Gold won her first title in a runaway Saturday night, but there was plenty of intrigue behind her in the standings. Fifteen-year-old Polina Edmunds was second, and 2010 Olympian Mirai Nagasu third in a resurgent performance.
Two-time U.S. champion Ashley Wagner made the Olympic team Sunday despite finishing a distant fourth at the national championships.
U.S. Figure Skating officials took into account performances over the past year in picking the three women who will go to Sochi, not just their showing at this week's event. Mirai Nagasu, who was fourth at the 2010 Olympics, didn't make the team despite taking third Saturday at the U.S. Championships.
Fifteen-year-old Polina Edmunds, who was second, was selected even though she has no major international experience at the senior level.
"Looking at Ashley Wagner's record and performances, she's got the top credentials of any of our female athletes," U.S. Figure Skating President Patricia St. Peter said.
New U.S. champion Gracie Gold also will compete in the Sochi Olympics after winning Saturday.
Wagner finished fifth at the world championships and won the bronze medal at the Grand Prix Final, but she fell twice and failed to cleanly land two other triple jumps in Saturday's free skate.
Wagner narrowly missed going to the Vancouver Games after she finished third at nationals when the U.S. had only two spots.
"It's been a really long four years," she said through tears Sunday.
"I'm happy my federation was able to see beyond one bad skate," Wagner added.
She wasn't perfect Saturday, but she didn't need to be after building a big lead in the short program. She finished with 211.69 points to beat Edmunds by more than 18.
"The nerves are something I've battled with and have let get in my head, but tonight I was strangely calm," she said.
Skating last, the 18-year-old Gold realized what she had accomplished before she even completed her program. After landing her last double axel, she pumped both fists.
"I knew that was it," she said.
Gold was second behind Wagner in 2013, and with another year's seasoning, she now connects with her music along with just nailing the jumps.
Edmunds was competing at senior nationals for the first time after winning the junior title last year. U.S. officials later confirmed that she is eligible for the Olympics under the governing body's rules even though she hasn't skated at a sanctioned international senior event; her scores from junior competitions can count.
She doesn't have the expression yet of the older skaters, but her poise was far beyond her years.
She fell on a triple flip yet landed two triple jumps after that for six total. Once her marks were announced, she sweetly waved to the camera, her smile wide and her eyes wider.
"There's a lot of strong skaters here, but in the end we were the three, and I think that has something to say for itself," she said.
Nagasu finished fourth at the Vancouver Games as a 16-year-old, but that bubbly confidence seemed long gone in recent years. A U.S. champion at age 14 in 2008, she was seventh the last two years.
Nagasu wore a serious expression for most of her James Bond-inspired performance Saturday, avoiding any major mistakes. When she saw she was in second behind Edmunds, she leapt out of her chair and buried her face in her hands.
Nagasu didn't expect to get any sleep Saturday night. Her voice cracked as she made her case for the team.
"As the only person who's already been to the Olympics, I really want to go back again," she said.
Not only was Wagner by far the most accomplished skater in the field, she was considered the Americans' best chance for a medal in the sport other than ice dance world champions Meryl Davis and Charlie White. She was fifth at worlds, helping the U.S. earn a third Olympic berth, and won the bronze medal at the Grand Prix Final.
But her program fell apart right at the start. She crashed to the ice on the second jump of a triple-triple combination, and after that, her normal liveliness had drained away from her skating. Wagner fell again on a triple loop and failed to cleanly land two other triple jumps.
"I felt like lead," Wagner said. "I'm in shock that that's when I put out at nationals. I'm embarrassed that I get so much attention for the skater that I am and that's when I put out."
When it was over, Wagner stared blankly into the stands as the fans voiced their support for all her past successes.
Waiting for her marks, Wagner's head hung in shock, then she turned to her coach and shook her hands in frustration as she described what had just happened.
Now the 22-year-old Wagner is at risk of just missing out on the Olympics for the second straight games. In 2010, she was third at nationals when the U.S. had only two spots.
"Nobody's safe," she said.
U.S. Figure Skating's selection policy will leave someone heartbroken. Edmunds has the jumps if not the artistry, the youthful self-assurance if not the experience. She knows she will have other Olympic opportunities in her future, but this one would be special: Her mother is from Russia.
And after all, American teens have sparkled under Olympic pressure before. On Friday, Edmunds' coach, David Glynn, invoked the 15-year-old gold medalist of the 1998 Games.
He called his skater "the 2014 version of Tara Lipinski."