Gracie Gold redeemed a shaky short program with a fantastic free skate a year ago.
Now that she's mastered the first day of the U.S. Championships, the teenager likely won't need anything spectacular to make it to Sochi.
Gold set a career high with 72.12 points Thursday to stake herself to a big lead after the short program. She's more than five points ahead of 15-year-old Polina Edmunds and nearly seven points ahead of a resurgent Mirai Nagasu.
Two-time defending champion Ashley Wagner was fourth. The top three women go to the Olympics.
The 18-year-old Gold works with renowned coach Frank Carroll, who helped Evan Lysacek win at the Vancouver Games.
"It is a new short program and there were a couple of unknowns going into this event," she said. "I'm really glad I was able to trust my training, and I think I've worked really hard with Frank."
Gold was ninth after the short program in 2013, then won the free skate to surge into second place and a spot at the world championships, where she finished sixth. A year later, she combined an improved presentation with strong jumps and a rapport with the audience.
Earlier, hometown favorites Marissa Castelli and Simon Shnapir ran away with the pairs short program. The defending champs staked themselves to a huge lead of 6.63 points.
Gold was sharp from the start with her triple lutz-triple toe loop combination, and the program to "Piano Concerto" kept on building. She earned the highest possible level on all her other elements.
Her performance was no surprise; Gold is one of the favorites here to claim an Olympic spot. But Edmunds, the 2013 U.S. junior champion, stunned almost everyone but herself with her routine as the final skater of the night.
She matched Gold's combination jumps and made her bubbly program look almost easy — as if she knew she belonged in the top echelon.
"It couldn't have been much better," she said. "I shouldn't be surprised. I have all the elements. I just went out and did them."
Wagner didn't test herself the same way, and it cost her. Her combination jump was just a triple-double, and even then the landing was shaky.
"I decided to play it safe rather than be sorry," she said. "I could have gone for the triple after the flip, but knew it wouldn't be a good one and it was risky. I decided to just leave it at that."
And that left her out of the top three, behind Nagasu, who has struggled ever since finishing fourth in the Vancouver Olympics.
Like Gold, Castelli and Shnapir set a career high. Castelli's jaw dropped when their mark of 73.13 points was announced.
"I was in shock at first; I was not expecting that," she said. "I like to try to calculate it in my head. I would have been happy with 66 or 67, so it was just insane."
The two New Englanders were nervous when they found out the U.S. Championships in an Olympic year would be in Boston.
"We do little exhibitions at our home club, Skating Club of Boston, and those are some of the most nerve-racking performances for us," Shnapir said. "There's almost this feeling of expectation that we have to do well. It's definitely challenging. But as soon as we hit our spot, as soon as we heard our names called, we felt that energy."
The crowd was screaming for them from the moment they took the ice to warm up for their performance, the last of the afternoon.
The roars swelled as they skated to "Black Magic Woman" and "Smooth" by Carlos Santana. Their speed on the ice and the height of their jumps were on another level from the rest of the competition, and when Castelli smoothly landed a big throw triple salchow, Shnapir might have thought from the reaction that his beloved Bruins had just scored a goal at TD Garden.
"Props to the crowd — that was more than we could have asked for," Shnapir said. "The energy in the house was enormous and it really helped us. It was kind of humbling to know how many people are supporting us and were cheering us on."
The real competition Saturday could be for the United States' second Olympic spot. Felicia Zhang and Nathan Bartholomay lead third-place DeeDee Leng and Timothy LeDuc by 0.1 points.
Caydee Denney and John Coughlin, the 2012 champs, returned after missing last year's nationals as he recovered from hip surgery and were fourth.