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.”
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.