Bradie Tennell takes command in quest for an elusive second U.S. figure skating title

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After Bradie Tennell burst into prominence on the U.S. figure skating scene by winning her first national title in 2018, she did not imagine she still would be looking for a second one three seasons later.

Especially since Tennell had won the short program at the 2019 and 2020 U.S. Championships, only to falter in the free skates, finishing second and third as phenom Alysa Liu took the gold medals.

“Winning another has been a driving force for me,” Tennell said.

And yet she understood that it couldn’t turn into an obsession.

“It can be very overwhelming if you constantly dwell on it,” Tennell said Thursday night.

“I choose to keep it tucked away in the back of my mind. It’s always there, but not like on a billboard, kind of in a drawer.”

Once again, she has put herself in a strong position to take the title, winning the short program at the U.S. Championships for the fourth straight year, this time with a self-assured, sassy performance to music by the indie band, Florence + the Machine in a Las Vegas arena with no spectators. The free skate is Friday night.

And, in a perfect metaphor for a season turned inside out by a global pandemic, Tennell did it with her coach, Tom Zakrajsek, back in Colorado Springs, Colorado, after having tested positive for the coronavirus 11 days ago. Last summer, Tennell had left Denise Myers, her longtime coach in suburban Chicago, to work with Zakrajsek in Colorado.

“It has been a bit strange, especially because of all the recent changes I’ve made,” Tennell said. “Not having my head coach at a competition is a completely new experience for me.

“I don’t remember the last time life has gone according to my plan. I’m trying to dodge and weave, roll with the punches. It’s been very weird, but I’m grateful I’m able to be here and compete.”

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Tennell scored a championship record 79.40 points, topping the mark of 78.96 she set a year ago. That gave her a lead of slightly more than three points over Liu (76.36), whose utterly solid performance was by far her best of a season when a growth spurt and an injury had left her struggling with jumps.

Mariah Bell, whom many saw as the favorite coming into nationals, botched her final jump, a triple lutz, and was third at 72.37.

“I’m pretty disappointed,” Bell said.

Tennell, 22, was in complete command from start to finish. She was first in both the technical and component scores, her competitive maturity and confidence evident throughout the 2 minutes, 50 seconds.

“I think I’m growing up and coming into my own and having confidence in myself,” Tennell said. “I know I’ve done the work to earn that confidence. I had the time of my life tonight.”

Zakrajsek said in a text message he has not had a fever and his symptoms (runny nose, cough, headache) had diminished “nearly 100 percent.” He felt well enough to jump up and down as he watched Tennell from afar.

“I thought she looked amazing,” Zakrajsek said. “It was a total performance.”

So was Liu’s, even if it lacked the big jump, the triple Axel, that had played a major part in her having become the youngest champion in U.S. history at 13 two years ago and the youngest to win two straight last year.

As Liu, now 15, the first U.S. woman to land a quadruple jump in competition, began to jump with a different morphology, she temporarily shelved both the triple Axel and the quadruple lutz. A hip injury in late October kept her from doing any triple jumps at all for several weeks, so she worked more on her skating skills, which were relatively weak compared to her jumping prowess.

“I’ve found a new appreciation for skating skills and spins, because before I would just focus on jumps,” Liu said. “When I had my injury and couldn’t jump I was a little sad, but then I started to enjoy the skating part of skating.”

After Liu faltered badly in a team competition that followed Skate America in late October, it was surprising to see her tossing off three triple jumps, including a triple lutz-triple toe combination, as commandingly as she did Thursday.

“I didn’t surprise myself too much,” Liu said. “I just really wanted to do the programs I’ve been practicing the last month.

“I was really happy I could showcase my short the way I do in practice. [And] when the score came up, I was pleasantly surprised.”

It was higher than the scores that left her second to Tennell after the short program the past two years. And even though Liu insisted she isn’t concerned with placement, she finds herself with a good shot at a third straight title, a result that would be as stunning as her first.

Philip Hersh, who has covered figure skating at the last 11 Olympic Winter Games, is a special contributor to NBCSports.com/figure-skating.

Chicago Marathon features Emily Sisson’s return, Conner Mantz’s debut, live on Peacock

Emily Sisson
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At Sunday’s Chicago Marathon, Emily Sisson makes her return, nearly three years after Olympic Trials disappointment. Conner Mantz makes one of the most anticipated U.S. men’s debuts in 26.2-mile racing.

