January 28, 2013
Gracie Gold will be an important factor in determining if the U.S. women get to send two or three skaters to the Sochi Olympics.
Charlie Neibergall/AP

OMAHA, Neb. (AP) -- OK, kids, show the world what you've got.

The Americans are sending one of their most inexperienced teams in singles to the world championships in March - no small thing considering worlds are the qualifier for next year's Sochi Olympics.

But it's not necessarily a bad thing.

"We want three spots for the Olympics," said Tom Zakrajsek, coach of new men's champion Max Aaron. "We know these guys have the ammo and the ability to do it."

Zakrajsek was referring to Aaron and men's runner-up Ross Miner. But he could very well have been talking about women's runner-up Gracie Gold, too.

Some have been touting the 17-year-old Gold as an Olympic medal hopeful since last year, when she won the U.S. junior title and finished second at the world championships. She might have the best jumps in the world, and few skaters are fiercer competitors. Seemingly out of the mix for the world team after a dismal short program left her in ninth place, Gold jumped all the way to second with a free skate that would stand up technically to anyone in the world.

"I actually thought that it could be possible because I have a very loaded long program with difficult elements," Gold said. "I knew if I skated a perfect program, I would be able to pull up to the podium."

But the reason Gold needed that perfect skate was because she was done in by nerves in the short program - something that's happened before. She didn't even make it to the U.S. Figure Skating Championships the year before she won the junior title. She fell apart at Skate Canada, her first Grand Prix as a senior, before winning a silver medal at Cup of Russia.

If Gold is to be a real factor in Sochi, she needs more experience. Going to the worlds in London, Ontario, as the No. 2 American gets her in front of the judges and, if she does well, keeps her on track for Sochi.

But she won't have the white-hot spotlight that she would have drawn if she'd beaten Ashley Wagner. It's the veteran Wagner who will be expected to hold her own against Kim Yu-na, Mao Asada and Carolina Kostner, while Gold needs only to get in or around the top 10.

(Wagner and Gold need a combined placement of 13 to secure a third spot for the Americans at the Olympics.)

Aaron, the U.S. junior champ in 2011, is so green internationally as a senior he's never even been to a Grand Prix event. But what he and Miner, who qualifies as a "veteran" with one world appearance, lack in experience they make up in savvy.

The two have recognized it's impossible to compete against the top international men without quadruple jumps, and wouldn't think of doing their short or long program without one. Aaron did two quadruple jumps in his free skate, the first in combination with a double toe loop, as well as two triple axels. Miner had quads in both his short and long.

Together, they accounted for three of the five clean quads done Sunday.

"To be really, truly competitive, you have to have the quad in the short and long," said Miner, who was won two bronze medals on the Grand Prix circuit since finishing 11th at worlds in 2011. "This year is the first year where it's become apparent that the quad is incredibly important. It's going continue into next year."

Added Zakrajsek, "I think the days of a triple-triple combination in the short and maybe even one quad in the long might be over."

Aaron and Miner do more than just jump, however.

If the skating thing doesn't work out, Aaron could head to Broadway after his perfect portrayal of a bad guy in "West Side Story" - down to the smirk and snapping fingers. Miner skates with a polish and assertiveness that has been all too rare for the Americans since Olympic champion Evan Lysacek and Johnny Weir were going toe to toe. Every element in his program, to the old "Captain Blood" movie, was finished to perfection. There was no rushing out of jumps or awkward ends to spins, and his footwork was crisp and elegant.

"Last year, coming off my sort of breakout performance as a senior man in Greensboro, I was proving to myself that I could come back here and really perform at this level and that I wasn't a fluke," said Miner, who was third the previous two years. "I took that as, it's behind me, I can move forward and really keep building on that."

Aaron and Miner also have to finish with a combined placement of 13 to earn a third spot for Sochi, and the men's field is expected to include two-time defending champion Patrick Chan, new European champion Javier Fernandez and three Japanese men, any one of whom could medal. Turin Olympic champion Evgeni Plushenko, who pulled out of the Europeans with a back injury, hopes to be ready, too.

But Aaron and Miner aren't daunted.

"I haven't been out there (internationally) very many times, but I know what to expect," Aaron said. "I do train with the two-time world champion, and (we talk) about his experiences and what he's been through. I feel like I am ready for it.

"I've been waiting for this moment, and I feel I'm ready for it to happen."

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