Bradie Tennell is asked to recall one memory from 2017 Skate America.
“Standing at the door for free program and looking into the arena and saying to myself, oh, it feels a bit like nationals,” she said.
Tennell returns this week to the event where she broke out last season. Before 2017 Skate America, Tennell had never competed on the top senior international level. She had finished sixth and ninth at two nationals appearances, spending a summer in a back brace in between. She was the dark horse for the three-woman Olympic team.
Then Tennell went 15 for 15 on her jumps at Skate America at the Lake Placid 1980 Olympic Arena on Thanksgiving weekend. She earned a bronze medal with the highest score in any international competition by a U.S. woman in more than a year and half.
“I did my job,” Tennell said that day. “I think I have [put myself in the Olympic conversation].”
Tennell’s next three competitions were nationals (which she won) and the Olympics and world championships, where she was the top-placing American in ninth and sixth, respectively, albeit with uncharacteristic jumping errors.
She goes into this week’s Skate America — at the beginning of the Grand Prix series, rather than the end — as the clear American headliner in the marquee Winter Olympic event.
Mirai Nagasu, Ashley Wagner and Polina Edmunds aren’t competing this fall. Gracie Gold is coming back but hasn’t competed in nearly two years. The other active Olympian, Karen Chen, just withdrew from her first Grand Prix next month with a foot injury.
“I don’t really get nervous, per se,” Tennell said last week. “I think the only time that I am anything close to like anxious is right before my music starts. But last year I was so excited to be at my first Grand Prix, finally, after so much had happened in the past. That excitement carried over into my performances.”
Tennell’s goals this season, which she looks at daily with coach Denise Myers in suburban Chicago, include showing a grown-up look. Last season, Tennell’s teenage free skate was to “Cinderella.” This season, the 20-year-old chose “Romeo and Juliet.”
“I want this year’s Bradie to be very mature, very elegant, somebody who is almost unrecognizable from last year,” Tennell said in an interview with Skating magazine, for which she wore a black “New Kids on the Block” sleeveless T-shirt and plugged into a Sanyo Walkman for the cover photo shoot, an homage to her love of 1980s rock.
Tennell used the Shakespearean tragedy to overtake Olympic silver medalist Yevgenia Medvedeva of Russia in her season debut at the Autumn Classic in Canada last month. The free-skate score ranks sixth in the world going into the Grand Prix series, trailing three Russians and two Japanese.
The challenge for Tennell and every top U.S. woman the last several years has been breaking into the top echelon of skaters from Russia and Japan.
“When she blew onto the scene, obviously, technically, she’s fantastic and so consistent [with jumps], which I think really sets her apart,” NBC Sports analyst Tara Lipinski said. “The effort [at Autumn Classic], the choices of music, her movement, choreography, intention behind each movement is, in my opinion, dramatically improved from last year. Is it at the same level as Yevgenia or [Olympic champion] Alina Zagitova? No. So I still think this is going to be a time of transformation for her over the next few seasons. But she’s off to a really, really strong start.”
Tennell also added the triple Lutz-triple loop combination, done only by Zagitova last season among the senior women.
Myers, who has coached Tennell since age 9, insists they don’t compare scores or even talk about placements.
“I don’t give that any thought,” said Tennell, whose pre-competition focus is on the likes of AC/DC, Journey and Foreigner on her 100-plus-song playlist. “I don’t focus on other people, who they are or what they’ve done.”
Then Tennell may not be dwelling on the fact that she could become the youngest U.S. woman to win Skate America since Kimmie Meissner in 2007. Neither Zagitova nor Medvedeva is in this week’s field in Everett, Wash. Neither is world champion Kaetlyn Osmond of Canada, who is taking the season off.
The top threats are Japanese Satoko Miyahara and Kaori Sakamoto, who went one-two ahead of Tennell at 2017 Skate America. Tennell’s total score from Autumn Classic (206.41) beat those from Miyahara and Sakamoto in their late-summer events.
“You can tell that [Tennell] didn’t win the national title, go to the Olympics and is relaxing, easing into the next Olympic cycle,” NBC Sports analyst Johnny Weir said. “She’s out for blood.”
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