Bradie’s back: Tennell wows in U.S. Figure Skating Championships return from nightmare

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SAN JOSE, California — Bradie Tennell stood at the end boards, her back to the ice surface, her attention on trying to take in what her imposing coach, Benoit Richaud, was telling her in the final seconds before she took the ice for Thursday’s short program at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships.

It was hard for Tennell to stay focused on – or even hear – what Richaud was saying. A group of kids from U.S. Figure Skating’s development camp, who were sitting in the stands near Tennell, started screaming their lungs out when they were shown on the SAP Center video board. Harry Styles’ “Watermelon Sugar” was blasting at approximately 10 million decibels on the arena’s sound system.

“It was very distracting,” Tennell said, eschewing an athlete’s usual cliché about nothing being able to break her concentration. “But this past year has taught me nothing comes easy.”

It was a year of injuries, re-injuries, new injuries. A year when the two-time U.S. champion had been physically unable to compete for a spot on a second Olympic team in 2022. A year when Tennell turned her life inside out, moving to France to train with Richaud, only to have more setbacks.

“I’ve definitely had my share of bumps in the road on the way here,” Tennell said. “This was a very long time in the making.”

FIGURE SKATING NATIONALS: Full Scores | Broadcast Schedule

This was finishing second in the short program, a whisker behind event favorite Isabeau Levito. This was a Tennell performance marred only by unexpected mistakes on spins, her last of seven elements in the short program. This was a statement to anyone who wondered if she could be a factor in the sport again.

“I’m back, baby,” she said, her uncharacteristic bravado tempered by a laugh.

Richaud agreed.

“People can see the job we did, see the improvement,” Richaud said. “Clearly the message tonight is Bradie is one of the best skaters in the world.”

Her skating had a greater maturity and finesse, with striking flow and attention to details of hand movement and body position. She has vowed not to take a pass on any moment in her programs, knowing every second can produce more points.

“I’m a new and improved Bradie,” she said. “I don’t put a limit on myself.”

Tennell opened with a solid triple lutz-triple toe loop combination, the first time she had landed that combination cleanly since her victorious 2021 Nationals. She followed that with a strong triple flip and a good double Axel. A slip on her flying sit spin and a flawed combination spin would cost her the points that dropped her behind Levito, 73.78 to 73.76, going into Friday night’s free skate.

“Made a couple silly mistakes on spins,” Tennell said. “I think I got too excited.”

So as pleased as Tennell was with the result, she once again heard the two voices that quarrel inside her head. One says be satisfied just by being able to compete again; the other wants to win.

“One was jumping up and down with pompoms,” Tennell said. “The other was, ‘But you didn’t get the (highest) spin levels.'”

Starr Andrews was third at 68.97, her highest finish in any segment of the six nationals in which she has competed. Five years ago in this building, Andrews, then 16, had made a dazzling senior debut while finishing sixth, but she has struggled to build on that promise.

“Of course, I wondered if that was going to happen again,” Andrews said.

Andrews helped relive that past glory by wearing the same sparky carmine unitard she had in 2018.

“It was kind of a full circle,” Andrews said. “It was really amazing to be out there again. I felt really comfortable and confident.”

Tennell, too, had created a career-defining moment at this arena in 2018, winning the national title after having finished ninth a year before and going on to earn an Olympic team event bronze medal.

“This is where all my skating craziness started,” she said.

She, too, expressed a feeling of having come full circle. Yet another moment was on her mind as the auditory craziness swirled over her while Richaud, whom Tennell calls “a commanding presence,” was trying to keep her calm by repeating things he had told her earlier this season, when her return to competition had been fraught with poor performances.

Tennell was thinking about the 2019 Nationals in Detroit, when she had won the short program but coped poorly with an unexpected distraction before the free skate.

“I couldn’t get my focus back after that,” she said.

The result was a desultory fourth in the free skate, second overall and a pledge to learn from it.

“I’ve always said to myself if that happened again, I would handle it better,” she recalled.

And she did.

Philip Hersh, who has covered figure skating at the last 12 Winter Olympics, is a special contributor to NBCSports.com.

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Ilia Malinin eyed new heights at figure skating worlds, but a jump to gold requires more

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At 18 years old, Ilia Malinin already has reached immortality in figure skating for technical achievement, being the first to land a quadruple Axel jump in competition.

