Bradie Tennell pushes forward in fresh start, aiming for triple Axel

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Bradie Tennell was frustrated.

Three years after she had gone from “who?” to “wow!,” jumping from ninth to first at the U.S. Championships in just one season and then becoming the highest U.S. finisher at both the 2018 Olympics and world championships, Tennell felt as if she were spinning her wheels.

It wasn’t as if the figure skater from north suburban Chicago no longer was getting solid results. Last season, despite a foot injury in late summer, she became the first U.S. woman to qualify for the Grand Prix Final since 2015 and the first to win a Four Continents Championship medal (bronze) since 2017. She also completed a full set of medals at nationals, adding 2020 bronze to her 2018 gold and 2019 silver.

“But I was getting older, and I didn’t feel I was reaching my goals fast enough, and I wasn’t progressing fast enough,” Tennell said.

Tennell was increasingly annoyed by her failure to get traction on her goal of adding another spin to one jump, the Axel. She wanted to master the triple Axel, a jump that is turning into something of a litmus test for elite women the way it did for elite men in the 1980s.

It reached the point where, at age 22, she would explain the frustration during a recent phone interview with a paraphrase of a quote about insanity attributed to Albert Einstein.

“I was doing the same thing over and over and not getting a different result,” Tennell said. “This is literally the definition of insanity.

“I felt like I was slowly losing myself. I was putting everything I had into this, and it just wasn’t happening. It’s very crushing when you feel you are letting yourself down, when you’re trying so hard, and it’s not going anywhere. You feel like, ‘What am I missing?’”

Tennell’s initial response to that question had been to continue working with her longtime coach, Denise Myers, in Vernon Hills, IL, while planning regular visits to coach Tom Zakrajsek, known for ability to reach jumps, in Colorado Springs, CO. It was Zakrajsek who had taught Mirai Nagasu the triple Axel, a process that began when she was 21 and ended three years later, in 2018, when Nagasu became the first U.S. woman to land the jump in an Olympics.

Near the end of what was to have been the first two-week visit to Colorado, in early August, Tennell realized she had found something else that was missing: an environment in which she was not the only high-level skater, where several champions could motivate her.

The athletes training with other coaches at the World Arena in Colorado Springs include 2018 Olympians Vincent Zhou and Karen Chen, 2019 world junior champion Tomoki Hiwatashi and 2018 U.S. junior champion Camden Pulkinen. Watching Zhou and Hiwatashi rattle off clean quadruple jumps regularly in practice has inspired Tennell.

“A week into being out here [Colorado Springs], I fell in love with the training atmosphere, and I really loved working with Tom,” she said. “I tried to picture myself going back, but I couldn’t picture it, and I didn’t want to picture it. In my gut, I feel like this is where I belong. This is like a fresh start.”

So, with the help of her mother, Jean, she moved to Colorado, sharing an apartment with a non-skater and preparing for a season in which Covid-19 has made planning anything else nearly impossible.

Tennell’s sudden change of coaching plans had ended a 13-year working relationship with Myers. Asked via text message if the move surprised her, Myers replied, “I’ll always support Bradie. Sometimes the grass is greener, but sometimes it isn’t. Time will tell, and I truly hope she is happy.”

Many feel it takes two years for a skater to adapt fully to a new coach. That “break-in” period may be shortened by the current circumstances, with pandemic-related event cancellations minimizing travel and giving skaters more uninterrupted training time.

“Of course, we’re still getting to know each other, but I think it has been a fairly smooth transition,” she said. “Not having to travel so much is helping that.”

By now in any other season, Tennell would likely have done at last one foreign competition. Her first live competition under Zakrajsek’s tutelage will be Skate America in Las Vegas Friday and Saturday with no spectators and in a bubble created to protect athletes, coaches and officials. NBC Sports will provide complete coverage on NBC, NBCSN and Peacock Premium.

Skate America usually is part of a six-nation international Grand Prix Series leading to a Final, but the Canadian and French competitions have been cancelled, as has the 2021 Four Continents Championships scheduled for February in Australia.

The four remaining Grand Prix events, in the U.S., Russia, Japan and China, are to be essentially domestic competitions, and the Final has been indefinitely postponed from its scheduled December dates in Beijing.

The 2021 World Championships still are scheduled for late March in Stockholm; the 2020 worlds in Montreal were cancelled. The 2021 U.S. Championships are to take place at San Jose in January.

“We are so extremely lucky to be competing at Skate America even under difficult circumstances, and I am very grateful we have that opportunity,” Tennell said. “I will try to make the most of every opportunity presented.”

That is why Tennell chose to do U.S. Figure Skating’s virtual competition, the International Selection Pool Points Challenge, even though its two “opportunities” came when she was still settling into Colorado Springs. Despite understandably unpolished and flawed performances, she finished second overall to Mariah Bell and had the highest free skate score in the second opportunity.

