October 23, 2014

The year after a Winter Olympics is a building block for figure skaters. Sure, there's pressure to succeed, just nothing like what the athletes went through heading toward the Sochi Games.

So here comes Gracie Gold, with a team bronze medal and a strong individual showing at Sochi on her resume. Time to take the next big step, even if the 2018 Olympics are so distant.

For the 19-year old Gold, that means not stressing as she constructs a foundation for this next cycle.

''Not every competition is the Olympic Games,'' Gold says. ''I just need to relax and have a little more fun with competing.''

The fun begins at Skate America, where she will be co-favored to win the first of six Grand Prix series events. Gold and two-time junior champion Elena Radionova of Russia are the top women entered at Hoffman Estates, Illinois, just outside of Chicago.

''I have another four years left in me, if not more,'' she says. ''It's a fresh start on my skating career for both Grand Prix and leading into nationals. I feel good about the possibilities.''

The 2013-14 season was a breakthrough for Gold, who won her first U.S. title, then was fourth at Sochi and fifth at the world championships. She's already had a competition this season, finishing a disappointing third at Nebelhorn Trophy in Germany behind two Russian skaters: Elizaveta Tuktamysheva, who is entered in Skate America, and Alena Leonova.

But Gold was unveiling new programs, and that unsettled her. Her ''Phantom of the Opera'' medley needs some work, but she has faith in it.

And in herself.

''Being at the top in a pretty big country like the U.S., I think it just gives me confidence,'' Gold said.

The men's field is led by Sochi bronze medalist Denis Ten of Kazakhstan and American Olympians Jason Brown and Jeremy Abbott. Brown and Abbott won bronze in the team event along with Gold.

Abbott expected last season to be his last; he's won four U.S. championships, including last January. But he had a change of heart and mind.

''I've had a pretty good career,'' he says. ''Certainly there are still more things that I want to do.''

Such as perform well on the international stage, where he has struggled mightily. He acknowledges winning a medal at worlds is paramount in his thinking.

Brown won for the first time as a senior at Nebelhorn, but it was a shaky outing.

''I know how much more I have in me in this program,'' Brown says. ''That was just scratching the surface in Germany.''

Russia's Yuka Kavaguti and Alexander Smirnov, fourth at the 2010 Olympics but non-qualifiers for Sochi, headline the pairs event. Peng Cheng and Zhang Hao of China, fifth at worlds, also are entered.

Ice dance has become the province of North America, but reigning Olympic gold medalists Meryl Davis and Charlie White and 2010 champions Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir are not competing this season.

That leaves two U.S. couples, Madison Chock and Evan Bates and brother-sister combo Maia and Alex Shibutani, to carry on the new power tradition.

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