Bradie Tennell had awakened at 4 a.m., as usual, and arrived at the Twin Rinks Ice Pavilion in Chicago’s northwest suburbs by 6 a.m., as usual. Now it was early afternoon, and the 2018 Olympic team event bronze medalist was on her sixth of seven 30-minute training session of the day.
It is a workload that befits her personality on and off the ice: relentless, no-nonsense, a grinder in a sport where the surface glitz often hides the lunch-bucket labor that figure skaters put in daily on rinks like this one.
Not all of her training days are so intense. Her coach of 11 years, Denise Myers, insists that the 20-year-old Tennell cut back at times to make sure she stays healthy after having had her skating career threatened by back problems in both the 2016 and 2017 seasons. So there are days with reduced jumping and days with no jumping at all and days with fewer sessions and fewer full program run-throughs.
“I like to take as long as I need to get everything done,” Tennell said. “I don’t really count the hours.”
Getting it all done would take longer on this penultimate day of October because Tennell and Myers had just changed the jumps at the end of her free skate program to make them worth a few more tenths of a point. The triple Lutz-triple toe-double toe combination now was a triple Lutz-triple toe; the triple flip-double toe had become a triple flip-double toe-double loop.
Tennell used her phone’s Bluetooth connection to cue up the section of her “Romeo and Juliet” free skate music that led into and included those altered jumps. The first attempt ended in a fall on the flip. The next three went well. By the final one, the effort had led Tennell to remove a long-sleeved outer shirt, leaving her in a top that bared arms and shoulders in a frigid rink.
Tennell insisted she is not feeling the heat after a 2018 season that began with her as a little-known outsider and ended with her as the country’s top woman singles skater, having decisively won last season’s U.S. title and then been the highest finisher of three U.S. woman at the Olympics (ninth) and the world championships (sixth). With three-time U.S. champion Ashley Wagner and 2018 Olympian Mirai Nagasu on (permanent?) competitive hiatus and the third 2018 Olympian, Karen Chen, struggling with an injury and lingering confidence issues, Tennell’s national pre-eminence going into this season looks even greater.
“I don’t think about the fact that I’m the leading lady for the U.S.,” Tennell said. “That’s kind of extra stuff. Focusing on what I am there to do is the best thought process for me.
“In the back of my mind, I know I am in a different position. The biggest change is that I’m more known. There is good and bad to that, but it’s exciting.”
The downside is there is no more hiding in the weeds, as Tennell was able to do before winning a bronze medal in her senior Grand Prix debut over last Thanksgiving weekend at Skate America. The skating world now expects things from her, and it has been paying attention to her successes and struggles so far this season.
Tennell began it in Canada with two solid skates, marred only by minor errors, that led to her upset win over reigning Olympic silver medalist Yevgenia Medvedeva of Russia at September’s Autumn Classic International, a Challenger Series event. Two weeks later, at the free-skate-only Japan Open team event, some slightly more consequential mistakes left her fourth – but within shouting distance of second in a good field as Olympic champion Alina Zagitova of Russia was a runaway winner.
Two weeks after that, at October’s Skate America, first of the six Grand Prix series “regular season” events, she had a huge mistake in the short program, popping (singling) the second jump in her planned triple lutz-triple loop combination. “I was like, ‘What did you just do?’” she recalled. “I hate popping. It drives me crazy.”
She followed that with an underwhelming free skate, with three lesser errors, and wound up fourth. To have a shot at the Grand Prix Final, she likely needs a win in her second Grand Prix, the season-ending Internationaux de France Thanksgiving weekend in Grenoble.
Even winning may not be enough, and it may even be mathematically impossible before she competes in France. Others could clinch two of the six spots at this weekend’s NHK Trophy in Japan – fourth of the six events.
“It would have been nice to make it, and that was our hope and our goal, but it’s not the end-all,” Myers said. “At Skate America, I had to remind her that this was only her second Grand Prix.”
Her current choreographer, Benoit Richaud, had been taken by surprise the first time he saw Tennell skate, at the 2017 Junior World Championships, where she was the highest U.S. finisher in seventh place. At that point, Richaud had never heard of her.
“I was almost shocked to see how good she was, because nobody was talking about her,” Richaud, 30, said Thursday via telephone from his home in Avignon, France.
“When I see how much she has improved in the last two seasons, I cannot tell you what her limits are. As a skater, she is still under construction. She has all the base technically. Now it is a process of developing her personality.”
After winning the U.S. junior title in 2015, Tennell’s next two seasons were compromised by fractures in different lumbar vertebrae. She missed months of training both times. She finished sixth and then ninth at her first two senior U.S. Championships, in 2016 and 2017.
“My main goal going into last season was just to stay healthy,” Tennell said. “If I had just gotten through without being injured and all the madness that happened hadn’t happened, I would still have been happy. Thankfully, I was very successful.”
Healthy, she showed a technical consistency so stunning it offset her callow artistry. Over her four significant competitions last season through the team event at the Olympics, where she skated the short program, Tennell had made 34 jumping passes without a fall and done 33 of 34 triple jumps flawlessly. That streak ended at the wrong time: the second jump of her opening triple-triple combination in the Olympic singles short program.
