Gracie Gold sets standard

Gracie Gold won the national title in a landslide, finishing 18 points ahead of runner-up Polina Edmunds. AP Photo/Steven Senne

BOSTON -- She grew into her name Saturday, and finally got to write her own play-on-words headline after enduring so many over the past couple of years. Her choice was as simple and elegant as her silhouette on the ice.

"Grace Gets Gold," said the new national figure skating champion.

Gracie Gold half-apologized for the cliché. She shouldn't have. On a night when the top women's results couldn't have made things harder for the U.S. Olympic selection committee, Gold set the standard and emerged as the one sure thing.

Only one significant flaw marred Gold's free skate. She couldn't hang onto the landing of a triple flip jump and touched first one hand, then another, to the ice before the near-sellout crowd at TD Garden. Otherwise, her success ratio and jumps, including three clean combinations, were high. As she launched into her final double axel, she knew what she'd accomplished and punctuated it with a double fist-pump.

"The nerves are something I've battled with and let them get into my head, but tonight I felt strangely calm," Gold said.

Change in an Olympic season isn't generally prescribed, but it appears to have been an elixir for Gold. The 18-year-old moved from Illinois to Southern California in September to work with veteran coach Frank Carroll. In November, at his urging, she scrapped her short program and debuted new music and choreography at the national championships. That move, so risky on paper, worked just fine on ice as Gold scored a personal best and confirmed it with the free skate.

Carroll, who helped Gold find a quiet corner to compose herself while her rivals were performing, said she was able to please her harshest critic -- herself.

"What made me happiest was to see her miss the [triple] flip a little bit," Carroll said. "She didn't go down, which she's worked hard on. And then to go out and skate perfectly after that ... I thought her performance was brilliant tonight, and I was so happy to see her overcome that little tiny flaw and not go bonkers."

Carroll, in his own words, "didn't leap at the chance" to take Gold in hand only four months before nationals. In September, he was still hoping that longtime pupil Evan Lysacek would come back from a hip injury in time to defend his Olympic gold medal, and Carroll also has surprise 2013 world silver medalist Denis Ten of Kazakhstan in his stable. But as it became clear that Lysacek's chances were dwindling, Carroll decided Gold was a project worth setting his alarm a little earlier for in the mornings.

Gold beamed from the podium, secure about her Olympic berth. The other skaters who stood under the spotlights at the awards ceremony were not as fortunate, as there are three legitimate candidates for the two remaining slots.

Two-time defending U.S. champion Ashley Wagner crash-landed twice -- most tellingly, on her opening combination -- and glided to the boards pale and in shock. "They called my name and I felt like lead," she said, referring to the metal that sinks, rather than the winning margin she had envisioned.

Pre-nationals, Wagner was considered a dark horse for the Olympic podium. Even after a wobbly short program that deposited her in fourth place, many speculated she was a lock for the team based on two strong seasons of international competition.

"I get so much media attention for the skater that I am and then that skater doesn't even show up on the day that it counts," she said.

Almost as stunning was 2010 Olympian Mirai Nagasu's confirmation of her short program with a sound and stirring free skate. Nagasu, who came to Boston without a coach and with outside expectations diminished by three seasons of erratic results, wiped away tears on the medal stand.

"It's been quite a roller-coaster ride since the last Olympic nationals," Nagasu said afterward in a slightly tremulous voice. "As the only person who's already been to the Olympics, I really wanted to go back again. I think I did my best and hopefully they pick me to the team. I haven't always been the most consistent skater, but I know that under pressure, I'm pretty good most of the time. I know I have it in me, so hopefully I can prove myself again."

Fifteen-year-old U.S. junior champion Polina Edmunds finished second and continued to state her case both with her feet and her comments, pointing out that the last skater her age to represent the United States, Tara Lipinski, won an Olympic gold medal.

"This was the night to prove yourself, and I think I did that," said Edmunds.

By that measure, the new national champion is a wizened veteran. In a few weeks, Gold will have to try to mine even more of her talent, especially in her new short program, which Carroll said she can improve. But Saturday night, she may be the only medalist who is sleepless with excitement rather than uncertainty.

"Now that I'm sitting here with this [medal] around my neck, it's almost too good to be true," she said. "But it happened."