Defending champ Bradie Tennell leads ladies’ short program at U.S. Championships

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DETROIT – The champ held off the phenom.

With her best short program of an inconsistent season, a performance that got stronger as it went along, defending champion Bradie Tennell took command of the U.S. Championships on Thursday night at Little Caesars Arena.

“There have been bright spots and not so bright spots,” Tennell said of her season leading up to nationals. “I’m just cranking away at my programs and the daily grind.”

She ground through the first part of this one, then took flight in the second half, flying unfettered across the ice and still remaining in full control of her final two jumps and two spins.

The result was a flawless 2-minutes, 50 seconds and 76.60 points, giving Tennell, 20, a lead of 2.71 points over Alysa Liu, the 13-year-old expected to take command of U.S. women’s skating in the near future.

“I just enjoyed my performance,” Tennell said. “There really wasn’t thinking involved. I just kind of went on autopilot and got into the zone.”

Results: Ladies’ short program

Liu, last season’s U.S. junior champion, became the first woman to land a triple Axel in the short program at nationals and drew a standing ovation after a program in which the only flaw was an underrotated second jump in her triple Lutz, triple toe combination.

The 4-foot, 7-inch Liu was not overwhelmed by the big stage but was overcome by how well she handled it.  She burst into tears before taking her bows.

“I was really happy,” Liu said of her emotional outpouring.

MORE: How to watch U.S. Championships

Mariah Bell, considered a title contender for the first time in her career, needed perfection to beat Liu, who piled up 10.17 of her 73.89 points for the triple Axel. Bell fell just short, underrotating the triple toe loop in her Lutz-toe combination to finish with 70.30.

“I’m pretty disappointed in myself about the combo,” Bell said.  “It hasn’t come together yet this season.  I’m being held back by the unders [under-rotations].”

The top two after Friday’s free skate will be likely go to Worlds – unless one of them is Liu, who is age ineligible not only for senior worlds until the 2021-22 season but for junior worlds until next season.

MORE: Get to know Alysa Liu

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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Federica Brignone passes Mikaela Shiffrin for World Cup overall lead

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Italian Federica Brignone passed an absent Mikaela Shiffrin for the World Cup overall standings lead by winning a combined in Switzerland on Sunday.

Brignone prevailed by .92 of a second adding times from super-G and slalom runs in Crans-Montana. Full results are here.

Brignone moved 73 points ahead of Shiffrin in the overall through 29 of 40 scheduled races. A race winner receives 100 points on a descending scale through the 30th-place finisher. The season runs through March 22.

Shiffrin, the three-time reigning World Cup overall champion, has not competed since the unexpected death of her father on Feb. 2. She has not announced if or when she will return this season.

Brignone, 29, is having a career season with five wins and 10 podiums across four disciplines.

Brignone’s best previous World Cup overall standings finish was fifth. She earned giant slalom medals at the 2018 Olympics (bronze) and 2011 World Championships (silver).

She could become Italy’s first female World Cup overall champion. The last Italian male winner was Alberto Tomba in 1995.

The women’s Alpine skiing World Cup moves to La Thuile, Italy, for a super-G and a combined next Saturday and Sunday.

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MORE: Alpine skiing season TV schedule

Jade Carey on brink of becoming first gymnast to qualify for U.S. Olympic team

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The U.S. Olympic gymnastics trials aren’t until late June, but Jade Carey is in position to qualify for the Tokyo Games in March.

Carey, seeking an individual Olympic gymnastics spot outside of the team competition, earned the maximum points in a World Cup series that is one path to Olympic qualification.

Carey has three wins each on floor exercise and vault with two World Cups left in March. Carey will mathematically clinch an Olympic spot if no other gymnasts win three times on one of the apparatuses to force a tiebreaker.

So far, no other gymnast has two wins on floor. One gymnast has two wins on vault. A gymnast’s top three finishes across the eight-stop series count in Olympic qualifying. If Carey finishes atop the floor or vault standings, she goes to the Olympics.

Carey picked up those third wins on floor and vault at the sixth World Cup in Melbourne, Australia, this weekend.

The one downside to qualifying this route: Carey would not be able to compete in the team competition at the Olympics. Those four spots will be determined at and after June’s trials in St. Louis, with Simone Biles likely grabbing one of them.

“I knew I would be giving up being on the team,” Carey said in October of going the World Cup route, “but I think, for me, it made sense to just go for it.”

Carey is a world medalist on vault and floor, but she doesn’t have the all-around credentials of Biles and some other U.S. gymnasts.

Olympic team event roster sizes were cut from five to four for Tokyo, putting a greater onus on all-around prowess given a team must put three gymnasts on each apparatus in the Olympic final.

The U.S. is the deepest country in women’s gymnastics, so the only truly safe pick to make the four-woman Olympic team event roster is Biles.

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MORE: Olympic vault champion retires