The whirlwind rise of Bradie Tennell began at last year’s U.S. Figure Skating Championships, where the sprightly teenager stunned a field of veterans to claim her first national title and with it, a spot on the American team headed to the Winter Olympics.
She proceeded to post her best score of the season in the short program of the team event at the Pyeongchang Games, helping the U.S. to a bronze medal, before finishing ninth as an individual.
After a summer spent catching her breath, Tennell started off this season by winning the Autumn Classic. And after a mediocre showing at Skate America, and taking third place at her other Grand Prix assignment in France, she rebounded to win Golden Spin in December with a season-best short program.
Now the 20-year-old is back to defend her American title this week in Detroit, this time as the favorite.
“You know, honestly that never really crossed my mind,” said Tennell, who added a triple Lutz-triple loop to her program this season. “I don’t think of things like that. I think every time I go out on the ice I want to do the best for myself, and as long as you do that, I’m happy.”
Her best should be good enough for gold.
The women’s field was thinned considerably when Karen Chen, who won the title two years ago, was forced out with a foot injury. Olympic teammate Mirai Nagasu, who was second at nationals last year, is taking a break from the sport, and two-time national champion Gracie Gold announced last week that she was withdrawing as she considers her best path toward the 2022 Beijing Olympics.
Tennell’s biggest competition could come from Mariah Bell, a former Skate America runner-up, and 13-year-old Alysa Liu will get plenty of attention as she jumps onto the senior stage.
“I have the highest score of all Grand Prix events of the ladies (at nationals),” Bell said last week. “I look at those things closely. NHK Trophy was a tough competition and I held my own there, so I feel like I’m in a good spot. I proved I could hang with the toughest ladies in the world.”
The women and pairs open nationals on Thursday, followed by rhythm dance and the women’s free skate on Friday night. The pairs free skate, men’s short program and free dance are Saturday, with the men’s free skate concluding the competition Sunday.
Here is a look at the other events:
MEN’S COMPETITION: World champion Nathan Chen is the heavy favorite to win his third straight national title, even though he’s been juggling school work – he is a freshman at Yale – with skating this season. The 19-year-old from Salt Lake City, whose short program at the Olympics was a disappointment, won both of his Grand Prix assignments before repeating as Grand Prix Final champ.
“I didn’t have my coach. I didn’t have the same training ice, times were totally different, but I think I managed well,” Chen said of his first year at college, on the opposite coast from coach Rafael Arutunian and his training base in California. “But I didn’t want to pass up on the opportunity to compete. I still want to do a lot in skating.”
Chen’s closest competition could come from 2015 champion Jason Brown, who moved to Canada to train under Brian Orser and Tracy Wilson, and Vincent Zhou, his teammate on last year’s Olympic team.
“The biggest thing when I came to Toronto, they sat me down and talked to me about this 18-month process and just how long it would take to be comfortable,” Brown said of his move north, “and I was open to that and willing and understanding that change takes time, and I was up for that, up for the challenge, up for whatever that progress looked like.”
PAIRS COMPETITION: Two-time and reigning U.S. champions Alexa Scimeca-Knierim and Chris Knierim are fresh off bronze at NHK Trophy, where an offseason of change finally began to bear fruit.
After the Olympics, the pair moved to Germany to train under Aliona Savchenko, only to reverse course in October and return to the U.S. They’ve been training in California the past few months.
“It’s been a crazy season with a lot of change,” Alexa Scimeca-Knierim said, “but there was no moment of panic. We were just accepting of each situation as it came.”
Tarah Kayne and Danny O’Shea also switched training bases, moving to Colorado to train with Dalilah Sappenfield in a bid to regain the form that won them the 2016 national championship, while Ashley Cain and Timothy LeDuc will be trying to build on their Skate America bronze.
DANCE COMPETITION: The medals keep getting better for Madison Hubbell and Zach Donohue, who helped the U.S. earn bronze at the Winter Games. They proceeded to win silver at the worlds, then won four times this season, including their first Grand Prix Final title.
Their training partners in Montreal, Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker, are the biggest threats, with Madison Chock and Evan Bates a question mark following her offseason ankle surgery.
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