SOCHI, Russia — The U.S. women figure skaters are hoping a quick detour to Austria will lead to the podium in Sochi.
After helping the Americans win the bronze medal in the inaugural Olympic team event, Gracie Gold and Ashley Wagner went to Graz, Austria, for four days. With three hours and 1,200 miles separating the cities — the mileage equivalent to flying from Chicago to Miami — that's a long way to go for such a short time.
Gold has local ties, having trained at Twin Rinks in Buffalo Grove and Glacier Ice Arena in Vernon Hills while living in Elk Grove Village.
But both figure skaters said it was absolutely necessary, physically and mentally, before their event starts Wednesday.
"Competitions, people don't really understand how mentally exhausting they are," Wagner said after she and Gold returned to Sochi. "Physically, they're obviously very demanding on your body. But mentally, it takes so much out of you.
"It was a great opportunity to get away from the Olympics and have that chance to come down to build back up, because it's crucial to our training."
The U.S. women weren't the only ones taking side trips. Ice dancers Madison Chock and Evan Bates went to Moscow with coach Igor Shpilband and his other teams. Russian phenom Julia Lipnitskaia also went back to Moscow, her home base.
"We are used to that," Lipnitskaia said after the team event. "We are not getting too much ice time here, so my coach and I decided it will be better to go back to Moscow. We are quite set up here, it will be easier to go back and come here again later."
Like all athletes, skaters are creatures of habit. And while competing at the Olympics may be the pinnacle of their career, it wreaks havoc with their routine.
When they're at home, most skaters do two or even three 2- or 3-hour practice sessions. It's just them, their coaches and any teammates they might have, and they can play their program music as often as they like.
At the Olympics, they get one or two practice sessions, neither of which lasts more than 45 minutes. With five or six other skaters in their practice group, their music is only played once.
"Sometimes at competitions, you actually get out of shape because you're not running the same number of programs," Wagner said. "... Here you get one run-through and that's it. You call it a day."
But in Austria, the Americans had 2-hour practice sessions, one in the morning and one in the afternoon. They could put their music on repeat if they wanted.
And unlike in Sochi, where judges and fans are watching, Gold and Wagner didn't have to be "on" all the time.
"Sometimes it's nice to take a step out of the spotlight and refocus on you and [not] have to worry about presenting after every single element you do and bowing after practices," said Gold, who has yet to be seen in Sochi without perfect hair and makeup, including her trademark red lipstick.
"Those are polite things you do ... but sometimes it's kind of nice, after doing program after program, to just fall off the ice."
Because their event is last, the U.S. women often arrive late or come for the opening ceremony and then leave. (During the Turin Olympics in 2006, the Americans went to France.) But arriving late wasn't an option for Gold or Wagner because of the team event, and sticking around after they won a medal could have turned into a distraction.
Hearing congratulations and comments about the great jobs they did in the team competition was fine for a day. But they needed to focus on what comes next, rather than what they've already done.
"More than the extra training, it was the separation of the two competitions," Gold said. "I don't want to go into the short program being like, 'Oh, I'm already in good standing, I already did a great long.' It's an entirely separate competition so I have to treat it as such."
After all, while one medal is nice, two would be even better.
"It's comforting knowing I already have a medal that I've been going for my entire life," Wagner said. "But now I have to focus on what I can do for myself."
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