Figure skating champion Bradie Tennell, a competitive ‘shark,’ making her comeback in new waters

Benoit Richaud
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A week after chronic foot pain forced Bradie Tennell to withdraw from the 2022 U.S. Figure Skating Championships, the impact of that situation hit her full force.

Tennell was the defending national champion, a good bet to make the 2022 Olympic team had she been healthy. But she was lying in bed in her family home in the Chicago suburbs as nationals was going on in Nashville.

She had lost the chance to realize her dream of skating in another Olympic Games. She had lost an entire competitive season. Then she realized a fundamental part of her also had been lost when walking to the kitchen became so painful it was easier to stay hungry until someone could bring her food.

“In my core, I’m an athlete,” Tennell said via telephone in an interview last week. “I take so much pride in being able to demand pretty much anything of my body and being able to do it. If I want to go on a 10-mile hike, I can go on a 10-mile hike. This was like my identity as an athlete being so suddenly ripped away.”

This lengthy phone and text interview was the first time the two-time U.S. champion and 2018 Olympian had spoken at length about what she described as an “honestly traumatic experience.”

Its nadir, feeling the loss of self, followed several difficult months in which the two-time U.S. champion had withdrawn from one event after another, seven in all, with a right foot issue whose source she said has never been diagnosed. She rejected a suggestion for what would have amounted to exploratory surgery to seek an answer.

Tennell had vowed to herself even before last season that it would not be her last as a competitor. Being physically able to fulfill that vow was an eight-month process that went on below the radar until her Aug. 22 post on Instagram revealed a startling change in the process: new coach, new training base on a different continent.

Maybe there should have been a hint to the switch in the posts a few days earlier that showed her floating blissfully on her back in the limpid turquoise water of a cove near Marseille, France, and gazing at the sea from rocks in Toulon. Tennell clearly seemed at home in the environment of southeastern France, so much so she has moved to Nice, a seaside city she will see for the first time when she lands there Monday.

She pulled up stakes to train at a rink she has never seen with a Peak Ice coaching team in Nice headed by Benoit Richaud, her choreographer since 2017. Tennell, 24, had spent the previous two seasons training with coach Tom Zakrajsek in Colorado Springs, Colorado, after 12 with Denise Myers in the Chicago area.

Her original plan had been to return to Colorado Springs once she was healthy enough to train. The idea of relocating to Nice began to attract Tennell while working with Richaud’s team at an August camp in La Garde, France, about 80 miles southwest of Nice.

“The vibes and atmosphere in the group there were very good,” said Tennell, whose French so far is limited to what she has gleaned from language learning apps.

During her second week in La Garde, she approached Richaud about training with his group full-time and found him “very open to the idea.” That was all the encouragement she needed.

“Bradie is at an age and point of maturity that she wanted to take responsibility for what is good for her,” Richaud said. “Over the years working together, we have had a very trusting relationship.”

She long had enjoyed working with Richaud, 34, a former ice dancer who choreographed the programs with which Japan’s Kaori Sakamoto won the world title and the Olympic bronze medal last season. But Tennell had no coaching history with Cedric Tour, 28, the Peak Ice technical director, who competed once in the French senior championships, finishing 12th.

It took just one session with Tour for Tennell to like his approach. She immediately told Richaud how impressed she was with the way Tour could fix flaws and explain the reasons both for doing it and for how he did it.

“I said that to Benoit after my first lesson with Cedric because he is so smart in technical corrections,” Tennell said. “Some of the things he was telling me I hadn’t heard before, and the exercises and drills he was putting me through was like a cold bucket of water over my head.

“I loved it because it showed me how much more I have to learn about jumping and technique in general. I think at this point in my career, it’s important to be excited not only for training every day, but also to learn about the how and why certain things are important.”

Richaud makes no secret of his disdain for continual pat-on-the back coaching when a skater needs criticism. He sees in Tennell a skater whose ego will not be bruised by having her mistakes pointed out.

“Everywhere I go, I always hear, ‘Good job,’ even when it’s a terrible job,” Richaud said. “Bradie is not a `good job’ girl. She craves correction. She wants to be better.”

Tennell agrees.

“I have always been that way,” she said. “I prefer to have somebody tell me something bluntly than to beat around the bush and sugarcoat it. If something is bad, tell me it’s bad so I can fix it and move on to something else. Also, by working this way, it allows me to truly believe somebody when they tell me something is good or I’ve done a good job.”

