With her characteristic and often searing honesty, Gracie Gold had minced no words in evaluating her dismayingly poor performances at Skate America in October.
“Terrible today and yesterday,” Gold said after finishing dead last of 12 competitors in both the short program and free skate, with the lowest free skate and overall scores of her eight years in senior competition.
“We have to salvage what we can from the wreckage,” she said. “I’m a little worse off than I thought.”
And the two-time U.S. champion had to reassemble herself in barely a month for what became a virtual qualifying competition to earn a place for this week’s U.S. Championships.
She made it to nationals but wound up feeling the same way after Thursday’s short program as she had at Skate America.
“It was pretty terrible. There’s not much else to say,” Gold said.
None of her three jumping passes was clean, and she fell on the final one. Gold wound up 12th with 53.88 points.
She thought the Skate America debacle was behind her. But this was another unexpected new setback for Gold, whose comeback from depression and eating disorders looked on track after her solid free skate at the 2020 U.S. Championships produced an outpouring of emotion and a standing ovation from an empathetic crowd in Greensboro, North Carolina.
Her 12th-place finish there was irrelevant. Her courage in getting back in the spotlight and then handling it was what counted. Unsure of her future before the event, she left motivated to keep competing for at least another season.
Gold was so motivated, in fact, that she wound up pushing herself too hard to make up for time lost after her rink near Philadelphia had closed for a couple months in the spring because of pandemic restrictions.
“I struggled with the feeling of that if there was (available) ice, I needed to skate on it,” she said. “In the summer, I put in huge hours, and when stuff started to go a little bit south, I never stepped back and analyzed the situation. I was just like, `We need to do more. Push through it. Do more, more, more, more.’
“In September and October, around Skate America, what I needed to do was not that. It just continued to make the problem worse. And then, surprise, when I came to compete, I was in shambles mentally and physically.”
She pressed on despite boot problems and blade problems and consequent pain in her right leg, which she learned was caused by an alignment issue in her right hip. The solution was both new equipment and a lot of physical therapy – and continuing the therapy even after the leg began to feel better, rejecting her past tendency of stopping when she felt, “Oh, I’m fixed.”
In an effort to prevent further training excesses, Gold and her coaching team created a rigid schedule between Skate America and the filming of her qualifying event free skate a little more than a month later. They specified things like how many elements she needed to do, how many run-throughs.
Gold said she found the 2021 qualifying event, known as the U.S. Championship Series, less harrowing than what she had gone through in regional and sectional qualifying for 2020 nationals after basically two seasons away from competition.
“I probably should have been more concerned and stressed than I was,” she said. “But as soon as I got the new skates, everything kind of came back together.”
Nine of the 18 spots in the 2021 women’s field were to come from the qualifying event. Gold scraped her way in with the seventh best score, 25 points higher than her free skate score at Skate America. At 25, she is the oldest skater in a women’s field reduced to 17 when Paige Rydberg withdrew following a positive COVID-19 test.
In her final weeks of preparation, Gold was left doing visual training when her rink closed from just before Christmas until Jan. 4. She will be happy to come away from this U.S. Championships having enjoyed the experience. She said no matter what happens, she “absolutely” will keep going for another season.
“I feel better here already,” she said. “I want to enjoy, despite everything, how much progress I ultimately have made and just try to have an even better long program than I did in qualifying to continue those building blocks. So nothing mind-blowing, just a simple, solid competition.”
Philip Hersh, who has covered figure skating at the last 11 Olympic Winter Games, is a special contributor to NBCSports.com/figure-skating.