It is not the norm, but an American will be one of the spotlight runners in both the men’s and women’s elite races at a major marathon. Peacock airs live coverage at 8 a.m. ET.

Sisson, 30, starts her first mass marathon since dropping out of the Olympic Trials on Feb. 29, 2020, her legs “destroyed” on the hilly Atlanta course where she started as arguably the favorite. She ran the virtual New York City Marathon later in 2020, but that was solo (and not in New York City). Her 2:38:00 isn’t recorded in her official results on her World Athletics bio.

Since, Sisson won the Olympic Trials 10,000m on the track and was the top American in Tokyo in 10th place. She moved back to the roads, winning national titles at 15km and the half marathon and breaking the American record in the latter.

Sisson vaulted into the elite group of U.S. female marathoners in 2019, when she clocked the second-fastest debut marathon in American history, a 2:23:08 on a windy day in London, where the early pace was slow.

At the time, it was the 12th-best U.S. performance all-time. In the last two years, Keira D’Amato, 37, and Sara Hall, 39, combined to run seven faster marathons. At Chicago, a flat course that produced a world record three years ago, Sisson can answer them and perhaps get close to D’Amato’s American record 2:19:12.

“I’m hoping sub-2:20,” coach Ray Treacy said, according to LetsRun.com. “With the [super] shoes and the training behind her, I would think that’s [worth] at least three minutes.”

It is less likely that Sisson can challenge for the win on Sunday given the presence of Kenyan Ruth Chepngetich, the 2019 World champion and defending champion in the Windy City. The 28-year-old mom is the fifth-fastest woman in history with a personal best of 2:17:08. And Ethiopian Ruti Aga, a podium finisher in Berlin, New York City and Tokyo with a best time of 2:18:34, though she has one marathon finish since the pandemic (a seventh place).

Like Sisson, Mantz has shown strong recent road racing form. The American men’s debut marathon record of 2:07:56 (Leonard Korir) is in play. If he can break that, Mantz will be among the five fastest U.S. marathoners in history.

Rarely has a U.S. male distance runner as accomplished as Mantz moved up to the marathon at such a young age (25). At BYU, he won NCAA cross-country titles in 2020 and 2021 and placed fifth in the Olympic Trials 10,000m, then turned pro and won the U.S. Half Marathon Championships last December.

“If everything goes as planned, I think sub-2:08 is realistic,” Mantz said in a Citius Mag video interview last month. “If everything goes perfect on the day, I think a sub-2:07, that’s a big stretch goal.”

The men’s field doesn’t have the singular star power of Chepngetich, but a large group of East Africans with personal bests around 2:05. The most notable: defending champion Seifu Tura of Ethiopia and 2021 Boston Marathon winner Benson Kipruto of Kenya.

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Alpine skiing to test new format for combined race

Alpine Skiing Combined
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Alpine skiing officials will test a new format for the combined event, a race that is under review to remain on the Olympic program.

French newspaper L’Equipe reported that the International Ski Federation (FIS) will test a new team format for the combined, which has been an individual event on the Olympic program since 1988. L’Equipe reported that a nation can use a different skier for the downhill and slalom in the new setup, quoting FIS secretary general Michel Vion.

For example, the U.S. could use Breezy Johnson in the downhill run and sub her out for Mikaela Shiffrin in the slalom run, should the format be adopted into senior competition.

The format will be tested at the world junior championships in January in St. Anton, Austria, according to the report.

In response to the report, a FIS spokesperson said, “Regarding the new format of the combined is correct, and our directors are working on the rules so for the moment the only thing we can confirm is that there will be this new format for the Alpine combined that has been proposed by the athletes’ commission.”

Some version of the combined event has been provisionally included on the 2026 Olympic program, with a final IOC decision on its place coming by April.

This will be the third consecutive World Cup season with no combined events. Instead, FIS has included more parallel races in recent years. The individual combined remains on the biennial world championships program.

L’Equipe also reported that the mixed team parallel event, which is being dropped from the Olympics, will also be dropped from the biennial world championships after this season.

“There is nothing definitive about that yet, but it is a project in the making,” a FIS spokesperson said in commenting on the report.

Vion said the mixed team event, which debuted at the Olympics in 2018, was not a hit at the Beijing Games and did not draw a strong audience, according to L’Equipe.

The World Cup season starts in two weeks with the traditional opening giant slaloms in Soelden, Austria.

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