In less than a month working in France, Tennell knew she had done a good job when she landed a clean triple lutz-triple toe loop combination, an element she had not executed successfully in nearly a year because of the pain when she did the right foot pick on the lutz takeoff. Tennell unashamedly cried after landing it.

“A very large part of me believed I never would be able to do it again,” Tennell said. “By some miracle, I’ve been able to continue. I keep that in the back of my mind, and I’m so grateful. I’m going to step on the ice and literally cherish every moment.

“In those dark winter months in Chicago when everything was going on without me, I really didn’t think this was a possibility.”

It has been a slow process to get back this point. The first step involved eliminating the pain, and much of the treatment simply was rest. She had been on crutches at various times and took days off but it wasn’t true rest.

So Tennell did not skate at all this year until the end of March, eased herself back onto the ice in April and May and did minimal jumping after then, including the first two weeks at the summer camp.

“Those first two months back were just getting a feel for the ice again,” she said. “I was allowing myself to come back in a way where I could process everything I had lost last season but also use the newfound kind of wisdom I had gained from going through the honestly traumatic experience.”

By early-summer, Tennell felt confident enough to ask for Grand Prix assignments, and she got two, for the fourth (England) and sixth (Finland) meets of the six-event series. She plans to do a couple other events before then. Her last competition was the World Team Trophy in April 2021.

Tennell will re-use half of the tango short program prepared for the Olympic season, with Richaud revising the other half. His choreography for her new free skate will give an oft-used piece of music in figure skating, Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons,” a strikingly different interpretation he chose not to reveal until it is performed.

“The point of this season will be her reconnection with competition,” Richaud said. “Bradie is addicted to competition. She is a shark on the ice.”

Like a shark, Tennell is relentless in pursuit of her goals, her devotion to hard training often maniacal. She does not intend to change out of fear of injury. Tennell wants more from herself than just being a good comeback story.

“I think I’m still going to be kind of a maniac because I have a lot of work ahead of me,” she said. “I will be much more careful and mindful but I’m not going to allow myself not to train as hard because I’m afraid of something happening. I want to fully give myself to the goals I have.”

Tennell came out of nowhere to win the U.S. title in 2018. She won it again in 2021 and made the podium in both years in between. She was the top U.S. finisher in women’s singles at the 2018 Olympics. She has finished as high as sixth in three world championship appearances.

She returns to a sport with a very different competitive landscape. The Russians who have dominated women’s skating the past eight seasons are barred because of their country’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine. The three U.S women on the 2022 Olympic team are either retired (Alysa Liu) or all but retired (Mariah Bell and Karen Chen). Two skaters moving up to senior international competition, reigning world junior champion Isabeau Levito and reigning world junior bronze medalist Lindsay Thorngren, presumably would be a healthy Tennell’s main national rivals.

“My job is still the same, and my goals are still the same,” Tennell said. “I want to show this is what I’m meant to be doing and what I love. I want to be national champion again. I want to be on the podium at worlds.”

Just being a warm and fuzzy comeback story is not enough for Bradie Tennell. That’s not how sharks roll.

Philip Hersh, who has covered figure skating at every Winter Olympics since 1980, is a special contributor to NBCSports.com.

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Ilia Malinin’s quadruple Axel sheds light on first figure skater to land triple Axel

Vern Taylor
Vern Taylor, the first figure skater to land a triple Axel in competition. (Getty Images)
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Vern Taylor arrived at the Riverside Skating Club in Windsor, Ontario, on Sept. 15 to do what he has done at that rink for the last three decades: coach figure skaters. But this day was different.

Taylor, who in 1978 became the first man to land a ratified triple Axel in competition, was told that 17-year-old American Ilia Malinin performed the first quadruple Axel the previous night.

“When we heard that he landed it, I said, ‘Oh my goodness, that’s terrific,'” Taylor said by phone.

He was then shown video of Malinin’s feat.

“Anything’s possible,” Taylor said. “43 years [later], that’s something. It’s knowing that you can perform the jump that makes it challenging.”

Malinin, the world junior champion, landed the most difficult jump in skating and checked off the only remaining quad yet to be performed.

At the 1978 World Championships in Ottawa, a 20-year-old Taylor broke through a similar barrier in hitting the last remaining unchecked triple jump. But while Malinin’s senior career seems to be just getting started, and many medals appear in his future, Taylor is largely a forgotten man outside of ardent figure skating followers.

