SOCHI, Russia — Gracie Gold has juggled for Jay Leno on The Tonight Show. Her growing fan base includes singer Taylor Swift. Although she has yet to win a major international competition, she graced (pun intended) the cover of Sports Illustrated, and appeared in commercials for VISA and United Airlines.
Her blonde hair, fair skin and perfect smile has drawn comparisons to Grace Kelly. And her name is a marketers dream.
All the 18-year-old figure skater has to do now is win the Olympic medal to match her surname. That wont be easy. The womens short program is Wednesday night, and it is shaping up to be a dramatic competition that surely will get huge TV ratings back home and enrapture the Russian people.
Gold faces a formidable field led by 2010 gold medalist and two-time world champion Yuna Kim of South Korea, and Julia Lipnitskaya, the 15-year-old Russian who cast a spell on her country and this event with her breathtaking performances in the team competition last week. Other top medal contenders include Carolina Kosnter of Italy, Mao Asada and Akiko Suzuki of Japan, and with an outside chance is Ashley Wagner, an engaging two-time U.S. champion who is determined to prove she belongs here.
Asked how she feels about going up against Lipnitskaya, Gold said: Yulia is a machine and an excellent skater. When it comes down to competition, its not always about the best skater; its about who skates the best in that competition. Were just going to try to beat her at her own game and on her own turf and at the end, leave everything out on the ice.
The U.S. women went home empty-handed from the Vancouver Games four years ago, the first time that had happened since 1964. Gold has the best chance of making sure that doesnt happen again.
She is a strong jumper, and has refined her style over the past six months under the tutelage of veteran coach Frank Carroll, whose long list of former students includes Linda Fratianne, Michelle Kwan, Evan Lysacek, Christopher Bowman and Nicole Bobek.
Gold, who grew up in Springfield, Ill., moved to Southern California last summer to train with Carroll.
Its always great to have an experienced guide on this journey, he said. Hes been a rock these past couple of months. Hes never thrown off or surprised about anything. Hes so calm. Hes been a great influence.
After Golds impressive performance in the team event last week, former U.S. ice dancer Tanith Belbin Tweeted: I want Frank Carroll to be my life coach, just hold my hands after breakfast and tell me why I can do this.
The knock on Gold before this season is that her jumps, while strong, were too robotic, and that she needed to have more command of the ice. She showed last week that she has matured as a skater.
Gold was first drawn to the sport at a birthday party when she was in second grade. She and her twin sister, Carly, started taking lessons, and both excelled. Carly still competes at the national level. Gracies career took off, and she placed sixth in the 2013 world championships
Winning the national title last month worked wonders for her confidence.
Having a national title under my belt heading into my first Olympic Games is a huge confidence boost, Gold said. I had two great skates in Boston (at the 2014 US Championships), and I hope I can do the same thing here. My mentality is completely different here than it was in Boston. Theres nothing to qualify for here. Its about doing your best and enjoying the Olympic experience.
She has been trying to soak it all in.
It was incredible to skate over the Olympic rings, she said. I actually start my (free skating) program right in the center of the red ring. When I took my position (in the team competition), it felt amazing.
Among the more exciting perks of being Americas new skating darling was finding out that her favorite singer, Swift, had Tweeted about her. The singer wrote: Just googling when I can watch @GraceEGold skate in the Olympics next How adorable and lovely is she?!
Adorable and lovely wont be enough at the Iceberg Skating Palace. It is likely going to take a spectacular, mistake-free performance to win the gold medal. Can Gold pull it off? Or will Princess Julia (pronounced Yulia here) become the first Russian woman ever to wear the Olympic crown? Or, will both teens falter, opening up the field to the more experienced skaters?
Whatever happens, drama is guaranteed.