The self-styled “Quadg0d” already has shown the chutzpah (or hubris?) to go for the most technically difficult free skate program ever attempted at the world championships, including that quad Axel, the hardest jump anyone has tried.

It helped bring U.S. champion Malinin the world bronze medal Saturday in Saitama, Japan, where he made more history as the first to land the quad Axel at worlds.

But it already had him thinking that the way to reach the tops of both the worlds and Olympus might be to acknowledge his mortal limits.

Yes, if Malinin (288.44 points) had cleanly landed all six quads he did instead of going clean on just three of the six, it would have closed or even overcome the gap between him and repeat champion Shoma Uno of Japan (301.14) and surprise silver medalist Cha Jun-Hwan (296.03), the first South Korean man to win a world medal.

That’s a big if, as no one ever has done six clean quads in a free skate.

And the energy needed for those quads, physical and mental, hurts Malinin’s chances of closing another big gap with the world leaders: the difference in their “artistic” marks, known as component scores.

Malinin’s technical scores led the field in both the short program and free skate. But his component scores were lower than at last year’s worlds, when he finished ninth, and they ranked 10th in the short program and 11th in the free this time. Uno had an 18.44-point overall advantage over Malinin in PCS, Cha a 13.47 advantage.

FIGURE SKATING WORLDS: Chock, Bates, and a long road to gold | Results

As usual in figure skating, some of the PCS difference owes to the idea of paying your dues. After all, at his first world championships, eventual Olympic champion Nathan Chen had PCS scores only slightly better than Malinin’s, and Chen’s numbers improved substantially by the next season.

But credit Malinin for quickly grasping the reality that his current skating has a lot of rough edges on the performance side.

“I’ve noticed that it’s really hard to go for a lot of risks,” he said in answer to a press conference question about what he had learned from this competition. “Sometimes going for the risks you get really good rewards, but I think that maybe sometimes it’s OK to lower the risks and go for a lot cleaner skate. I think it will be beneficial next season to lower the standards a bit.”

So could it be “been-there, done-that” with the quad Axel? (and the talk of quints and quad-quad combinations?)

Saturday’s was his fourth clean quad Axel in seven attempts this season, but it got substantially the lowest grade of execution (0.36) of the four with positive marks. It was his opening jump in the four-minute free, and, after a stopped-in-your tracks landing, his next two quads, flip and Lutz, were both badly flawed.

And there were still some three minutes to go.

Malinin did not directly answer about letting the quad Axel go now that he has definitively proved he can do it. What he did say could be seen as hinting at it.

“With the whole components factor … it’s probably because you know, after doing a lot of these jumps, (which) are difficult jumps, it’s really hard to try to perform for the audience,” he said.

“Even though some people might enjoy jumping, and it’s one of the things I enjoy, but I also like to perform to the audience. So I think next season, I would really want to focus on this performing side.”

Chen had told me essentially the same thing for a 2017 Ice Network story (reposted last year by NBCOlympics.com) about his several years of ballet training. He regretted not being able to show that training more because of the program-consuming athletic demands that come with being an elite figure skater.

“When I watch my skating when I was younger, I definitely see all this balletic movement and this artistry come through,” Chen said then. “When I watch my artistry now, it’s like, ‘Yes, it’s still there,’ but at the same time, I’m so focused on the jumps, it takes away from it.”

The artistry can still be developed and displayed, as Chen showed and as prolific and proficient quad jumpers like Uno and the now retired two-time Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu of Japan have proved.

For another perspective on how hard it is to combine both, look at the difficulty it posed for the consummate performer, Jason Brown, who had the highest PCS scores while finishing a strong fifth (280.84).

Since Brown dropped his Sisyphean attempts to do a clean quad after 26 tries (20 in a free skate), the last at the 2022 U.S. Championships, he has received the two highest international free skate scores of his career, at the 2022 Olympics and this world meet.

It meant Brown’s coming to terms with his limitations and the fact that in the sport’s current iteration, his lack of quads gives him little chance of winning a global championship medal. What he did instead was give people the chance to see the beauty of his blade work, his striking movement, his expressiveness.

