Bradie Tennell returns for U.S. Figure Skating Championships amid long injury battle

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Bradie Tennell, the top U.S. women’s singles skater at the 2018 Olympics and reigning national champion, has battled a chronic right foot injury since July that kept her out of all competitions leading up to next week’s U.S. Championships and Olympic team selection.

Training became cycles of stops and starts, with interruptions of one to three days. Sometimes a week. Even one stretch that was two or three weeks.

“There have been several times this year where I thought, oh, hey, this is getting better. And then I would go and try something on the ice. And I’d be like, oh my god, I can’t even walk, and we’re back to square one,” she said last week. “So I’m trying to remain optimistic that everything will be OK.”

Tennell withdrew from all six of her international assignments — from September through early December. She has trained since early this month with one-to-three-day breaks “every so often just based on my pain levels,” she said.

She set her competition return for next week’s nationals in Nashville. That’s where the three-woman Olympic team will be chosen by committee based on results over the past year.

Tennell, whose foot has been aggravated repeatedly by trying to train jumps, wasn’t sure when asked to rate her fitness on a scale of 1 to 100. Her ability to practice run-throughs of her programs “depends on how much I can handle” on a given day, she said.

“I have a different definition of 100 percent this year,” she said. “I’m remaining optimistic, and I’m training as hard as I can. And I’m very hopeful.”

She will try to become the first singles skater in at least 30 years to make the U.S. Olympic team by making a season debut at the U.S. Championships.

It is different than but reminiscent of Michelle Kwan, who petitioned to the 2006 Olympic team without competing at all that season, but withdrew before the Torino Games with a groin injury. In 2010, Sasha Cohen competed for the first time in four years at the U.S. Championships and placed fourth, missing that two-woman Olympic team.

“We realize that nationals is going to be kind of, we’re looking for that Hail Mary pass, right?” said Tom Zakrajsek, Tennell’s coach the last two seasons in Colorado Springs. “What I’ve seen is just grace and dignity throughout this whole process, as frustrating as it is. She’s kept her chin up.”

Tennell, who gave the petition process some thought in case she couldn’t compete at nationals, still isn’t totally sure of the specific injury.

It first bothered her in July, but was fine the next day. Then over one weekend, it became a problem and “just never resolved itself or got better,” she said. She had multiple tests on the foot, received many diagnoses, saw doctors while training in Boston and Chicago and tried to figure out the best treatment plan amid the uncertainty.

In October, she said the initial injury was a stress reaction, followed by muscle tears.

“It’s felt like 10 years, but it’s only been six months,” she said last week.

Tennell weathered significant injury before.

After winning the 2015 U.S. junior title at age 16, two stress fractures in her back kept her off the ice for a total of six months in her first two senior seasons.

She returned to full strength for the 2017-18 Olympic season. At first an unknown, she took bronze in her Grand Prix debut and skated the two best programs of her career to win the national title and book an Olympic spot. In PyeongChang, she was the top American woman in ninth place.

“I’m a fighter,” she said last week. “I don’t give up easily at all for anything. So I’m going to keep fighting until, basically, time runs out, or I can’t anymore.”

The triple-triple jump combination may be key to the Olympic hopes of Tennell or any American next week. Tennell hit it consistently to make the 2018 Olympic team and win the last national title. Of the U.S. women, only Alysa Liu and Amber Glenn hit a positively graded triple-triple during the fall Grand Prix Series, and each did so once in four programs.

Tennell changed her jumping content a little bit due to the injury, but a triple-triple is still part of the plan.

“I do love a challenge,” she said. “Maybe not one that’s quite this drawn out. But, in the face of adversity, I feel like that’s kind of where I shine.”

Zakrajsek learned that in their first season together last year. She managed a coaching change, a move from her native Chicagoland and the pandemic complications that every skater faced in one way or another. Then last January, Tennell became the first woman in 101 years to go three or more years between national titles.

“I have a lot of faith in her if she can be pain-free,” Zakrajsek said. “If there’s anyone that can go out there with limited training, and give it a good go, it’s Bradie Tennell.”

NBC Olympics researcher Sarah Hughes (not the figure skater) contributed to this report.

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