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Bradie Tennell working to hammer home jumps, repeat national champion mentality

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Bradie Tennell had awakened at 4 a.m., as usual, and arrived at the Twin Rinks Ice Pavilion in Chicago’s northwest suburbs by 6 a.m., as usual. Now it was early afternoon, and the 2018 Olympic team event bronze medalist was on her sixth of seven 30-minute training season of the day.

It is a workload that befits her personality on and off the ice: relentless, no-nonsense, a grinder in a sport where the surface glitz often hides the lunch-bucket labor that figure skaters put in daily on rinks like this one.

Not all of her training days are so intense. Her coach of 11 years, Denise Myers, insists that the 20-year-old Tennell cut back at times to make sure she stays healthy after having had her skating career threatened by back problems in both the 2016 and 2017 seasons. So there are days with reduced jumping and days with no jumping at all and days with fewer sessions and fewer full program run-throughs.

“I like to take as long as I need to get everything done,” Tennell said. “I don’t really count the hours.”

Getting it all done would take longer on this penultimate day of October because Tennell and Myers had just changed the jumps at the end of her free skate program to make them worth a few more tenths of a point. The triple Lutz-triple toe-double toe combination now was a triple Lutz-triple toe; the triple flip-double toe had become a triple flip-double toe-double loop.

Bradie Tennell with coach Denise Myers at practice. Philip Hersh

Tennell used her phone’s Bluetooth connection to cue up the section of her “Romeo and Juliet” free skate music that led into and included those altered jumps. The first attempt ended in a fall on the flip. The next three went well. By the final one, the effort had led Tennell to remove a long-sleeved outer shirt, leaving her in a top that bared arms and shoulders in a frigid rink.

Tennell insisted she is not feeling the heat after a 2018 season that began with her as a little-known outsider and ended with her as the country’s top woman singles skater, having decisively won last season’s U.S. title and then been the highest finisher of three U.S. woman at the Olympics (ninth) and the world championships (sixth). With three-time U.S. champion Ashley Wagner and 2018 Olympian Mirai Nagasu on (permanent?) competitive hiatus and the third 2018 Olympian, Karen Chen, struggling with an injury and lingering confidence issues, Tennell’s national pre-eminence going into this season looks even greater.

“I don’t think about the fact that I’m the leading lady for the U.S.,” Tennell said. “That’s kind of extra stuff. Focusing on what I am there to do is the best thought process for me.

“In the back of my mind, I know I am in a different position. The biggest change is that I’m more known. There is good and bad to that, but it’s exciting.”

The downside is there is no more hiding in the weeds, as Tennell was able to do before winning a bronze medal in her senior Grand Prix debut over last Thanksgiving weekend at Skate America. The skating world now expects things from her, and it has been paying attention to her successes and struggles so far this season.

Tennell began it in Canada with two solid skates, marred only by minor errors, that led to her upset win over reigning Olympic silver medalist Yevgenia Medvedeva of Russia at September’s Autumn Classic International, a Challenger Series event. Two weeks later, at the free-skate-only Japan Open team event, some slightly more consequential mistakes left her fourth – but within shouting distance of second in a good field as Olympic champion Alina Zagitova of Russia was a runaway winner.

Two weeks after that, at October’s Skate America, first of the six Grand Prix series “regular season” events, she had a huge mistake in the short program, popping (singling) the second jump in her planned triple lutz-triple loop combination. “I was like, ‘What did you just do?’” she recalled. “I hate popping. It drives me crazy.”

She followed that with an underwhelming free skate, with three lesser errors, and wound up fourth. To have a shot at the Grand Prix Final, she likely needs a win in her second Grand Prix, the season-ending Internationaux de France Thanksgiving weekend in Grenoble.

Even winning may not be enough, and it may even be mathematically impossible before she competes in France. Others could clinch two of the six spots at this weekend’s NHK Trophy in Japan – fourth of the six events.

“It would have been nice to make it, and that was our hope and our goal, but it’s not the end-all,” Myers said. “At Skate America, I had to remind her that this was only her second Grand Prix.”

