals. She, Karen Chen (74.55) and two-time champion Alysa Liu (71.41) put themselves in good position to claim the three U.S. women’s spots at the 2022 Winter Olympics.
Two senior national debutantes, Isabeau Levito (71.42) and Lindsay Thorngren (71.00), were close behind in fourth and fifth.
Gold took sixth, putting herself in the final group for Friday night’s free skate. She did it with the first clean short program of her six nationals after 2014, including a solid if somewhat flawed triple-triple combination and a strong individual triple jump.
That too is a considerable success for Gold. Four years ago, she had been scared to try more than the easiest double jumps when she first put on skates after 45 days of in-patient treatment for eating disorders during what she sardonically called her “quarter-life crisis.”
Gold was asked Wednesday if she thought her comeback could take her to this point.
“I didn’t know where I would get to,” she said. “I know many people didn’t think I would get this far.
“It was quite the undertaking. It was rough for quite a while, but we made it.”
Thursday, she landed a triple lutz-triple toe combination the judges dinged for an incomplete rotation on the second jump. Doing a triple-triple in the short was one of her goals for this event.
Gold’s performance was so exhilarating that the idea of her continuing through another Olympic cycle came into the conversation when she spoke to the media after finishing. She did not dismiss it out of hand.
“My mom always said I have a case of the `mores,’ that I wanted one more of everything,” Gold said. “(But) I’ve stopped making plans. Nothing has gone to plan, and the last four years of my life have been crazy in both really good and really bad ways.”
Gold was determined that if this wound up being her final year in competitive skating, she would go out doing a short program to “East of Eden” while wearing a green dress. Every time she had previously brought up the possibility of using that music, someone would remind her that it had been used in one of Michelle Kwan’s signature programs.
“You better be sure,” they would tell her about choosing music so closely identified with one of the sport’s greatest champions.
Her answer was the way she skated it Thursday, sure on her feet, sure of herself.
Philip Hersh, who has covered figure skating at the last 11 Winter Olympics, is a special contributor to NBCSports.com/figure-skating.
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