Bradie Tennell knows the old cliché athletes use to explain what keeps them going through thick and thin, when they try not to have their eyes always on a prize.
“They say it’s about the journey, not the destination,” Tennell said. “But the destination feels pretty good, too.”
It was a place she had been before and one Tennell turned her life inside out last summer to reach again: the top step of the women’s podium at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships.
Tennell got there Friday night as convincingly as she had the first time, in 2018, sweeping the short program and free skate, earning 232.61 points and winning by a whopping 17.28 over the surprise (and surprised) runner-up, Amber Glenn, whose best previous finish at nationals was fifth last year.
The gap between Glenn and fourth finisher Alysa Liu was just 1.94 points.
Bronze medalist Karen Chen, the 2017 U.S. champion, returned to the top three for the first time since 2018. Chen was 1.59 ahead of Liu, 15, whose two-year reign as champion ended in a season when a growth spurt and an injury left her struggling with the jumps that had won her the titles.
With a fall on her opening jump – the 15th and last fall among the 17 competitors in a year when everyone’s training has been compromised by the pandemic – Mariah Bell dropped into fifth after having been seen as the title favorite before this event in a COVID-19 safety “bubble” at the Orleans Arena in Las Vegas.
Tennell, 22, is now listed as the first woman in more than 100 years to win a second U.S. title three years after the first. It previously happened after the event was not held for four of five seasons during World War I.
“Winning my title back means everything to me,” Tennell said. “It was one of the driving forces behind my move to Colorado (from Illinois) this year, the driving force behind me waking up to go to train every day.”
Tennell did it with a commanding free skate that had just one flaw, a slightly under rotated second jump of her opening triple-triple combination. She avoided the late jumping mistake that had contributed to her losing the past two years after having won the short program.
Her new coach, Tom Zakrajsek, had taught her a “key phrase” for going into her last jump that Tennell said “made a big difference” but would not reveal. Ironically, Zakrajsek was back in Colorado Springs recovering from a mild case of COVID, having tested positive Jan. 3.
Glenn, the 2014 U.S. junior champion who had walked away from the sport for six months in 2015 because of what she said were mental health issues, moved from fifth after the short program by delivering the only flawless free skate of the night.
“Of course I had thought about [making the podium at nationals], but it was just a dream, not something thought would happen,” she said.
When her score (144.50) came up, Glenn’s jaw dropped behind her mask, and she mouthed a tame expletive to express her surprise. It was 31 points higher than Glenn had scored in any of four previous free skates at nationals.
“I was in utter shock,” Glenn said. “It didn’t feel real. I was flipped out.”
Glenn skated that well despite learning after the short program that an infection in her right foot had spread to her right knee by the free skate, causing swelling in her shin and calf. She was about to get antibiotics to treat what she had thought was pain caused by nervousness.
“Knowing I had to push through that, I was able to skate with no pressure,” she said.
Glenn, 21, had returned to skating from her hiatus when she discovered a “normal life…was just not enough for me. I didn’t want to start something new. I wanted to go back to what I had committed nine years of my life to at that point. I felt there was something missing in my life without skating.
“I came back with the goal of trying to enjoy it like I did when I was younger. When that happened, I started really improving on the ice.
Liu, who had to scrap her signature triple Axel when her physical changes made it inconsistent, had skated a strong second-place short program but could not keep her jumps together in the free skate. She managed to land cleanly just three of a planned seven triple jumps.
“I didn’t expect too much of myself,” she said. “I expected bare minimum the way things were going. Obviously I really wanted to skate well. The short I am very pleased with. My long didn’t go as planned.”
In 2019, at 13 years old and 4-foot-9, Liu had become the apparent next big thing in U.S. skating. She was then not only the youngest women’s champion in history but the first to land a triple Axel in the short program and two in the long at the U.S. Championships. Those big points jumps made up for what she lacked in artistry.
“It was a big challenge this season, especially with corona[virus] and me growing and injuries, but it was a really good learning experience,” Liu said. “I’m glad it happened this season and not another.
Liu will not be age eligible for senior international competition until next season, which happens to be an Olympic season.
Two women will be named Saturday for the 2021 U.S. world championship team (Tennell is assured of one spot).
The world championships are scheduled to take place the March 22-28 in Stockholm, but it would not be surprising if they have to be cancelled, as nearly every other international figure skating event this season has been. The 2020 World Championships in Montreal were cancelled when the pandemic began to hit full force last March.
“I’m going to continue training as if worlds is happening,” Tennell said. “But of course we have to make sure it can be held safely, because the number one priority is obviously the health and safety of everyone involved.”
Philip Hersh, who has covered figure skating at the last 11 Olympic Winter Games, is a special contributor to NBCSports.com/figure-skating.
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