VAHE GREGORIAN

U.S. skating champion Gracie Gold took first strides to Sochi in Springfield

Updated: 2014-02-06T04:21:49Z

By VAHE GREGORIAN

The Kansas City Star

So here’s U.S. figure-skating champion Gracie Gold, beaming and bounding across the cover of Sports Illustrated.

And there she was, juggling for Jay Leno on “The Tonight Show” and holding forth on the “Today” show and whirling around on that Visa commercial.

Such is life as the designated face of Team USA entering the Sochi Winter Olympics, which begin officially with the opening ceremony on Friday.

“And she just did a commercial for United Airlines,” said Max Liu, one of her three first coaches. “She’s everywhere.”

Even if this is all no surprise to another of those three coaches, Amy Bifulk, it still left her in tears when someone she once thought of as “my baby” won the U.S. trials last month.

“She had a lot of fire … I feel like this was always the plan,” said Alexia Griffin, the third coach, laughing and adding, “She’s become quite the celebrity.”

And it all started, really, in Missouri.

“It was really the first time I had skated,” Gold said in a recent phone interview with The Star. “I had, like, touched ice before, but really Springfield was the first time.

“Amy and Max and Alexia Griffin, they were all wonderful mentors, and they built the foundation of the skater I am today. So they were really influential.”

It’s well-known that Gold was born in Newton, Mass., and thus it’s widely assumed she learned to skate there on some convenient neighborhood pond.

But the truth is her mother, Denise, would spend 15 or 20 minutes to bundle up Gracie and twin Carly for the brutal cold, and then they’d go out for maybe less time than that “and charge around on these marshes. They weren’t even true ponds.”

Via Texas, the family moved to Springfield when the twins were 7, to be near Carl Gold’s ailing parents in Joplin.

After a birthday party at a local ice rink, Gracie was scuffing along the boards when she saw what Denise Gold called “actual figure skaters in the middle.”

Gracie was star-struck watching them spin, Denise Gold said, “And she told me that’s what she wanted to do.”

Not long after, Gracie was signed up for “Learn To Skate” classes at what was then known as Jordan Valley Ice Park. And to some degree it was all just good fun.

Bifulk, now in Minnesota, thought of Gracie initially as “just a very charismatic, happy, crazy little girl” who as soon as her lesson was over would run back to his office and sit on his lap every single day.

But she was soon emerging as a mesmerizing force because of her raw talent, poise and determination.

“She was just fearless,” Liu recalled.

And an intense competitor, all three said. Liu, who now lives in Illinois, recalled giving Gracie private lessons at 5 a.m. on occasion.

“I’m still sleeping,” he said, “and she was doing all her work.”

There were times he remembered making Gracie cry by pushing her to repeat drills and routines until she’d wear out or take a tumble.

And he’d point to the example of Olympians, and tell her she can’t just lie on the ice and cry. And up she’d get and do it all again.

The Olympics, in fact, became a topic of discussion soon thereafter.

“She landed her axel very early in her skating career,” said Bifulk, echoing a point Griffin made. “I went and told her mom this girl is going to go to the Olympics.”

When Bifulk said she saw the whole package in Gracie, Denise said she didn’t know how seriously to take that.

“People would say that about Gracie, but we started in a small pond,” she said. “And anything was possible, but there’s so many forks along the road, who could ever say? She could decide to do something else.

“So I don’t think we ever banked on that. It was just something they loved to do. So we just continued.”

But it wasn’t long before it became a lot more than that.

Griffin recalled that Gold’s determination in the sport evolved into, “I’m going to get this done, no matter what it takes. The mom was that way, too.”

Randy Brilliantine, who also coached two-time U.S. pairs champion John Coughlin at Kansas City Ice Center in Shawnee, had the same impression when the Golds came to train a few times after seeing an exhibition with Coughlin in Springfield.

Brilliantine was dazzled by Gracie’s potential, though he’s quick to add: “I had the honor of coaching her at a very early age, and the pleasure of keeping acquainted with the family. That’s all. I had very little to do with (this).”

By then, making the commitment to travel for training, Denise clearly was feeling something more developing, too.

“We actually did need to step it up; we viewed it as enrichment … just kind of little extras,” she said. “And we did that for some period of time.”

Not long thereafter, Denise began driving the girls to Springfield, Ill., for sessions with Griffin’s former coach, Susan Liss, whose experience was more sophisticated and suitable to their development.

“I probably drove that for at least two years, five hours each way,” Denise said, explaining why they then relocated to Springfield, Ill.

But Springfield, where Gracie lived during 2003-07, remains an essential element of her road.

“It was the place where I started skating,” she said. “I look back fondly on it.”

Yes, she lives and trains in California now with Frank Carroll, who has coached the likes of Michelle Kwan and Evan Lysacek.

So Gold, 18, has been refined elsewhere as she prepares to compete in Sochi, starting Sunday with her long program in the new team event.

But her talents largely were first mined in Springfield, and, moreover, she is a Missouri product in many ways.

Her father, Carl, an anesthesiologist, is from Joplin, where he was a three-sport high school athlete whose mother, Thelma, had been a competitive roller-skater.

Meanwhile, an ice show in Branson produced Bifulk and Griffin coaching Gold, and she is finishing high school online through the University of Missouri.

“It is actually a wonderful program,” Denise, said, laughing and adding, “But my husband might have been a little prejudiced (in his research) since that’s where he went to school.”

Even if few seem to know of Missouri as her launch point, Griffin believes her name still can be found on competition banners throughout the facility.

“Springfield, Missouri, that wasn’t a place where you produced big skaters,” Bifulk said. “It wasn’t a training facility. And she just happened to come through.”

And they came through for her.

Entering the Olympics, one of Gold’s mantras has become “trust the training.”

She is referring directly to Carroll, of course. But that doesn’t mean a lot of others along the way shouldn’t or don’t still feel part of that.

“Sometimes, I watch and still see her at a young age,” Liu said, adding, “When she skates her program, basically I will be skating with her.”

To reach Vahe Gregorian, call 816-234-4366 or send email to vgregorian@kcstar.com. Follow him at Twitter.com/vgregorian.

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