He finished 12th at those 1978 World Championships. Taylor’s 1980 Olympic prospects were dimmed by the fact that Canada had just one men’s singles spot, and he had taken runner-up at nationals in 1978 and 1979 to Brian Pockar, who also outscored Taylor at those years’ world championships. So Taylor stopped competing a year before the Lake Placid Games.

“I didn’t have a reason,” he said. “I just decided to take a break.”

Taylor will always have that day at the world championships in Ottawa. He can still remember the nervousness, knowing that two other skaters also planned to attempt a triple Axel. They were unsuccessful, though Taylor didn’t know it.

“I didn’t see their jumps,” he said. “I didn’t want to know what was ahead of me.”

American David Jenkins landed a triple Axel in Movietone newsreel footage reported to be from 1957, but that was not in competition.

Taylor, skating to music from “Rocky,” put the triple Axel as the third jump of his program, according to reports at the time. The one YouTube video of it, published two years ago, has 32,000 views. It shows Taylor landing the three-and-a-half revolution jump on one foot and spinning out of it while managing to stay on that single skate blade amid a crowd roar.

“During that program, it was like a rock concert,” Taylor said. “I got the energy from the audience.”

The Montreal Gazette reported at the time that the jump was ratified three hours later. Italian Sonia Bianchetti, the men’s referee at the 1978 Worlds, said she met with the assistant referee, the ISU president and a technical delegate.

“During this short meeting it was recognized that Vern had completed the first triple Axel Paulsen jump [Norwegian Axel Paulsen was the skater who landed the first Axel jump in 1882, getting it named after him] in an officially recognized figure skating competition,” she wrote in an email last month. “The triple Axel was fully rotated and landed on one foot.”

One of the people inside the Ottawa Civic Centre that day was 16-year-old Canadian Brian Orser. Orser, inspired by Taylor, later became synonymous with the jump — labeled “Mr. Triple Axel” and landing it en route to silver medals at the Olympics in 1984 and 1988 and the 1987 World title.

Orser remembered Taylor visiting his skating club for an exhibition. Orser saw Taylor doing an Axel takeoff exercise off the ice, incorporated it into his own routine and began teaching it to his skaters after becoming a coach.

Yet another Canadian, Kurt Browning, was the first man to land a ratified quadruple jump of any kind in competition — a toe loop at the 1988 World Championships.

“For me, personally, it was huge,” he said, “because I was promised a car if I could land it.”

Through an agreement with an Edmonton car dealership, Browning was handed the keys to a Quattro — quad/Quattro — after hitting the toe loop. The skater was unaware that the dealer was merely leasing it to him. About six months later, Browning received a call asking to bring the car back.

Browning was inspired by American Brian Boitano, whom he previously saw land a quad outside of competition. Taylor motivated him, too.

“[Taylor] gave me permission, even at a young age, to start thinking bigger,” he said.

Browning also pointed to Jozef Sabovčík, a 1980s skater for then-Czechoslovakia who many believe was the first man to land a quad in competition, Browning included. Sabovčík was initially given credit for a quad toe loop at the 1986 European Championships, but weeks later it was invalidated because he touched down with his free foot, according to reports.

“I never want to come off as arrogant, but despite what ISU [International Skating Union] decided in the end, I do know that I landed the jump on that day,” Sabovčík, who said he performed a quad jump on his birthdays through age 44, wrote in an email. “The fact that most of the people in the skating world believe the same thing, it means everything to me that Kurt is one of them. It would have been nice to have my name in the Guinness Book of Records, but I am also not trying to change history.”

Sabovčík, now 58 and coaching in Salt Lake City, attended March’s world championships in Montpellier, France, where Malinin finished ninth. There, he spoke with Malinin’s parents, Russian-born Uzbek Olympic skaters Tatyana Malinina and Roman Skornyakov, whom he calls friends.

“They told me that he was already doing a quad Axel on a fishing pole harness [in practice], and that it was coming,” Sabovčík said.

Less than two months after that talk, the first video surfaced of Malinin landing a clean quad Axel — at a U.S. Figure Skating jump camp.

“I did not think [a quad Axel] was possible,” Sabovčík said. “It really has to be an athlete that can combine the technical ability with jumping ability with the speed of rotation. When Kurt and I jumped, we had a relatively speaking slow rotation, but we jumped really big compared to these kids. But Ilia, he has the vertical lift, but he [also] has an unbelievably fast rotation.”

