Bradie Tennell leads U.S. Figure Skating Champs; Gracie Gold struggles in return

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Bradie Tennell once again topped the U.S. Figure Skating Championships short program, one day after not being able to bend one of her arms. Can she hold on to dethrone 14-year-old Alysa Liu in Friday’s free skate?

Tennell, the 2018 U.S. champion, skated clean for the highest women’s short score in nationals history (78.96 points). Later, the defending champion Liu turned out of her triple Axel landing and tallied 75.40 for second place.

Last year, Liu overcame a short-program deficit to Tennell to become the youngest U.S. champion in history.

Gracie Gold, at her first nationals in three years after overcoming mental-health struggles, erred on her jumps and is in 13th place of 18 skaters.

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Tennell hit a triple Lutz-triple toe loop combination en route to the lead. A bit surprising, given she told her coaches before her skate that her legs were shaking and that she couldn’t bend one of her arms Wednesday morning.

Tennell revealed that she hit her elbow on a wall on a bad fall, causing”swelling up and down” for the last few months. It was particularly painful and swollen this week. Turns out she had a hematoma that got infected.

“Let’s just say I’m very thankful that my mom is a nurse who has worked in the ER for 25 years,” she said.

Liu, the only active U.S. woman to land a triple Axel or a quadruple jump, overcame a 2.71-point deficit last year to win by 3.92, landing a pair of triple Axels in the free. She has since added a quad Lutz, which isn’t allowed in short programs.

“I feel like I was OK with nerves,” Liu said. “I did make a few mistakes, and it’s OK, because I can learn from them and obviously move on from this so that I don’t get too caught up.”

Mariah Bell is in third place despite falling on a step sequence after hitting all her jumps. Tennell and Bell are favored to make up the team for March’s world championships, given Liu is too young for senior international competition.

Karen Chen, the 2017 U.S. champion and Olympian, is in fifth place after doubling the back end of her combination. Chen, a Cornell pre-med student, missed all of last season due to a stress fracture in her right foot.

Gold two-footed her opening jump and popped a planned triple loop. The two-time U.S. champion was competing at nationals for the first time since 2017. In between, she received treatment for an eating disorder, anxiety and depression and said she harbored suicidal thoughts, according to The New York Times.

“So scared,” she said Thursday night in the kiss-and-cry before her score of 54.51 came up. Gold had reportedly been hitting triple-triple combinations in practice.

“It wasn’t that good, both in the skating and in the results. Just hard,” she said, adding that she was at “a 3 out of 10” from where she wants to be. “There’s no way to train for whatever you describe this situation I’m currently in.

“Emotionally, I felt all the love from almost anyone I’ve run into in the crowd. Practice felt like I never missed a beat. I felt kind of competitive with the other top girls, but with, like, 20 percent of the training. It was just a lot of emotions. I think that was the hard part.”

Earlier in pairs, PyeongChang Olympians Alexa Scimeca Knierim and Christopher Knierim took a 6.71-point lead with a 77.06-point short program.

The Knierims put down their first clean program with zero negative grades of execution since the 2016 Four Continents Championships. It came after a tumultuous post-Olympic year that included two coaching changes and a seventh-place finish at nationals.

Scimeca Knierim ended the performance to “At Last” by Beyoncé by roaring and kicking the ice.

“Those feelings that I let out at the end of the program have been festering inside me for a very long time,” she said, noting their improvements on jumps under Rafael Arutunian, whose best-known pupil is Nathan Chen. The Knierims are trying to become the first pair to win three U.S. titles since 2002.

Two other past U.S. champions — Tarah Kayne and Danny O’Shea and Ashley Cain-Gribble and Timothy LeDuc — are in second and third. They’re all bidding for two spots at worlds, where a U.S. pair last earned a medal in 2002.

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