U.S. skaters strong in short program

SOCHI, Russia -- It was the same decision skydivers make, which really isn't a decision at all. In the fraction of a second Gracie Gold hung suspended and slightly askew above the ice in her opening triple jump combination, she pulled the ripcord and floated down safely.

"I was in the air and I thought, 'Is this my Olympic moment? You know, I'm gonna be on my butt?' I said, 'No,'" Gold said, bright-eyed and self-deprecating at the recollection of her inner dialogue. "This is what the Olympics are about -- not playing it safe with a double toe or a plain triple lutz. It's about doing it."

As recently as last November, the 18-year-old Gold said, she wouldn't have had the moxie to salvage that landing. "To be able to come out here and feel stiff and white as a ghost, but get out there and just kind of shoot fear in the face, is what I'm all about now," she said.

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U.S. champion Gracie Gold of Chicago had a clean short program that earned her 68.63 points for fourth place.

Gold and fellow U.S. skaters Ashley Wagner and Polina Edmunds made good use of the three slots that Gold and Wagner earned at last year's world championships, finishing fourth, sixth and seventh in Wednesday's short program at the Iceberg Skating Palace.

Defending gold medalist Kim Yuna of South Korea, resplendent in chartreuse, performed poignantly to "Send in the Clowns" and leads with 74.92 points -- putting herself in position to become the first repeat Olympic gold medalist since East Germany's Katarina Witt in 1984 and 1988. But she has two other women on her dainty heels. One is Russian, as expected, but not the Russian most would have seen coming.

Adelina Sotnikova, 17, turned in an energetic, crowd-fueled program to "Carmen,'' filling the space left by pint-sized 15-year-old Julia Lipnitskaya, who looked suddenly and nervously cognizant of the hopes her country had invested in her and fell on a triple flip jump. Veteran Carolina Kostner of Italy is in third, less than a point behind the 23-year-old Kim.

Another presumed medal contender, Mao Asada of Japan, plummeted to 16th. She crashed on her signature jump, the triple axel, to open the program and never recovered.

The somewhat shuffled deck should give the U.S. skaters oxygen at all of their respective altitudes going into Thursday's free skate.

Gold, who has spoken openly about her medal ambitions, sits almost six points shy of third place with 68.63 points. That's a substantial amount to make up, but Gold has always favored the pace and momentum building of the long program.

Wagner under-rotated the second jump on the triple-triple combination that has been her nemesis, but still earned a higher overall score (65.21) than she did when she skated it in the Olympic team competition -- a result that prompted her now-famous unhappy face Internet meme.

The gap between her and Lipnitskaya is a wafer-thin 0.02, and the 22-year-old Wagner will try to maintain or improve her placement with a long program stitched together for the Olympics with music and choreography from this and last season.

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Polina Edmunds, 15, made her Olympic and senior international debut Wednesday night at the Games.

Wagner said she was relaxed and determined not to let imperfection unravel her program. She sprinted away from her last-minute consultation with coach Rafael Arutunian at the boards on the advice of none other than double Olympic medalist Michelle Kwan, who told her not to linger.

"It sounds so PC-athlete," said Wagner, who has no apparent fear of being politically incorrect. "But honestly, I've worked my butt off every single day since nationals. I've been way too tired, way too sweaty, way too exhausted and angry with training to not go out there and do it.

"For me, this is my Olympic experience, and I have nothing to lose. I think that's the great part about how I'm set up for [Thursday]."

Edmunds was charmingly businesslike about her first Olympic appearance, which also happens to be her first senior-level international event at age 15. Unlike Wagner and Gold, she didn't have the opportunity to work out the kinks in the team competition.

"Just to be in the 60s is a great number for me," said Edmunds of her 61.04 points. She carried two stuffed animals for good luck -- a lion from her high school and an elephant that was a gift from the synchronized skating team at her hometown rink.

Edmunds was pleased at having skated with what she called "a few bobbles," but seemed just as jazzed about having met U.S. hockey forward Joe Pavelski, who plays for her hometown San Jose Sharks and approached her in the dining hall at the Olympic Village to introduce himself.

Gold's nerves were understandable given the buildup in the weeks since she won the national championships. Anxiety hit her after she woke up from a nap and began laying out her gear.

"I thought, 'Oh my god, I'm competing in the Olympic short program later,'" she said. "But I can't pause the event and wait until I feel better."

Coach Frank Carroll, who has prepared so many skaters for this moment, disappeared on her for a half hour shortly before she competed, victim of what Gold called the worst nosebleed she has ever seen -- "a big gusher." But his months of tutelage didn't evaporate, and Gold was able to overcome the imbalance she felt on every jump, including her final double axel.

"I did not train that hard to go down or mess up this one jump," she told herself and later told reporters. "I am landing it with a smile on my face."

That faith was a big leap for a skater who used to crash when she did the slightest thing wrong.

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