SAN JOSE, California — Bradie Tennell stood at the end boards, her back to the ice surface, her attention on trying to take in what her imposing coach, Benoit Richaud, was telling her in the final seconds before she took the ice for Thursday’s short program at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships.
It was hard for Tennell to stay focused on – or even hear – what Richaud was saying. A group of kids from U.S. Figure Skating’s development camp, who were sitting in the stands near Tennell, started screaming their lungs out when they were shown on the SAP Center video board. Harry Styles’ “Watermelon Sugar” was blasting at approximately 10 million decibels on the arena’s sound system.
“It was very distracting,” Tennell said, eschewing an athlete’s usual cliché about nothing being able to break her concentration. “But this past year has taught me nothing comes easy.”
It was a year of injuries, re-injuries, new injuries. A year when the two-time U.S. champion had been physically unable to compete for a spot on a second Olympic team in 2022. A year when Tennell turned her life inside out, moving to France to train with Richaud, only to have more setbacks.
“I’ve definitely had my share of bumps in the road on the way here,” Tennell said. “This was a very long time in the making.”
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This was finishing second in the short program, a whisker behind event favorite Isabeau Levito. This was a Tennell performance marred only by unexpected mistakes on spins, her last of seven elements in the short program. This was a statement to anyone who wondered if she could be a factor in the sport again.
“I’m back, baby,” she said, her uncharacteristic bravado tempered by a laugh.
“People can see the job we did, see the improvement,” Richaud said. “Clearly the message tonight is Bradie is one of the best skaters in the world.”
Her skating had a greater maturity and finesse, with striking flow and attention to details of hand movement and body position. She has vowed not to take a pass on any moment in her programs, knowing every second can produce more points.
“I’m a new and improved Bradie,” she said. “I don’t put a limit on myself.”
Tennell opened with a solid triple lutz-triple toe loop combination, the first time she had landed that combination cleanly since her victorious 2021 Nationals. She followed that with a strong triple flip and a good double Axel. A slip on her flying sit spin and a flawed combination spin would cost her the points that dropped her behind Levito, 73.78 to 73.76, going into Friday night’s free skate.
“Made a couple silly mistakes on spins,” Tennell said. “I think I got too excited.”
So as pleased as Tennell was with the result, she once again heard the two voices that quarrel inside her head. One says be satisfied just by being able to compete again; the other wants to win.
“One was jumping up and down with pompoms,” Tennell said. “The other was, ‘But you didn’t get the (highest) spin levels.'”
Starr Andrews was third at 68.97, her highest finish in any segment of the six nationals in which she has competed. Five years ago in this building, Andrews, then 16, had made a dazzling senior debut while finishing sixth, but she has struggled to build on that promise.
“Of course, I wondered if that was going to happen again,” Andrews said.
Andrews helped relive that past glory by wearing the same sparky carmine unitard she had in 2018.
“It was kind of a full circle,” Andrews said. “It was really amazing to be out there again. I felt really comfortable and confident.”
Tennell, too, had created a career-defining moment at this arena in 2018, winning the national title after having finished ninth a year before and going on to earn an Olympic team event bronze medal.
“This is where all my skating craziness started,” she said.
She, too, expressed a feeling of having come full circle. Yet another moment was on her mind as the auditory craziness swirled over her while Richaud, whom Tennell calls “a commanding presence,” was trying to keep her calm by repeating things he had told her earlier this season, when her return to competition had been fraught with poor performances.
Tennell was thinking about the 2019 Nationals in Detroit, when she had won the short program but coped poorly with an unexpected distraction before the free skate.
“I couldn’t get my focus back after that,” she said.
The result was a desultory fourth in the free skate, second overall and a pledge to learn from it.
“I’ve always said to myself if that happened again, I would handle it better,” she recalled.
And she did.
Philip Hersh, who has covered figure skating at the last 12 Winter Olympics, is a special contributor to NBCSports.com.
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