The recent proliferation of quads in men’s and women’s skating can be attributed to several factors, including better boots, better ice conditions and improvements in technology that can aid coaching. Still, there are concerns about if and how the pounding of training quads can wear down a skater physically.

“It’s a lot of pain you don’t feel at first, but you know it comes later,” said Frenchwoman Surya Bonaly, who started training a quad in 1989 and attempting it through the mid-1990s. Bonaly had two hip surgeries after her competitive career.

Even Taylor faced those questions.

“People said, ‘Aren’t you worried about injuring yourself?'” he said. “I would say, ‘No, I want you to know it can be done.'”

Sabovčík never tried a quad Axel in his skating days, but Browning did for less than a week in the early 1990s after winning four consecutive world titles.

“Just playing with it,” said Browning, who never tried it in competition. “Ilia has that special ability to not only get up in the air, but then he has that beautiful rotation that doesn’t look hurried. It’s fast, it’s quick as lightning, but it doesn’t look hurried. It’s so easy. Like a good golfer swings easy, and the ball goes 400 yards.”

Browning recalled a conversation he had with two-time Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu, who in recent years made the quad Axel his quest. Hanyu attempted it in competition last season but did not land it cleanly before retiring in July. He said upon retirement that he still hoped to master the jump for his non-competitive show career.

“I asked Yuzu one day, ‘When you do quad Axel, does it just feel like you’re up there forever?'” Browning said. “And he kind of looked at me funny, and he goes, ‘Yeah, like it never ends.'”

The skating world awaits the reserved Hanyu’s thoughts on Malinin’s quad.

“Knowing Yuzu, I would think he’d be very supportive,” said Orser, who coached Hanyu for nearly a decade. “He appreciates that kind of athleticism.”

Orser also noted what comes with being the first — and so far only — skater to land a rarefied jump. Malinin, who headlines Skate America in two weeks, will be asked about the quad Axel in just about every interview for the foreseeable future. For some skaters, they may feel a responsibility to land it all the time.

“But I don’t think [Malinin] thinks too much about it,” Orser said. “His technique is perfect, so he’ll be fine.”

The inevitable topic after that is the next progression in skating: the first quintuple jump. Orser said that Hanyu did five-rotation Salchows in practice with the aid of a harness.

“It’s just a little bit more rotation than the quadruple Axel, so it’s not that far off,” said Sabovčík, whose unratified quad toe loop came eight years after Taylor’s triple Axel. “Now that I’ve seen the quad Axel, I don’t think it’s impossible.”

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Aleksandra Trusova splits from coach Eteri Tutberidze, months after Olympic tears

Alexandra Trusova, Eteri Tutberidze
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Olympic figure skating silver medalist Aleksandra Trusova reportedly split from coach Eteri Tutberidze‘s group, eight months after a tearful scene after the Olympic free skate.

Trusova, 18, will now be coached by Svetlana Sokolovskaya, according to Russian media reports dating to Saturday. All Russian skaters are ineligible to compete internationally indefinitely due to the national ban over the war in Ukraine, but Russia is still holding domestic events.

At the Beijing Winter Games, Trusova became the first woman to land five quadruple jumps in a free skate. She had the highest score that day, but it wasn’t enough to make up the gap to fellow Tutberidze pupil Anna Shcherbakova from the short program.

Moments after the competition ended, Trusova was seen crying and yelling at Sergey Dudakov, a member of Tutberidze’s coaching team.

“Everyone has a gold medal! Everyone has! Only I don’t! I hate figure skating! I hate! I will never step on the ice again! Never!” she said in Russian.

Shcherbakova had the individual gold, and the other Russian women’s singles skater at the Games, Kamila Valiyeva, skated both programs of the team event. The Russians placed first in the team event, but medals will not be awarded until Valiyeva’s doping case is adjudicated. It’s possible that Valiyeva gets retroactively disqualified, the Russian team gets disqualified and the other nations all move up with the U.S. going from silver to gold.

Trusova performed at the Russian test skates last month, withdrawing after her short program due to a back injury.

Trusova previously left Tutberidze in 2020 for two-time Olympic champion turned coach Yevgeny Plushenko‘s group, then moved back to Tutberidze’s group after the 2020-21 season.

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