SOCHI, Russia — There were many moments over the last five months when Gracie Gold felt panicky.
They began right after her 18th birthday, Aug. 17, when the relationship with her former coach, Alex Ouriashev, had deteriorated to the point of no return.
"She was really, really crumbling," said her mother, Denise Gold.
"I was kind of lost," Gracie Gold said.
The confusion continued well after she made a September coaching shift to Frank Carroll, which involved a move with her mother and twin sister, Carly, from the Chicago suburbs to Los Angeles. There was another moment of dread the night before she left for January's U.S. Championships in Boston.
"Pressure changes people," Denise Gold said. "It's hard living under fear."
Gracie Gold freaked out filming commercials on her becoming an Olympian. She obsessed over every mistake in practice.
"Sometimes I would be eating dinner and just burst into tears," Gold said this week. "I would say, 'Oh God, Mom, what if I don't make it?'"
She did make it, of course, and anyone watching Gold win the U.S. Championships or help the U.S. win a bronze in the Olympic team event or repeatedly nail everything in practices here cannot help but be struck by her confidence. The young woman who staggered under the weight of her own perfectionism and expectations now exudes a strength manifest in her fearless approach to the Olympic women's competition that begins with Wednesday night's short program.
Scott Hamilton, 1984 Olympic champion, sees Gold as a work in progress, "kind of in the middle between where she was and where she wants to be." But she is unwilling to accept the idea that her Olympic time is 2018.
"Now that I actually have a medal, it makes me hungry for another one — and for a different color," Gold said. "I want to leave here with two medals. You never know what is going to happen in four years."
To stand on the singles podium, Gold likely will need to skate two clean programs and have favorites such as Yuna Kim, Mao Asada, Carolina Kostner and Yulia Lipnitskaya make significant mistakes.
Carroll thinks Gold, sixth at last year's World Championships, can get there on her own merit.
"I watched Yuna in practice and Mao in the team event and I kept thinking, 'Is this girl better than Gracie? Is this girl better than Gracie?' I don't think so,'" Carroll said.
The transformation from erratic to consistent has allowed Gold to feel more comfortable off the ice as well. She has dropped the robotic Stepford Wife answers and starched smile that previously characterized her interviews for a willingness to let everyone get a sense of who she is, insecurities and all.
"I was getting tired of being called a cardboard cutout," she said.
Gold had become a pre-Olympic poster girl despite a middling record in international competition. Coping with the gap between the widely promoted image of her as a star and the teenager who treated every error in practice like the end of the world required her to adopt a new mind-set.
"It takes a lot for these kids to learn it isn't the perfect skater that wins, it is the best skater [that day] who wins," Carroll said.
So Gold had to learn how to keep a program going after a fall, which meant concentrating on the present and future instead of the past. She had to learn how to save a jump. She had to learn how to make a performance appear good even when she was struggling.
"It isn't about the one jump in 10 when you are going to feel 100% but the other ones where you are a little this way or that way," Gold said.
From showing her juggling skills on a "Tonight Show" appearance last month, when she bantered easily with Jay Leno, to her outstanding performances at nationals and in the team event, Gold is exuding self-assuredness. She credits Carroll for giving her a sense of calm.
"It is always good to have an experienced guide on your journey," Gold said.
Especially when the road gets bumpy.
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