He has, at 28, become an audience favorite more than ever. And the judges Saturday gave Brown six maximum PCS scores (10.0.)

“I’m so happy about today’s performance,” Brown told media in the mixed zone. “I did my best to go out there and skate my skate. And that’s what I did.”

The quadg0d is realizing that he, too, must accept limitations if he wants to achieve his goals. Ilia Malinin can’t simply jump his way onto the highest steps of the most prized podiums.

Philip Hersh, who has covered figure skating at the last 12 Winter Olympics, is a special contributor to NBCSports.com.

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Shoma Uno repeats as world figure skating champion; Ilia Malinin tries 6 quads for bronze

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Japan’s Shoma Uno repeated as world figure skating champion, performing the total package of jumps and artistry immediately after 18-year-old American Ilia Malinin attempted a record-tying six quadruple jumps in his free skate to earn the bronze medal.

Uno, 25 and the leader after Thursday’s short program, prevailed with five quad attempts (one under-rotated) in Saturday’s free skate.

He finished, fell backward and lay on home ice in Saitama, soaking in a standing ovation amid a sea of Japanese flags. Japan won three of the four gold medals this week, and Uno capped it off with guts coming off a reported ankle injury.

He is the face of Japanese men’s skating after two-time Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu retired in July and Olympic silver medalist Yuma Kagiyama missed most of this season with leg and ankle injuries.

“There were many shaky jumps today, but I’m happy I was able to get a good result despite not being in a good condition these past two weeks,” Uno said, according to the International Skating Union (ISU). “I know I caused a lot of concerns to everyone around me, but I was able to pay them back and show my gratitude with my performance today.”

Silver medalist Cha Jun-Hwan became the first South Korean man to win a world championships medal. Cha, a 21-year-old who was fifth at the Olympics, had to change out broken skate boots before traveling to Japan, one year after withdrawing from worlds after a 17th-place short program, citing a broken skate boot.

FIGURE SKATING WORLDS: Results

Malinin, ninth in his senior worlds debut last year, planned the most difficult program of jumps in figure skating history — six quads, including a quad Axel. Malinin is the only person to land a quad Axel in competition and did so again Saturday. He still finished 12.7 points behind Uno and 7.59 behind Cha.

Malinin had the top technical score (jumps, spins, step sequences) in both programs, despite an under-rotation and two other negatively graded jumps among his seven jumping passes in the free skate.

His nemesis was the artistic score, placing 10th and 11th in that category in the two programs (18.44 points behind Uno). Unsurprising for the only teen in the top 13, who is still working on that facet of his skating, much like a young Nathan Chen several years ago.

“After doing a lot of these jumps — hard, difficult jumps — it’s really hard to try to perform for the audience,” said Malinin, who entered worlds ranked second in the field by best score this season behind Uno.

Chen, who is unlikely to compete again after winning last year’s Olympics, remains the lone skater to land six fully rotated quads in one program (though not all clean). Malinin became the youngest U.S. male singles skater to win a world medal since Scott Allen in 1965. He was proud of his performance, upping the ante after previously trying five quads in free skates this season, but afterward weighed whether the risk was worth it.

“Sometimes going for the risk, you get really good rewards, but I think that maybe sometimes it’s OK to lower the risks and try not to take as much risk and go for a lot cleaner skate,” he said. “I think that’ll be beneficial to do next season is to lower the standards a bit.”

Malinin was followed by Frenchman Kévin Aymoz, who before the pandemic was the world’s third-ranked skater behind Chen and Yuzuru Hanyu, then placed ninth, 11th and 12th at the last three global championships.

Jason Brown, a two-time U.S. Olympian, was fifth in his first international competition since last year’s Olympics. He was the lone man in the top 15 to not attempt a quad, a testament to his incredible artistic skills for which he received the most points between the two programs.

“I didn’t think at the beginning of the year that I even would be competing this year, so I’m really touched to be here,” the 28-year-old said, according to the ISU. “I still want to keep going [competing] a little longer, but we’ll see. I won’t do promises.”

Earlier Saturday, Madison Chock and Evan Bates became the oldest couple to win an ice dance world title and the second set of Americans to do so. More on that here.

World championships highlights air Saturday from 8-10 p.m. ET on NBC, NBCSports.com/live and the NBC Sports app.

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