History is littered with the names of junior figure skating sensations who skidded out of the elite ranks and unlaced their boots, never to be heard from again.
Gracie Gold is quietly determined not to be one of them, and it shows in the even-tempered way she's recovered from disappointment and focused on improvement in her first season at the senior level.
Gold, 17, entered the senior Grand Prix competition this year with considerable external fanfare. A prodigious jumper, bright, bubbly and attractive, she was hailed as a potential star who could be in the conversation for the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games if she was able to refine the other components of her program as well as her overall artistic performance and feel.
It was a lot to load onto a teenager, even one as talented as Gold, who trains in the Chicago suburbs with coach Alex Ouriashev. Just two seasons before, Gold had finished sixth at the junior Midwestern sectionals. She broke through in 2011-12 with wins in the Junior Grand Prix and the junior U.S. championships and a silver medal at the junior world championships.
Gold expects much of herself whether or not anyone is watching. Her practices at her Grand Prix debut at Skate Canada were nearly flawless, but she felt unsettled inside.
"My thoughts were all over the place," she said in a telephone interview last week from Jamestown, N.Y., where she was rehearsing for an exhibition with members of the U.S. Olympic gymnastics team. "There was a lot of hype on me, a lot of stuff going on that did add some extra noise in my head."
That static drowned out some of her ability to execute. After a couple of major errors in her short program, Gold looked slightly disoriented as she tried to maintain a game smile while waiting for scores. A shaky long program landed her seventh of 10 skaters.
Two weeks later at the Rostelecom Cup in Moscow, Gold conquered her nerves, sailed much more smoothly through her two programs and took second behind Finland's Kiira Korpi. Her broad grin at the conclusion of her free skate -- set to music from the soundtrack of "Life is Beautiful" -- was unforced.
"I think I got my feet under me again," Gold said.
Gold won't compete again until the U.S. national championships in Omaha next month, where she hopes to earn one of two slots available for the March world championships in London, Ontario.
The leap to the senior level is something that has to be experienced rather than simply visualized. Ouriashev, a former Ukrainian national champion who immigrated to the United States almost 20 years ago, said mere proximity to some of the world's best skaters at practices and warm-ups has helped Gold tremendously as she works toward a more mature style and perfects the art of "collecting points" in her programs.
"It was only nerves," the effusive Ouriashev said of Gold's letdown in Canada.
"This year she is more understanding of what I want from her, my philosophy of skating," he said. "She's very easy to work with, especially now when she feels like she's ready to have big success."
Gold is frank and articulate about her own evolution on the ice and doesn't shy away from the idea of the meticulous work that lies ahead. "Before, if I did a clean program, it didn't matter if I connected with the audience or thought about where the judges would be," she said. "If I landed my jumps, that was my job. This year, I'm putting emphasis on making sure every detail is fixed."
Today's female athletes exude a strong and powerful presence. This is not only reflected in their toned and sculpted bodies, but also in their faces. The eyes are not cast demurely down, but instead flash with a determined, competitive fire.” -- Gracie Gold
If that sounds like a grind, it is, but Gold's mother, Denise, said her daughter has the exuberance to balance that and often gets in the car after a long day still "full of excitement."
Gracie brims with enthusiasm about the family's new Japanese chin dog, Yoshi, and the latest book she immersed herself in, "The Language of Flowers." And Gracie is not in this alone -- her fraternal twin sister, Carly, also competes at the senior level (she was fifth at this season's Midwestern sectionals) and shares most of her practice sessions on the ice with Ouriashev.
"It can be tricky," Denise said of the dynamic between siblings currently on different rungs of the competitive ladder. "But if anything, it has made them closer because they've chosen to take this journey together. They feel each other's pain so much." Carly suffered through Gracie's mistakes at Skate Canada, and Gracie generally paces, unable to sit still, when her sister is competing.
"We support each other in a competitive way," Gracie said, describing the twins' typical playful bragfest about clean program run-throughs, consecutive jumps or mastering a spiral sequence or spin combination.
The girls took their first steps on the ice as toddlers in the Boston suburbs where they were born, pushing milk crates in front of them on frozen marshes. Gracie was about 8 years old when she was smitten with the sport after seeing older girls spinning on the ice at a birthday party.
She took her first organized lessons in Springfield, Mo., where her family was then living. Prodded by Gracie's talent, the Golds subsequently moved to Springfield, Ill., and now maintain two homes, renting in the Chicago suburbs and reuniting with dad, Carl Gold, an anesthesiologist, on weekends.
"It's a different way of living," Denise said. "We never planned it."
Denise encourages her daughter to tune out critics -- the ones who aren't official judges, anyway -- and focus on her own standards and her coach's. Gracie appears to have a strong enough inner compass to do that. The novel she just finished is not a fluffy fairy tale; it recounts the story of a girl who grew up in foster care. But the line that serves as its mantra is, "Anyone can grow into something beautiful."