Tennell said her goal for this season is to land a triple Axel cleanly. She has come close a few times in practice, landing on one foot, although the jumps so far have mainly been either under-rotated or “cheated” – finishing the rotation on the ice after landing.

Zakrajsek said her first competitive attempt at the triple Axel likely will be at the virtual Aerial Figure Skating Challenge, for which videos must be submitted by Nov. 2, or at one of U.S. Figure Skating’s Championship Series live events later in the fall.

He has been working with her on a different entry pattern to the three-and-a-half-rotation jump and on getting more airtime after the takeoff. It is the only one of the six jump types in skating that has a forward takeoff.

“It’s not just telling her what she needs to do but teaching her how to do what she needs to do,” Zakrajsek said. “As you get more confident in the technique, you will be able to work out the ‘cheat’ on the landing and consistently do a jump that is fully rotated.”

Twelve women have been credited with cleanly landing a triple Axel in international competition, half since 2016. Other than Nagasu, only Tonya Harding was not a teenager when she landed her first, at age 20 in 1991.

That Zakrajsek was able to teach Nagasu the jump when she already was a woman of a certain age by current women’s skating parameters factored in the reasons that led Tennell to stay in Colorado Springs.

“I thought, ‘Hey, if he could teach Mirai, he knows how to teach it to a woman [rather than a teen],’” Tennell said.

Nagasu’s triple Axel in the team event at the 2018 Olympics was the only one in her 11 career attempts for which she received a positive Grade of Execution. Six others were called fully rotated.

The most complicated part of teaching the jump to an older skater is avoiding injury. Nagasu has said damage from training the jump led her to need the first of two hip surgeries since the 2018 Olympics.

Tennell’s skating career was threatened by back problems in the 2016 and 2017 seasons. Even though she said her back is much stronger since then, both the skater and the coach said they are exercising caution.

“It’s definitely something I have to watch for, but as long as I don’t overdo it, I don’t really think I have to worry about it,” Tennell said.

“We all love competing, but there is a certain wear and tear that goes with competing and traveling so much. Being able to stay home and train this season might actually help with that.”

Tennell worked out all the choreography for this year’s programs via Zoom with her France-based choreographer, Benoit Richaud. The short is to a piece by the English indie rock group, Florence and the Machine, the free to pieces by two composers. She and Richaud still do frequent Zoom sessions to refine the presentation.

“I want to show a more mature side, to show I’m becoming a woman now,” Tennell said.

During the early months of the pandemic, when no rinks were open, she found time to return to a childhood pursuit, playing the piano, which she had put aside when skating became her extracurricular priority as a high school freshman.

“I still remember a ton of piano stuff, including old exercises,” she said. “The hardest part of starting again was training my hands to be in coordination with each other. I forgot how hard it was to have my left hand doing something different than my right. It sounds so simple.”

Sort of like adding one more rotation to a jump, even if only a relative few women have gone from two to three on the axel. That has proved a lot harder than Tennell expected when she began trying to do triple Axels. She imagines how lovely hitting one could sound, bringing the takeoff, height, airtime, rotations and landing together in perfect harmony.

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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USA Boxing to skip world championships

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USA Boxing will not send boxers to this year’s men’s and women’s world championships, citing “the ongoing failures” of the IBA, the sport’s international governing body, that put boxing’s place on the Olympic program at risk.

The Washington Post first reported the decision.

In a letter to its members, USA Boxing Executive Director Mike McAtee listed many factors that led to the decision, including IBA governance issues, financial irregularities and transparency and that Russian and Belarusian boxers are allowed to compete with their flags.

IBA lifted its ban on Russian and Belarusian boxers in October and said it would allow their flags and anthems to return, too.

The IOC has not shifted from its recommendation to international sports federations last February that Russian and Belarusian athletes be barred, though the IOC and Olympic sports officials have been exploring whether those athletes could return without national symbols.

USA Boxing said that Russian boxers have competed at an IBA event in Morocco this month with their flags and are expected to compete at this year’s world championships under their flags.

“While sport is intended to be politically neutral, many boxers, coaches and other representatives of the Ukrainian boxing community were killed as a result of the Russian aggression against Ukraine, including coach Mykhaylo Korenovsky who was killed when a Russian missile hit an apartment block in January 2023,” according to the USA Boxing letter. “Ukraine’s sports infrastructure, including numerous boxing gyms, has been devastated by Russian aggression.”

McAtee added later that USA Boxing would still not send athletes to worlds even if Russians and Belarusians were competing as neutrals and without their flags.

