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Figure skating: Gold targets 24 carat prize in Sochi

Gracie Gold of the U.S. practises her routine during a figure skating training session at the Iceberg Skating Palace training arena during t
Gracie Gold of the U.S. practises her routine during a figure skating training session at the Iceberg Skating Palace training arena during t

By Pritha Sarkar

SOCHI, Russia (Reuters) - With her shiny blonde hair pulled into a bun and a name that oozes Hollywood royalty, Gracie Gold already bears all the hallmarks of a champion.

All she now needs is a glittering Olympic medal to complete the 24 carat package.

If the 18-year-old cover-girl of American figure skating succeeds in topping the podium next Thursday she will join an illustrious list of American Olympic champions.

Yet her inspiration comes not from Peggy Fleming, Dorothy Hamill, Kristi Yamaguchi, Sarah Hughes or even Tara Lipinski, who won in 1998 as a 15-year-old, but from a compatriot who overcame far greater challenges than trying to successfully land a triple Salchow.

"Helen Keller is my hero because can you imagine pretty much being born with your senses and then losing them... all of your senses... sight, hearing?" Gold told Reuters in an interview following a practice session at the Sochi Olympics training rink.

"Just kind of being trapped in your own head and trying to figure out the world. Just that kind of adversity. I mean if I have a bruise or cut my foot and I try to go skate, I think that's an adversity.

"But then when you read about incredible stories like Helen Keller, and she was able to take what she was given and make a beautiful life of it, she's my hero because of that.

"It reminds there are other things besides skating and besides the Olympics. If I feel tired and cranky one day because I didn't skate well, I think of what she had to face every day. It just gives me chills thinking about it."

Drawing inspiration from a deaf and blind political activist who died 46 years ago might not seem an obvious choice for a teenager who would be lost in Sochi without her "lucky competition blanket which has a bunny with little balloons".

But Gold does not do the obvious.

While most rivals' pre-competition ritual involves focusing quietly on the task ahead - with meditation and deep breathing exercises being common practices - Gold likes throwing things through the air - very, very quickly.

"Juggling helps with my hand-eye co-ordination when I'm on the ice," she said speaking rather rapidly.

"I've always been kind of a quick person. I always preferred sprinting. My muscles are quick-twitch muscles, so I'd much rather do 10 jumping jacks when I'm working out than doing one slow squat," added Gold as she bent down gradually with outstretched arms to show the move she cares little about.

"Most people think juggling is really cool."

Wearing bright red lipstick to match her manicured nails and with large crystal studs sparkling on her ears, Gold resembles the average American high school teenager.

But put a pair of blades underneath her feet and the transformation is instant.

As she glided around the rink in a purple tank top and black leggings, there was no mistaking the grace and poise she brings to the ice.

Frank Carroll noticed it as soon as he agreed to coach her last September when Gold's camp decided things were not working out with her former mentor Alex Ouriashev.

"She has a beautiful face like Grace Kelly, a beautiful body and she's long and she jumps high and she floats through the air... she had all the ingredients when I took her over," Carroll, who guided Evan Lysacek to Olympic glory four years ago, told Reuters.

"I just tried to put it together and package it. One of things I do best is take the pieces of somebody and put them together so they look quite the package. Music interpretation, technique, endurance, the philosophy, the psychology - all those things are important and I put it together."

Carroll's influence reaped almost instant rewards when Gold won the U.S. nationals last month. That victory raised her profile so much that she now feels she has nowhere to hide since "I feel the world knows everything about me."

What the world really wants to know is how she will measure up against 15-year-old Russian princess Julia Lipnitskaya and Olympic champion Kim Yuna in a women's competition which promises to be a battle royal.

European champion Lipnitskaya became the talk of Sochi as she led the hosts to victory in the team competition, where Gold also competed but finished a distant second to the Russian in the free skate.

The prospect of coming face-to-face with a super-flexible Russian skater who Gold describes as having "no spine but she's got iron in her bones" does not faze her.

What she really hopes is that her name does not come back to haunt her.

"I've had someone tweet me saying ‘if I hear one more Gracie Gold headline, I'm going to scream'. I'm like ‘me too. I've heard it for 18 years guys'," grinned the skater who will be cheered on by her twin Carly in Sochi.

"When I was in middle school, if I came home from competition with a bronze or silver, the teasing was relentless.

"It is a lot to live up to but if I do take gold, it really is perfect."

(Reporting by Pritha Sarkar, editing by Ossian Shine)

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