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Bradie Tennell eating up the Yuletide spirit before prepping for defense of national title

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Reigning U.S. ladies’ champion and 2018 Olympian Bradie Tennell is filled with Christmas spirit. Her family’s tree is up and decorated, she has her Christmas pajamas ready, and most of her gift shopping has been done.

“We have a Christmas Eve tradition where my mom always makes crepes,” said Tennell. “She fills them with applesauce. She asks if we want cinnamon applesauce or regular applesauce. Everyone always wants cinnamon apple sauce. So, we end up eating the regular applesauce with spoons out of dishes.”

Crepe preparation takes about two hours. By the time it’s finished, some are cold, so they warm them up in the oven. The family watches a Christmas movie together while eating the crepes. Tennell, 20, is the oldest of three kids. Brother Austin is 19 and Shane is 17. For Christmas day, Tennell is going to try and make a pumpkin pie.

Some skaters move away to train, but Tennell has been able to live at home with her family while training at the elite level. She considers herself fortunate to have her mother and brothers present in her daily life.

“It’s played a huge part,” she said. “My family is so important to me. All these traditions shape who you are as a person. Being able to hear about my brothers’ days at school every day or go to my mom with a random topic, like a problem, even some funny story that happened that day, it’s been really awesome. I’m so grateful I have the resources here to be able to live at home.”

The Christmas Eve crepes and a movie is strictly for Tennell, her mother and brothers. She doesn’t have a favorite Christmas movie and admitted she hasn’t yet seen classics like White Christmas and It’s a Wonderful Life, but said she’s going to check them out.

Tennell’s mother, Jean, is a nurse, but she makes it a point to not work on Christmas Eve. “She’s really proactive about making sure she’s home on Christmas Eve because both we’re huge Christmas fans,” said Tennell. “We love Christmas.”

The Christmas tree went up the weekend after Tennell got home from Internationaux de France. She caught up on TV shows while decorating the tree.

“Putting the tree up is a big task, but my favorite part of Christmas is coming home and seeing the tree every day,” said Tennell. “I learned how to put up the Christmas tree from my mom, obviously. My favorite part is she always puts so many lights on, so the tree is bright and beautiful. Over the years, I’ve collected quite a few skate ornaments, so you can always tell which ornaments are mine.”

She brought a couple of ornaments back from her recent trip to Golden Spin of Zagreb, which she won. Tennell also does some of her Christmas shopping during her skating travels. Shopping overseas enables her to find new and unusual things.

“You’ve got all these really unique gifts for people,” she said. “It’s really fun for me to give my friends and family gifts from overseas. The looks on their faces when they see a really interesting gift is so much fun for me to see.”

Bradie Tennell and her mother at the Golden Spin competition in Croatia. / Credit: Courtesy of Bradie Tennell

Gifts are opened on Christmas morning and she does not reveal in advance what she got someone. Tennell will be wearing Christmas pajamas and her mother has a pair of Mickey Mouse Christmas pajamas that she likes to wear.

As Christmas approaches, Tennell can be found channeling the season at the ice rink. She wears green pants paired with the brightest red shirt she has. The fun of it makes the training day go by more easily.

Shortly after Christmas, Tennell heads to Lake Placid, N.Y. for Stars on Ice. There will be no overindulging on Christmas, but she definitely will have at least a couple of Christmas cookies.

“How can you not?” she said.

Looking back on her 2018, Tennell knows it’s been a good year—winning a U.S. title, going to the Olympics and winning a bronze medal in the team competition. Her Olympic gear is perfect for the cold Illinois winters.

“The jacket is so warm,” she said. “It’s great to whip that out when I’m going to my brother’s hockey game.”

Right after the U.S. Figure Skating Championships, Tennell turns 21, but she hasn’t given that big birthday too much thought.

“Why don’t we get through nationals first, and then I’ll focus on that,” she said.

As a reminder, you can watch the U.S. Championships live and on-demand with the ‘Figure Skating Pass’ on NBC Sports Gold. Go to NBCsports.com/gold/figure-skating to sign up for access to every ISU Grand Prix and championship event, as well as domestic U.S. Figure Skating events throughout the season. NBC Sports Gold gives subscribers an unprecedented level of access on more platforms and devices than ever before.