“I shocked myself a little bit,” she said of the fall. “It was stupid.
“We’re all human. We all make mistakes. That one just probably happened at the worst time ever.”
There were lesser errors in the free skate, although even a flawless Tennell probably would not have been higher than seventh in the Olympics. But just being in the Olympics seemed inconceivable even a few months earlier.
“Any time I think about it, it brings a smile to my face,” she said.
She smiled recounting how a friend recently complimented the sweatpants Tennell was wearing. “Thank you,” she replied. “I got them at the Olympics.” Then, the essence of her answer struck her. “I was like, ‘I can’t believe I can say that.’”
At the ensuing worlds, Tennell was fourth in the free skate, beating both Zagitova and 2014 Olympic bronze medalist Carolina Kostner of Italy in that phase. And what she calls the madness surrounding her success continued: a “shoot-the-puck” appearance in a personalized jersey at a Blackhawks game (her two younger brothers, Austin and Shane, are both high school hockey players), then a full and physically demanding run with the Stars on Ice tour.
Her new stature, with its accompanying financial rewards, has relieved some of the pressure on her mother, Jean Tennell, who has raised three children on her own and found ways to cover their sports expenses. Jean, a nurse, was able to reduce her workload from two jobs to one this year. Bradie can coach less frequently. The whole family still lives together in Carpentersville, Ill., and Jean travels with Bradie to competitions.
“I wouldn’t be where I am without the sacrifices my mom made,” Tennell said. “To be able to repay even a fraction of that means a lot to me.”
Tennell took no extended break, only a few days off here and there, when the Stars tour ended May 20. (Myers made an 11-day vacation trip to Tanzania and Zanzibar with her husband and sister-in-law.) She wanted to waste no time preparing for a 2018-19 season in which her objectives include enlarging people’s perceptions of her.
“I want to repeat as national champion and be on the podium at worlds,” she said. “I want the skating world to see I am more than I was last year. I really wanted to go in a different direction and show I can live up to the challenge of skating with more maturity and not looking so fragile on the ice.”
Tennell, a willowy 5-feet, 6-inches, has more challenging programs this season, with more difficult transitions, fewer crossovers and a triple lutz-triple loop combination in both (in addition to a triple lutz-triple toe in the free skate.) She has been surprised that technical controllers have been dinging her for wrong or unclear edges on the triple flip and is trying to eliminate the wiggle that she feels creates a mistaken impression about the takeoff edge.
“I’ve been working on that,” she said.
The biggest change is her music choices: a short program to a sci-fi movie trailer song, “Rebirth,” by Hi-Finesse; and, in place of last year’s jejune “Cinderella,” there is a long program to music from three different versions of “Romeo and Juliet,” with the well-known airy, romantic theme bookended by powerful, dense selections from Prokofiev’s landmark, eponymous ballet and the score from the movie, “William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet.”
Richaud, who began working with Tennell before last season, has choreographed the free skate in way that shows off her long line and allows Tennell to present herself in a much different manner than she could with “Cinderella,” no matter that Shakespeare’s Juliet is a much younger character. Staccato, abrupt arm movements near the start of the final section, “O Verona,” emphasize the medieval, mysterious, percussive quality of the music. There is expressiveness in Tennell’s face that was absent last year.
“We wanted something different from last year and different from her short program, which is very modern,” Richaud said. “Everyone always used just one version of ‘Romeo.’ Here we tried to combine things to make it look a little more fresh.
“I hear people say she has no personality. I wanted to show this is wrong, because she has a lot. She is a very strong girl. You can really see in these three different pieces three different feelings. It doesn’t matter what you are feeling. The important thing is for people to see she is feeling something.”
Maturity, Richaud noted, comes from an aggregate of experiences: being U.S. champion, going to the Olympics, traveling with Stars on Ice, being noticed.
“It’s like a beautiful mixed salad,” he said. “You can’t do it with just lettuce. You need tomato, mustard, vinegar, pepper, oil. You need everything.”
Tennell’s nature is such that she is likely to remain an athlete who performs more than a performer who does the necessary athletic tricks. It also explains her limited presence on social media.
“I was very shy last year,” she said. “I’m working at coming out of my shell a little bit. But I’m not one of those people that’s going to be in your face all the time.”
The choice of words there is telling. Tennell is “working” on it. Working is what she knows best, what she does best, what got her from the weeds to the 2018 Olympics, what she counts on to get her to the next Winter Games in 2022, why she took no real vacation after the longest – and most productive – season of her career.
“I was impressed from the beginning with how humble she is and what a hard worker she is,” Richaud said. “She is one of the easiest skaters I have to work with. When you talk to her and say something, she understands and does it.
“Every week, I see improvement on everything. She cares, and she wants to develop. Not everyone wants that – even big champions.”
So it was with her practicing the changed jumps.
“I really want to hammer those in, to get it like second nature,” she said.
Another revealing word choice: “hammer.” For Bradie Tennell, there is no other way to go at things but hammer and tongs.
She grabbed her phone and cued up the music again.
Philip Hersh, who has covered figure skating at the last 11 Winter Olympics, is a special contributor to NBCSports.com/figure-skating
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