Gracie Gold Embraces a Rugged Comeback Path

The New York Times Sports department is revisiting the subjects of some compelling articles from the last year or so. Here is our January report on Gracie Gold’s mental health battle.

Gracie Gold is still on the ice, steadily building a comeback in figure skating one small victory at a time.

At 24, she has replaced the sweeping ambitions that made her an Olympian in 2014 and, for a while, one of the favorites to win gold in 2018. Now she is taking what she considers a healthier approach.

Gold’s career was sidetracked by mental illness that reached its nadir in 2017, when she had to abandon her bid for the 2018 Winter Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea, and enter an inpatient therapy clinic in Arizona to address an eating disorder, depression and anxiety.

Gold looks back on this last year as a gritty figure eight. Her forward progression includes losing the bulk of the extra 40 pounds that she had added to her 5-foot-5 frame and graduating from the jumping harness system that she needed at one point to help her safely complete the revolutions and landings that were once her strengths.

“Yes, things could be better,” Gold said in a telephone interview this month, “but look how far I’ve come.”

She plans to be at the 2020 United States national championships in Greensboro, N.C., next month, after taking a humbling route to qualify. Gold, who won the women’s title in 2014 and 2016, appeared set to compete at the 2019 national championships but ended up withdrawing after realizing her timetable was too ambitious.

As she began her comeback in late 2018, Gold spoke with The New York Times about the spiral that derailed her career and upended her life. At the time, she was settling into a training site outside Philadelphia, the latest move in her peripatetic existence as an elite skater.

She traveled to Russia for her first competition in more than a year and ended up withdrawing after the first of her two programs. Not long after that, her decision to pull out of the 2019 nationals set off alarms that her career was over.

“The more expected thing to do would be to not compete again,” Gold said.

To keep going, Gold knew she would have to start virtually from scratch this year, re-establishing her eligibility for elite competition by going through lower-rung qualifying events for the first time since 2011. Gold was like an acclaimed actor auditioning for minor roles she thought she had outgrown.

“I was worried what people were going to say or think,” said Gold, who added, “I don’t want to say there were double takes, but there were eyes on me, for sure.”

She advanced to the final qualifying round, the Eastern sectionals in Hyannis, Mass., needing a fourth-place finish to secure her spot at the 2020 nationals. Overcoming a case of nerves, she finished third.

When she talked with The Times a year ago, Gold was still coming to terms with what she called the “neurotic perfectionism” that had powered her ascent but also precipitated her decline. She held herself to exacting standards, and the more she struggled to meet them, the worse she felt about herself.

Gold’s challenge moving forward is to remain rooted in the process and not fixate on the results.

“I feel like in the sport of skating, comebacks don’t happen that much because to go through the process and some of the ridicule that comes with it at first is hard,” she said. “You’re essentially being criticized by the judges, by the fans, by your coach and by yourself. That can be a lot.”

Gold still has bad days, but they are rarer. “And my ability to bounce back from one is faster,” she said.

Since the days when her life centered on winning an Olympic gold medal, Gold has come to realize that she has more to offer the world. She enjoys having a positive impact on younger skaters during the lessons she conducts between her training sessions at the IceWorks Skating Complex, a facility in the Philadelphia area where she began her comeback.

Her long-range plans now include someday opening a mental health wing at the United States Olympic & Paralympic Training Center in Colorado Springs. This spring, Gold spoke on the issue as part of a panel at the International Olympic Committee headquarters in Lausanne, Switzerland.

“I can always retire at any moment and go back to school or work full time,” Gold said, adding that skating “is not the end of the world like I used to kind of feel like it was.”

Yet her current goal remains to qualify for the 2022 Winter Olympics — just not at any cost, as in the past.

“My goal is to maintain my mental health while making progress on the ice,” Gold said.

No matter how she performs, Gold said she would be proud that she stuck with the sport.

“I don’t know that many other skaters that know they’re out of shape, that know they don’t look like a figure skater and know that it might not go well and still do it, still try,” Gold said. “There’s some bravery in that. Years ago, I would have never been able to do that.”