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MORE: Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue starting new holiday traditions

Daniel Romanchuk’s ascent to marathon stardom accelerated at University of Illinois

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The rise of Daniel Romanchuk has been one of the major stories of this Paralympic cycle. The wheelchair racer was eliminated in the first round of all five of his races in Rio.

But now, he’s the world’s best marathoner with a 6-foot-10 wingspan, a world-record holder on the track and already qualified for the Tokyo Games.

Romanchuk, born with spina bifida, was profiled by NBC Sports Chicago as part of a series of NBC Sports Regional Networks pieces published this week — marking 150 days until the Tokyo Olympics and six months until the Tokyo Paralympics.

NBC RSN Olympic and Paralympic Profiles
NBC Sports Bay Area

Abbey Weitzeil (Swimming) — LINK

NBC Sports Boston
Margaret Bertasi (Rowing) — LINK
Abbey D’Agostino Cooper (Track and Field) — LINK

NBC Sports Chicago
Ryan Murphy (Swimming) — LINK

NBC Sports Northwest
Galen Rupp (Marathon) — LINK
Mariel Zagunis (Fencing) — LINK

NBC Sports Philadelphia
Vashti Cunningham (Track and Field) — LINK
Julie Ertz (Soccer) — LINK

NBC Sports Washington
Katie Ledecky (Swimming) — LINK
Kyle Snyder (Wrestling) — LINK

Romanchuk, 21, swept the Boston, London, Chicago and New York City Marathon titles in 2019. He attributes that success to his native Baltimore and his training residence of the University of Illinois.

At age 2, he was enrolled in Baltimore’s Bennett Blazers, an adaptive sports program for children with physical disabilities. Tatyana McFadden, a 17-time Paralympic medalist who dominated women’s wheelchair marathons, planted her athletic roots there.

“Their motto is to teach kids they can before they’re told they can’t,” Romanchuk said.

Things really blossomed for Romanchuk after he moved from Baltimore to the University of Illinois. Illinois was designated a U.S. Paralympic training site in 2014 and has produced McFadden, Jean Driscoll and other U.S. Paralympic stars.

“Without this program, I certainly would not be where I am,” Romanchuk said. “It’s a very unique combination of coaching and teammates.”

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MORE: Ten Paralympic hopefuls to watch for 2020 Tokyo Games

Chloé Dygert wanted to be Steve Prefontaine. Then Larry Bird. Now, her coach.

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Chloé Dygert is the U.S.’ top cyclist, an Olympic medalist and world champion in line to race on the track and the road at the Tokyo Games.

To get to this point — leading the American contingent at the world track cycling championships this week — Dygert was kicked off a soccer team, bribed by her father and, when she thought her career was over, enrolled in 5 a.m. classes to get back on the bike.

“I had no interest in being a cyclist. I did not want to be a cyclist,” she said. “The funny thing is, my dad kept getting me bikes.”

It began in Brownsburg, Ind., a 25,000-person town 15 miles northwest of Indianapolis. Dygert had an older brother, younger brother and a BMX dirt bike track on a 4.5-acre property.

She played soccer, but was moved from the girls’ team to the boys. Dygert developed physically earlier than the other girls. And, “I was a little too mean and aggressive,” she said.

She played basketball but broke too many bones — her own and those of other girls. “Not on purpose,” she said, “but I was just so much bigger and naturally so much stronger.”

Dygert ran cross-country, too, but none of those sports worked out.

“I was going to be Steve Prefontaine,” she said of the fabled 1972 Olympian. “I had some injuries, and I started playing basketball. I was going to be Larry Bird. I had some more injuries, and cycling was just kind of my go-to.”

Dygert, at first reluctant, picked up cycling at the urging of her father, David, a mountain biker. She received bikes for Christmas and her New Year’s birthday, but it wasn’t until later, when she was 15, that her father’s words changed her life.

