Pressure Is on Early for Gracie Gold at 2014 Winter Olympics

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Pressure Is on Early for Gracie Gold at 2014 Winter Olympics
Steven Senne/Associated Press
Gracie Gold was nearly flawless at the U.S. Championships

Realistically, Gracie Gold's youth and inexperience mean she won't be able to make good on her last name at an Olympics until four years from now, when South Korea hosts the 2018 Winter Games. 

But her performance Sunday in Sochi will provide a window on whether this Sports Illustrated cover girl has what it takes to become the future queen of figure skating.

The quality most needed for that ascent is the ability to brush off ear-popping pressure as if it's lint and maintain a 24-karat smile while performing Cirque du Soleil-like moves on an unforgiving surface of ice.

Gold can flash her teeth with the best of them, and she also brings an ideal skating physique and eye-catching blonde hair to the ice. But now we'll see if her 18-year-old shoulders can bear the burden of clinching an Olympic medal not only for herself, but also for the rest of the American team.

If the U.S. is to reach the awards podium in the Olympics' inaugural team event in figure skating, it will be up to Gold to deliver the decisive points with her long program on Sunday.

The U.S. sits in third place, with 34 points. Russia leads with 47, and Canada has 41, both almost certainly out of hailing range. But Italy trails the U.S. by only three points, with 31, and Japan is right behind in the rearview mirror, at 30.

So it will be up to Gold, the 5'6" powerhouse who learned to skate as a 7-year-old in Missouri, to live up to that state's "Show Me" slogan.

There are plenty of reasons to believe Gold can maintain the margin needed to win the team bronze, starting with last month's U.S. Championships, when she skated a nearly flawless program. The teen's lone glitch was putting a hand to the ice once, to steady herself after landing a triple jump slightly askew.

Aside from that bobble, every other spin, jump and graceful choreographic move she made begged for the thundering standing ovation she deservedly received in Boston.

She was given a gold medal, but a more fitting ceremony would have seen dethroned Ashley Wagner pass a tiara to America's newly crowned ice princess.

Sunday presents a different proposition, however.

This won't be like the carefree juggling exhibition she put on with Jay Leno during his final days with The Tonight Show.

Nor will it be like Nationals, where Gold was the final skater and where no one before her had posted a threatening or even moderately imposing score. As long as Gold didn't fall to the ice repeatedly, she was destined to win in what was more of a coronation than a competition.

But on Sunday she won't just be competing against the best from 50 states, but rather the finest from all the continents.

During warmups, it likely will be impossible for Gold to avert the eyes of Japan's Mao Asada, the 2010 Olympic silver medalist who is the greatest threat in Sochi to keep South Korea's Kim Yuna from repeating as the ladies' gold medalist.

Gold also might find herself sizing up Russia's dazzling Yulia Lipnitskaya. The 15-year-old prodigy's top-scoring performance in Saturday's short program served notice she's thoroughly in the hunt for gold in Sochi, and also is the early favorite for 2018.

“I’ve learned that not everything has to be going perfectly for me to do well,” Gold said, via The New York Daily News' Filip Bondy. “I’m a little better skater than I thought, I should trust myself more, control my nerves.”

While Gold's immediate goal is to finish the job that the rest of the U.S. team has begun, she also knows that Sunday's performance could impact her hopes for an individual medal.

Although it might take an injection of truth serum to get judges to admit it, pecking orders are ever present in figure skating. If Gold is mediocre or worse on Sunday that will be the judges' perception of her when the ladies' competition begins Feb. 20.

Given her age, Gold hasn't seen much on the international stage, and she was a distant sixth at last year's World Championships. Sunday is her chance to move up in the mindset of international judges, and strengthen her candidacy for an individual medal. 

At Sochi, the U.S. is definitely hurting for one of those in the ladies' competition. That once was America's domain, in the days when Peggy Fleming, Dorothy Hamill, Kristi Yamaguchi, Tara Lipinski and Sarah Hughes all left their Olympics in possession of a gold medal.

But the U.S. women were totally shut out of the podium in 2010 at Vancouver.

The last time that happened was way back in 1964. The sadly understandable reason for that lapse was that the Innsbruck Olympics came three years after the entire U.S. figure skating team perished in a plane crash while on the way to the 1961 World Championships.

In Russia, Gold will probably win a few instant friends in the individual competition by skating to music written by one of the host nation's most famous composers, Tchaikovsky.

But while Gold plays the part of Sleeping Beauty marvelously she had best not waste the chance to wake up the world to just how good she is.

Tom Weir has covered eight Winter Olympics as a reporter and columnist for USA Today. You can follow him on Twitter at @TomWeirSports.

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