Spinning uneasily through the air on her opening triple lutz in Wednesday's short program, Gracie Gold wondered, "Is this my Olympic moment? I'm going to be on my butt?"
The U.S. champion gritted out the landing, just barely, then had to decide whether to try to complete her triple-triple combination. As she described it later, she thought to herself: "No, this is what the Olympics are about. It's not playing it safe with a double toe or a plain triple lutz. It's about doing it."
She did, holding on to the triple toe loop, and now Gold is in fourth heading into Thursday's free skate. She's 5.49 points behind third-place Carolina Kostner, in striking distance of a medal if any of the three leaders falter.
It was a strong night for the American women, with two-time U.S. champ Ashley Wagner finishing sixth and 15-year-old Polina Edmunds seventh in her senior international debut. If none of them medal, it would be the first time since 1936 that no American man or woman finished on the podium in singles at an Olympics.
The enormity of the moment hit Gold when she woke up from a nap midday and started laying out her gear to head to the rink. Then came the oddest of distractions: coach Frank Carroll had what she called "the most horrible nosebleed I've ever seen." He stepped away for about a half-hour before she skated so the teenager in the blood red dress wouldn't be sidetracked by the blood gushing from his nose.
But little fazes the 18-year-old Gold anymore — not since she started working with Carroll in September.
"To be able to come up here and feel stiff and white as a ghost but stare fear in the face is what I'm all about now," she said.
Gold also learned from another Carroll pupil, Kazakhstan's Denis Ten, who persevered through two imperfect programs in the men's event to earn just enough points for the bronze medal.
So on that triple lutz, she explained, "I just had to trust my training and say a little prayer."
Her last jump, a double axel, was shaky, too. But Gold wasn't going to fall.
She said she told herself: "I have come too far not to land this stupid double axel. I did not train that hard to go down or mess up this one jump. I am landing it with a smile on my face."
Gold was still beaming when her score of 68.63 points came up. When Julia Lipnitskaia and Mao Asada both fell in the last group, she was in fourth.
Wagner earned 65.21 and Edmunds 61.04.
Wagner was surprised by her marks for the second time at the Sochi Games. During the team event, she was disappointed to see 63.10 pop up after her short program, and the photo of her sour expression went viral. On Wednesday, her toe loop in her triple-triple combination was downgraded, but the otherwise clean performance was gratifying after she struggled badly at the U.S. Championships.
"Going out there, I showed myself this is just another competition," Wagner said.
Edmunds achieved one of her Olympic goals earlier in the day when U.S. hockey player Joe Pavelski, who stars for her hometown San Jose Sharks, came over to introduce himself in the athletes' village cafeteria. Then she went out and skated cleanly.
Waiting for her marks, she clutched a stuffed lion and elephant given to her by her high school and her rink's synchronized team. The skater who looked so calm on the ice is a kid after all.
"I just kind of try to stay in the moment," she said, "and just remind myself that ice is ice."