Get ready for a dramatic finale

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Gracie Gold leads nationals after a strong short program, finishing with a personal-best 72.12 points.

BOSTON -- Gracie Gold has learned to live with a name that dooms her to puns based on precious metals and constant allusions to the color of success. Rather than grouse about it, she said recently she'll try to live up to it.

Yet glitter is not what Gold used to set herself up to win a national title and a trip to the Olympics in Saturday's free skate. It was a less pricey and more valuable commodity -- steel.

Gold earned a personal-best score of 72.12 points with a program she had never before done in competition. It was an almost unheard-of construction project in an Olympic year, especially for an athlete who flogs herself over minor dings and dents in a routine and often regards the short as a chore rather than an opportunity.

But the 18-year-old Gold already had bought into a remodel when she cast her lot with coach Frank Carroll last September, so when he advised her to ditch her routine -- set to a strings-heavy arrangement of George Gershwin's work that sounded to his ears "like cats fighting … very screechy" -- she agreed.

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Sitting in fourth place after Thursday's short program, Ashley Wagner will have to fight for a podium spot in Saturday's free skate.

Thursday night, she delivered a clean, poised performance few would have guessed was a debut. It began with a colossal triple Lutz-triple toe jump combination even she had to admit was "lofty."

"It'll be an interesting scenario to see if she can put on her Gracie-princess-warrior face and get out there and be confident and strong," Carroll said of the task looming ahead.

A moment later, he corrected himself.

"Warrior-princess," Carroll said.

Gold, who had to dig herself out from ninth place in the short at nationals a year ago, is now the front-runner in an intriguing weekend skirmish. The narrative for the free skate was scrambled by former Olympian Mirai Nagasu and 2013 U.S. junior champion Polina Edmunds.

The unpredictable Nagasu, who split with her coach in November and has not yet retained a new one, revived memories of her fourth-place form at the 2010 Vancouver Games by turning in an elegant performance to finish third with 65.44 points. Fifteen-year-old Edmunds, competing in her first senior-level event, capered into second place with a spirited short program to cha-cha music that earned 66.75 points.

And the woman who will have to brawl her way onto the podium is two-time defending national champion Ashley Wagner, whose tentative opening -- oddly dissonant with her mature navigation of the past couple of years -- dropped her to fourth place with 64.71 points.

It will be scant comfort to Wagner that rules would allow U.S. Figure Skating officials to put her on the Olympic team even if she doesn't finish in the top three. This is an athlete who brought two seasons of solid international results and a rebuilt psyche to Boston and wanted to leave with an exclamation point rather than a question mark.

Wagner was resolute when she spoke to reporters, an attitude that is obviously her best and only viable option at this point.

"I got the job done, I stood up, I think I had some demons to overcome," she said. "I am exactly where I want to be. I really like being the fighter, going after the top prize instead of being the one who has to fend everyone off.

"I think as soon as I put out the performances I need to get onto that spot in Sochi, 2010 will no longer be relevant," she said.

Wagner has spent the past four years trying to exorcise the flawed short program that knocked her off the Olympic team at the 2010 nationals. But the past elbowed into her mind when she launched into what was meant to be an opening triple flip-triple toe jump combination, and she doubled the back end.

"I decided to be play it safe rather than be sorry," Wagner said. "I could have gone for the triple after the flip, but I knew it wouldn't be a good one and it was risky."

She didn't melt down, although she landed another jump off-kilter and had to hop to compensate. Afterward, her coach, Rafael Arutunian, said Wagner had developed multiple blisters caused by new boots and was forced to take almost a week off within the past three weeks.

Edmunds, skating last in a field of 21 and blissfully unburdened by past luggage, did not appear overawed by her placement. "I'm not really surprised," said the high school sophomore from San Jose, Calif., who is coached by her mother, Nina, and David Glynn. "I know everything I need to do, so when I came out here tonight I just got into the zone."

Carroll started to edge out of the interview area as soon as Edmunds entered, wanting her to get her due. "You were wonderful," Carroll told her with great feeling, then turned back to the reporters. "I'll leave you with this young lady," he said. "She is the future."

Saturday will tell whether she is the near future. Edmunds' ambitious free program includes two triple-triple combinations. Meanwhile, Nagasu will try to avoid a repeat of last year, when she undid a third-place showing in the short program by imploding in the free skate and finishing seventh overall. "I haven't been able to get past that insecurity," she said of her uneven results over the past three years.

But Wagner said she thought Nagasu, who has medaled in Grand Prix competition in all three of those seasons, had never really fallen out of the Olympic conversation. "She has the goods -- she just forgets where they are or how to use them, and they get locked away," Wagner said.

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