“USA Boxing’s decision is based on the ‘totality of all of the factors,'” he said in an emailed response. “Third party oversite and fairness in the field of play is the most important factor.”

A message has been sent to the IBA seeking comment on USA Boxing’s decision.

The women’s world championships are in March in India. The men’s world championships are in May in Uzbekistan. They do not count toward 2024 Olympic qualifying.

In December, the IOC said recent IBA decisions could lead to “the cancellation of boxing” for the 2024 Paris Games.

Some of the already reported governance issues led to the IOC stripping IBA — then known as AIBA — of its Olympic recognition in 2019. AIBA had suspended all 36 referees and judges used at the 2016 Rio Olympics pending an investigation into a possible judging scandal, one that found that some medal bouts were fixed by “complicit and compliant” referees and judges.

The IOC ran the Tokyo Olympic boxing competition.

Boxing was not included on the initial program for the 2028 Los Angeles Games announced in December 2021, though it could still be added. The IBA must address concerns “around its governance, its financial transparency and sustainability and the integrity of its refereeing and judging processes,” IOC President Thomas Bach said then.

This past June, the IOC said IBA would not run qualifying competitions for the 2024 Paris Games.

In September, the IOC said it was “extremely concerned” about the Olympic future of boxing after an IBA extraordinary congress overwhelmingly backed Russian Umar Kremlev to remain as its president rather than hold an election.

Kremlev was re-elected in May after an opponent, Boris van der Vorst of the Netherlands, was barred from running against him. The Court of Arbitration for Sport ruled in June that van der Vorst should have been eligible to run against Kremlev, but the IBA group still decided not to hold a new election.

Last May, Rashida Ellis became the first U.S. woman to win a world boxing title at an Olympic weight since Claressa Shields in 2016, taking the 60kg lightweight crown in Istanbul. In Tokyo, Ellis lost 3-0 in her opening bout in her Olympic debut.

At the last men’s worlds in 2021, Robby Gonzales and Jahmal Harvey became the first U.S. men to win an Olympic or world title since 2007, ending the longest American men’s drought since World War II.

The Associated Press and NBC Olympic research contributed to this report.

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Sweden weighs 2030 Winter Olympic bid after IOC meeting

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Sweden’s Olympic leaders are weighing up whether to bid for the Winter Games in 2030.

The Nordic country’s potential entry into the race to stage the 2030 Games comes at a time when the International Olympic Committee has delayed the process and is searching around for more contenders to host the event.

Sapporo, Japan, was considered the favorite before an ongoing bid-rigging scandal related to the Summer Olympics in Tokyo held in 2021. Salt Lake City is the only other known bidder that might consider taking 2030, though officials have said they favor a bid for 2034.

A joint Stockholm-Are bid from Sweden lost out to another shared bid, from Milan and Cortina d’Ampezzo in Italy, to stage the Winter Games in 2026 amid a lack of clear public support in Sweden and some government upheaval at local and national level in the run-up to the vote.

There was reportedly discontent in Stockholm over how the Swedish bid was treated in the contest for the 2026 Games.

The Swedish Olympic and Paralympic Committees and the Swedish Sports Confederation will start a feasibility study for 2030, they said Wednesday. A report from the study will be presented on April 20.

“These are new times now and the feasibility study will show how the Olympics and Paralympics can be shaped based on Sweden’s conditions,” said Anders Larsson, acting chairman of the Swedish Olympic Committee. “We already have virtually all the arenas required to arrange the largest Winter Games.”

The committee’s secretary general, Åsa Edlund Jönsson, said the 2030 Games “could be a campfire to rally Sweden around.”

“The idea is to review the concept that existed for the candidacy in 2026, which would mean competitions in several places in Sweden,” Jönsson said, specifically referencing Stockholm and the regions of Dalarna and Jämtland. “Here we feel confident that there is great experience in arranging world-class winter championships in the Swedish sports movement.”

The Stockholm-Are bid for 2026 even included plans to stage ice-sliding sports across the Baltic Sea at a venue in Latvia to avoid building a white elephant venue in Sweden — a key demand of IOC reforms to cut Olympic hosting costs.

The idea of Sweden potentially joining the 2030 race came up at a meeting in Lausanne in January.

“We have had a meeting with the IOC that was about, without obligation from any quarter, looking at the Games in 2030,” Larsson said. “During that meeting, it was clear that the IOC liked our concept for 2026. What the feasibility study will provide answers to is whether we are ready to move forward in the process.”

Sweden hosted the Summer Olympics in 1912 but never a Winter Games, despite the country being an established giant in winter sports.

It has made eight failed bids to stage the Winter Games.

Gunilla Lindberg, who is on the Swedish Olympic Committee, is also an IOC member and on its panel tasked with finding potential future hosts for the Winter Games.

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