SOCHI, Russia — My first thought when I picked up Sports Illustrated this week with ice skater Gracie Gold on the cover was how quickly America’s skiing superstar Lindsay Vonn, who opted out of the Sochi Olympics due to injury, has been replaced in the Olympics media spotlight.
In what is a personality-driven marketplace bets are on that America’s newest emerging sports star, Gold, 18, has the potential to become the Tiger Woods of ice skating and lure back an American audience that has gone AWOL. But as she prepares for her final big test of these games, her budding celebrity will only heighten the pressure she feels on Thursday while competing for what could be a life-changing gold medal in the ladies free skating competition.
Gold arrives in the role of rising star with newfound credibility having just won the U.S. National Ladies Singles Championship. But until she captured an Olympic bronze here in Sochi in the Team competition she had never won a world championship medal. So what makes her eligible to grace the cover of Sports Illustrated? Has marketing trumped journalism in the interest of promoting a sport that has found its future in Asia?
Long before the line between amateurism and professionalism was swept away, appearing on the cover of Sports Illustrated was a rite of passage for those athletes likely to stand atop the podium.
The bottom-line question is: Will the media frenzy rallying around Gold fatally compromise a future champion in the making? Is it realistic to expect this newly minted rising star to topple a seasoned Olympic and World championship veteran such as defending Olympic champion Yu Na Kim of South Korea or Japan’s Mao Asada, who was runner-up to Yu Na at the last Olympics.
In her quest for Olympic glory, Gold also faces the hurdle of breaking the spell that Russia’s 15-year-old Yulia Lipnitskaia has cast over the competition with her inspiring performance in the singles portion of the team event, which helped lead Russia to the gold medal.
I had dinner with Canada’s Olympian turned broadcaster Kurt Browning the other night. He knows about spells. How the pressure of expectation can weigh upon an athlete. How the momentum of a rising star can push veterans to the side line.
Leading up to the Men’s Singles competition in the 1994 Lillehammer Games, Browning had won three straight World Titles. He told me he was so nervous during his pre-free-skate warmup that he altered his routine at the last minute, resulting in an embarrassing fall which caused a re-injury to his back and cost him an Olympic medal. To this day he does not know what motivated him to change his pre -event routine but said that competing in the Olympics puts unique demands on an athlete. His failure to perform at his best haunts him to this day.
He said the fast-paced and technically demanding routines skaters are required to perform in Olympic competition lead to falls and injuries, as witnessed during the Men’s Singles competition, and undermines the true beauty of the sport. We agreed that to win an Olympic medal, you have to be better on your worst day than the rest of the field on their best day.
Browning acknowledged that Gold has come a long way in the last six months. He said he was impressed how much more relaxed, fluid and athletic her routines had become. However predicting the outcome of a skating final in the Olympics is like playing Russian roulette.
In 1964, I had the honor of gracing the cover of Sports Illustrated as a 14-year-old world record holder in swimming. I was also featured on the covers of Life, Look and even landed a second Sports Illustrated cover. The exposure building up to the 1964 Tokyo Olympics was overwhelming, so much so that the expectation for me to win my best event took almost all the joy out of any victory I achieved. I was simply relieved when I finally accepted my gold medal in the 400 meter Individual Medley. The joy came later as a member of the world record breaking 400 meter Freestyle Relay. I remain forever grateful for the opportunity to be part of that team.
I imagine the skaters here in Sochi felt the same way when participating in the inaugural team figure skating competition. Teamwork often brings the best out of a certain kind of individual. Gold’s cheerfully accomplished second-place finish in the singles event for Team USA puts her in that category. It was a solid effort that can only help consolidate her position as the leader of the U.S. team heading into the final stages of the women’s singles competition.
To get some perspective on what Gold might expect as her participation in the Sochi Games moves on, I met with two time Olympic champion and former media goddess of figure skating Katarina Witt. To be around Katarina is like being with a human magnet. She continues to attract crowds wherever she goes. She is in her element here with generations of skaters working in Sochi as coaches, journalists and managers such as Olympic medallists Scott Hamilton, Michelle Kwan, Robin Cousins and Brian Orser.
During our careers Katarina and I had to deal with living up to the challenge of competing in the spotlight. In winning back-to-back Olympic singles titles in Sarajevo in 1984 and Calgary in 1988, Witt is an expert on the mind games one has to play to win. I asked Katarina what she thought about Gold’s pre-Olympic publicity and if this kind of exposure could compromise a champion in the making or marginalize any performance that falls short of a medal. She felt it was unfair to put such high expectations on Gracie but said anything can happen in the sport of ice skating.
Witt told me in defending her Olympic Crown during the 1988 Calgary Olympics she did not deliver a great performance. She skated tentatively and depended on her artistic presentation to pull her though. In fact America’s Debi Thomas was leading after the short program but when she under rotated a second jump and landed badly she simply gave up, opening the door for Witt to pick up a second consecutive Olympic title.
In talking to many Olympic champions, I’ve realized that few of us actually deliver our best performance of a lifetime during the Olympics. There are too many factors coming into play.
I asked Katarina if she ever felt she had an unfair advantage because of her sex appeal and good looks. She replied with confidence: “My looks come from my Mom and Dad. My accomplishments came because of hard work. I do not worry about how others think or feel about me.”
That’s a good lesson to learn since I did let the attitudes of my rivals bother me in my swimming career. I always felt a bit guilty for the publicity I attracted when my teammates also deserved credit for their outstanding performances, but one has no control over that.
I asked Katarina if it even matters if Gold wins a medal in Sochi. In a sport where name recognition is currency in the professional market place we agreed Gold had already won that game, but of course wining a medal will enhance her earning capacity.
What Gold has been able to control is what some would see as an overnight success. But success for her has come come with risk and sacrifice. It takes the effort of a family willing to cut community ties, pack up suitcases in search of the perfect coach and the best training conditions. I know that my family made those decisions in leaving Lafayette, Calif. for a coach at Santa Clara’s swimming powerhouse for me. A supportive family and a good coach mean everything to a competitor.
In seeking out Frank Carroll, Michelle Kwan’s veteran coach, Gold put herself and her career on fast forward. In less than six months she has reworked her skating routines and changed her mental approach to performing. Known as a perfectionist, Gracie had to learn to put her mistakes behind her. To be open to judgment but also be free to express herself without undermining a performance if along the way she makes a mistake. A true champion learns that the ability to comeback after a setback is the secret to an enduring career.
Gold’s challenge will be to manage her own expectations and not become a victim to the hype around her. In the final day of the Ladies competition she will perform the role of Princess Aurora in her free skate to the magical strains of Tchaikovsky’s “Sleeping Beauty.” She has awakened the possibility within herself, and she has the potential to deliver a golden, star-is-born moment for her career, for her team and for ice skating fans the world over.