That summer, when Dygert needed a shoulder surgery from a basketball injury, she went for a ride at a local park with her father. David marveled.

“He said, ‘Chloe, I don’t think a girl your age should be able to put out the power that you’re putting out,'” Dygert remembered. “That kind of stuck with me and got me into wanting to ride a little bit more and seeing where I could go with it.”

David lured her: a pair of Oakleys if Dygert won at her first major competition. She entered junior nationals and grabbed a victory.

“That’s kind of what gave me the motivation to keep going,” she said. “It took me a while to actually love the sport. It definitely was not an interest that I had. But I thrive on winning. I love to win.”

Dygert pursued cycling, but she didn’t stop basketball. Everything changed when she tore an ACL on the court at age 17, a nine-month injury. She never returned to competitive basketball, but she also lost motivation to get back on the bike. Again, David urged her. One last time.

She joined the cycling team at Marian University, a private Catholic school in Indianapolis. David signed her up for 5 a.m. classes.

“I’m still not happy about it,” she said. “I got really disciplined.”

And reinvigorated. The freshman Dygert noticed in a power booster class that her wattage was impressive.

“If it wasn’t for that and the structure and the discipline that I had gotten from that and my dad, I would not be here,” she said. “There’s not a day that goes by, I’m just so thankful for that and for him.”

Dygert dropped out after that first fall semester to focus on a cycling career. That winter, she won a world title with the U.S. team pursuit and was named to become the youngest female U.S. Olympic track cyclist in history.

“I see myself being a Kristin Armstrong, following in her footsteps, being a good all-around rider and a very good time trialist,” Dygert said before earning team pursuit silver at the Rio Olympics, according to The Associated Press.

Armstrong earned her third Olympic road time trial title in Rio, a day before turning 43. She retired and transitioned from Dygert’s mentor to her coach. Dygert recently moved to Armstrong’s native Idaho.

On the eve of September’s world road cycling championships time trial, Armstrong told Dygert to make sure she hurt more than any other rider on the 18-mile course. Dygert obeyed. She went out and won by 92 seconds, the largest margin in history, to become the youngest world champion ever in the event. She collapsed onto the pavement getting off her bike.

“I didn’t race with a power meter,” Dygert said that day, “and I think that really helped not restricting myself, just kind of going as fast as I could the entire time and not really have anything to gauge it off of.”

It qualified Dygert for the Tokyo Olympics on the road. The track team hasn’t been named, but Dygert will surely anchor a new team pursuit quartet. The U.S. has never won an Olympic women’s track title, but the pursuit has been its trademark event — world titles in 2016, 2017 and 2018. Olympic silver medals in 2012 and 2016.

The only woman on both of those Olympic teams retired (Sarah Hammer).

The cycling community was floored when Kelly Catlin, on all three world title teams with Dygert, committed suicide last March at age 23.

“It’s definitely hard not having her there, but we will carry her legacy on,” Dygert said. “She will be with us every step of the way when we win gold in Tokyo.”

The U.S. women’s team pursuit finished seventh at last year’s worlds without Catlin and without Dygert, who sat out nearly a year after a May 2018 concussion from a road crash. Dygert wondered if she might not be able to come back from the head injury. Expectations were tempered when she and a new team entered a November World Cup in Belarus.

A coach predicted nothing faster than 4 minutes, 17 seconds. They clocked 4:13 and won in what Dygert believed was the U.S.’ second-fastest time since the Rio Games.

“We’ve never raced together before,” Dygert said. “We didn’t really know what we would be able to do.”

Dygert is bidding to race in three events in Tokyo — road race (July 26), road time trial (July 29) and team pursuit (Aug. 3-4). People compare combining the road and the track to training for both the sprints and the marathon. The plurality of the focus will be on the time trial and to follow the path set by Armstrong to the top of an Olympic podium. Hopefully, road and track podiums.

“We’re going to be smart about which event that we choose to be full gas for so my fitness is still there for all the other events,” Dygert said. “Being fit for the time trial will also correlate for the track.”

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MORE: Full list of U.S. athletes qualified for Tokyo Olympics