OMAHA, Neb. — And the winner was … Gracie Gold.
That has nothing to do with whether one thinks the outcome of the women's event at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships should have been different. The results, with defending champion Ashley Wagner first and Gold second, have provoked animated but ultimately less significant discussion.
The essence of what happened during a feverish Saturday night is much easier to figure out than the judges' scores.
"Ashley won the event, but Gracie is the one everyone is talking about," 1984 Olympic champion Scott Hamilton said.
His fellow NBC commentator, Sandra Bezic, had a similar perspective.
"The important thing is Gracie proved that she does have the mettle," Bezic said.
In her senior national debut, the 17-year-old Gold showed some of the same inconsistency that has nettled her all season but, like a great performer, left everyone wanting to see more after winning the free skate with the second-highest score in the eight seasons the code of points scoring system has been used at nationals.
"Gracie was spectacular," 1988 Olympic champion Brian Boitano said. "I don't think anyone would have complained if she had won, but I think there are some reasons for Ash to have won."
In simplest terms, the two mistakes Gold made in the short program (fall on a jump and popped double axel), wound up costing her more than the three mistakes Wagner made in the free skate (consecutive jump falls and a wonky final triple jump). Gold's runaway victory in the free skate could not erase all of the 13.49-point lead Wagner built in the short program, ultimately losing by 2.27 points.
"Gracie learned she can't let herself get that far behind," Hamilton said. "When she is clean in both programs, she will win by Yuna Kim-like margins."
(South Korea's Kim won the 2010 Olympic gold medal by 23.06 points and the 2009 worlds by 16.42).
The more timely question now is whether Wagner and Gold can do well enough at the March world championships to earn the United States a third women's spot at the 2014 Olympics. To do that, their final placements must add up to 13 or fewer — something that has not happened since the 2008 worlds.
Gold, who lives in Elk Grove Village and trains at two Chicago-area rinks, has to prove the shock of the new won't undo her again. She had rocky senior-level debuts in both the Grand Prix and nationals before putting on one of the greatest exhibitions ever of jumping during the Saturday free skate — seven triples, all of textbook quality with immense height, power and security.
"If Gracie skates like that at the Olympics, she will get a medal," 2002 Olympic champion Sarah Hughes said. "She has speed, she has spirit, her jumps are second to none. Last night, she was first-rate."
That Gold still lacks artistic maturity and the ability to connect elements in her four-minute program is clear. Her second marks (the component scores, which measure performance by non-technical criteria) were generous yet 4.47 points lower than Wagner's — more than the difference in the final scores.
While there is a feeling that international judges will be much tougher on Gold's component marks at worlds, the score she received Saturday night (61.35) was only 3.25 points better than the score an international panel gave her for a much less impressive free skate at November's Grand Prix event in Russia.
There has to be concern over Wagner, fourth at worlds last year, who looked like a likely medalist — even a title contender — until her last two competitions.
"Not the way you want to be looked at as a champion," Hamilton said. "Vulnerable."
Tara Lipinski, the unshakable 1998 Olympic champion, thought Wagner was rattled by what she called a "lights-out" skate from Gold some 30 minutes earlier.
"Ashley was all of a sudden in a very different position," Lipinski said. "It seemed the pressure got to her."
Wagner has fallen twice on jumps in each free skate at those events. The second of those four falls, at the Grand Prix Final Dec. 8, was so hard it left her with lingering bruises and cost her significant training time. She also came to Omaha a week after a bout of food poisoning.
"I never like to make excuses for myself, so I think that might have contributed a little bit," Wagner said. "I didn't have my typical nationals training, and I think that maybe I was a little fatigued in the program, but those two issues were more mental than anything."
There also was the new psychological burden of being the defending champion. Wagner, 21, said the day before the short program she sensed people were paying much more attention to her skating.
"Gracie," Hughes said, "is the one everyone is watching now."