Team USA took bronze in the inaugural team figure skating competition at the Sochi Olympics Sunday, but the best news for the US was a wonderful skate by Gracie Gold.
Saturday afternoon, the women's figure skating competition slated for next week looked a bit like a coronation. South Korean Kim Yuna would win gold, Japanese Mao Asada would win silver, and any number of fill-in-the-blank candidates from Russia to the US to Italy would win the bronze. Throw all their names in a hat and take your pick.
Sunday night, the conclusion of the new figure skating team event breathed spectacular new life into the Winter Olympics' signature event.
The team event itself was not remotely competitive. Russia won gold easily with 75 points, Canada won silver easily with 65, and America eased into third with 60, eight ahead of Italy. Even Saturday night, when three more events remained Sunday, the results were hardly in doubt.
Yet the competition never failed to be engrossing viewing. Though it could take an edge off the individual events, since we'll be watching the same performances for the second time in two weeks, it was also the ultimate pregame show – a three-hour advertisement for why the women's competition will again be must-see television in Sochi.
Last night, we raved about Russian 15-year-old Yulia Lipnitskaya. We'll do a little more tonight. Unfortunately, she can no longer burst onto the scene the way American Tara Lipinski did, winning the women's gold from out of nowhere in 1998. But that's because she's already kicked in the door.
On Sunday, she followed up her revelatory short program with a lovely free skate – perhaps not quite as clean, but stunning all the same. To nitpick would be to miss an Olympic moment in the making. The jumps are seemingly effortless, the spins ethereal, the calm simply astounding.
In the course of two skates, she has thrown serious doubt on whether Kim can repeat as Olympic champion, which is the best possible news. The prospect of Kim and Lipnitskaya going head-to-head, with Asada waiting in the wings, should be eaten up with gravy and a biscuit. We'll gladly take second helpings.
Yet perhaps no less significant was the apparent emergence of American Gracie Gold as a skater in command of her art. Though she finished well behind Lipnitskaya in the women's singles part of the program, her free skate was flawless. In Kim, the world has a generational talent. In Lipnitskaya, it has one in the making. But in Gold, the US appears to have a woman coming into her own, as well, which is welcome news in itself.
While Sunday's skate shows she is not yet in the same orbit as Lipnitskaya or Kim or perhaps Asada, Gold showed how far she has come. The jumps have long been there; the rest hasn't. But since moving to southern California to work with coach Frank Carroll – former coach of Michelle Kwan and Olympic champion Evan Lysacek – she has become a complete skater.
If anyone in the top three slips, she could take advantage. For an American public weaned on ice queens taking gold, the prospect of an opportunistic bronze might ring a bit underwhelming. But it would be unfortunate for that to obscure how far Gold has come in a year.
When Gold came to Carroll, he said she needed to get out of her way.
"She's a total, complete perfectionist," he said at the US Figure Skating Championships in January, which Gold won going away.
At a media summit in October, Gold put it slightly differently: "He says I have too much going on in my head sometimes."
For Gold, it has been a matter of clearing out the mental flotsam and just skating. "He encourages me to ask questions and get it out."
Sunday night, she scored a personal best 129.38 in the free skate and put barely a toe out of line doing it. Following her accomplished performance in the US championships, she has clearly put herself at least in medal contention.
And America has its own 15-year-old no one is yet talking about in Polina Edmunds. She might not be ready to take a Lipnitskaya step quite yet, but a good performance here could set her up for 2018.
"She is the future of skating in America," said Carroll at the national championships.
Not a bad endorsement.