SOCHI, Russia — Gracie Gold could feel herself crooked in the air and knew she was about a second from splatting on the ice.
"No way," she thought. "Not here."
Showing instincts that would impress a cat, Gold managed to save the landings on not one, but two of her jumps in the short program. They may not have been the prettiest landings she's ever had, but they did the trick, keeping alive her chances for a medal at the Sochi Olympics.
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"I just wanted to skate like I belong on the podium," Gold said. "It's a point game. So looking at points, a 68 is not just respectable, it's a really good short score."
It was a good night all around for the Americans, with all three finishing in the top seven Wednesday. Gold's score of 68.63 was good for fourth place, and she's 5.49 points from third.
Ashley Wagner is sixth with 65.21 points. Polina Edmunds, competing in her first international competition as a senior, is seventh with 61.04 points.
They're still longshots to make the podium and avoid going home empty-handed from the women's event at consecutive Olympics for the first time since 1948. Gold has the best shot, and she'd need to skate perfectly – or close to it – and get some help from Olympic champion Yuna Kim, Adelina Sotnikova and Carolina Kostner, who are virtually tied.
But stranger things have happened in figure skating, as Gold saw in the men's event. Her training partner, Denis Ten, jumped from ninth after the short program to the bronze medal because of his own clean skate and the missteps of the guys above him.
"I just knew that I had to fight because it's about kind of throwing it down and it's all about points," Gold said.
It's about attitude, too, a combination of confidence and feistiness that is part of every champion's DNA. The U.S. women haven't had that for some time now, which is painfully obvious with one look at the record books.
After treating the podium as if it were their personal property for much of the last half-century, the Americans haven't won an individual medal at the Olympics or world championships since 2006. Think about that. Edmunds was two months shy of her 8thbirthday the last time an American picked up a piece of jewelry at worlds or the Olympics.
(Gold and Wagner do have bronze medals from the inaugural Olympic team event.)
But there's fight in this bunch.
"This sounds so, like, `PC athlete,' but honestly, I worked my butt off every single day since nationals and I've been way too tired, way too sweaty, way too exhausted and angry with training to not go out there and do it," Wagner said.
Gold was visibly off-balance on the first jump in her triple lutz-triple toe loop combination, yet somehow managed to right herself enough to land and then spring back into the air for the second jump. There are acrobats with less dexterity.
She made a similar save on her double axel. She got a negative grade of execution for the jump, but that's far better than a point deduction for a fall.
"I thought `I've come too far not to land this stupid double axel,'" Gold said. "I did not train that hard to go down and mess up this one jump. I am landing it with a smile on my face."
Wagner's combination, a triple flip-triple toe, wasn't a thing of beauty, either. The triple toe was downgraded, and it took every ounce of strength for her not to turn or step out of it. But she didn't, and she landed her other two jumps cleanly as her career reclamation project continued.
Wagner found herself at the center of a firestorm after U.S. Figure Skating officials put her on the Olympic team despite her fourth-place finish at the national championships. Though she was a two-time U.S. champion and had the most impressive international resume of any of the American women – she made the podium at the last two Grand Prix finals – there were many who said she didn't belong in Sochi.
Now Wagner has a bronze from the team event, and a chance – however slim – at an individual medal.
"This was really for me. This is my Olympic experience," she said. "There's nothing to lose, and I think that's the great part of how I'm set up for tomorrow."
Edmunds' performance wasn't exactly memorable. But it wasn't a train wreck, either, which is more than another 15-year-old who was expected to make a run at gold can say.
And for someone whose only previous senior international experience was running into skaters in the hallway at the Grand Prix final, staying calm on this big stage was an achievement.
"It's just another competition," she said. "It's really cool to see the Olympic rings everywhere, of course. I just kind of tried to stay in the moment and remind myself that ice is ice."