Her current choreographer, Benoit Richaud, had been taken by surprise the first time he saw Tennell skate, at the 2017 Junior World Championships, where she was the highest U.S. finisher in seventh place. At that point, Richaud had never heard of her.

“I was almost shocked to see how good she was, because nobody was talking about her,” Richaud, 30, said Thursday via telephone from his home in Avignon, France.

“When I see how much she has improved in the last two seasons, I cannot tell you what her limits are. As a skater, she is still under construction. She has all the base technically. Now it is a process of developing her personality.”

After winning the U.S. junior title in 2015, Tennell’s next two seasons were compromised by fractures in different lumbar vertebrae. She missed months of training both times. She finished sixth and then ninth at her first two senior U.S. Championships, in 2016 and 2017.

“My main goal going into last season was just to stay healthy,” Tennell said. “If I had just gotten through without being injured and all the madness that happened hadn’t happened, I would still have been happy. Thankfully, I was very successful.”

Healthy, she showed a technical consistency so stunning it offset her callow artistry. Over her four significant competitions last season through the team event at the Olympics, where she skated the short program, Tennell had made 34 jumping passes without a fall and done 33 of 34 triple jumps flawlessly. That streak ended at the wrong time: the second jump of her opening triple-triple combination in the Olympic singles short program.

“I shocked myself a little bit,” she said of the fall. “It was stupid.

“We’re all human. We all make mistakes. That one just probably happened at the worst time ever.”

There were lesser errors in the free skate, although even a flawless Tennell probably would not have been higher than seventh in the Olympics. But just being in the Olympics seemed inconceivable even a few months earlier.

“Any time I think about it, it brings a smile to my face,” she said.

She smiled recounting how a friend recently complimented the sweatpants Tennell was wearing. “Thank you,” she replied. “I got them at the Olympics.” Then, the essence of her answer struck her. “I was like, ‘I can’t believe I can say that.’”

At the ensuing worlds, Tennell was fourth in the free skate, beating both Zagitova and 2014 Olympic bronze medalist Carolina Kostner of Italy in that phase. And what she calls the madness surrounding her success continued: a “shoot-the-puck” appearance in a personalized jersey at a Blackhawks game (her two younger brothers, Austin and Shane, are both high school hockey players), then a full and physically demanding run with the Stars on Ice tour.

Her new stature, with its accompanying financial rewards, has relieved some of the pressure on her mother, Jean Tennell, who has raised three children on her own and found ways to cover their sports expenses. Jean, a nurse, was able to reduce her workload from two jobs to one this year. Bradie can coach less frequently. The whole family still lives together in Carpentersville, Ill., and Jean travels with Bradie to competitions.

“I wouldn’t be where I am without the sacrifices my mom made,” Tennell said. “To be able to repay even a fraction of that means a lot to me.”

Tennell took no extended break, only a few days off here and there, when the Stars tour ended May 20. (Myers made an 11-day vacation trip to Tanzania and Zanzibar with her husband and sister-in-law.) She wanted to waste no time preparing for a 2018-19 season in which her objectives include enlarging people’s perceptions of her.

“I want to repeat as national champion and be on the podium at worlds,” she said. “I want the skating world to see I am more than I was last year. I really wanted to go in a different direction and show I can live up to the challenge of skating with more maturity and not looking so fragile on the ice.”

Tennell, a willowy 5-feet, 6-inches, has more challenging programs this season, with more difficult transitions, fewer crossovers and a triple lutz-triple loop combination in both (in addition to a triple lutz-triple toe in the free skate.) She has been surprised that technical controllers have been dinging her for wrong or unclear edges on the triple flip and is trying to eliminate the wiggle that she feels creates a mistaken impression about the takeoff edge.

“I’ve been working on that,” she said.

The biggest change is her music choices: a short program to a sci-fi movie trailer song, “Rebirth,” by Hi-Finesse; and, in place of last year’s jejune “Cinderella,” there is a long program to music from three different versions of “Romeo and Juliet,” with the well-known airy, romantic theme bookended by powerful, dense selections from Prokofiev’s landmark, eponymous ballet and the score from the movie, “William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet.”

Richaud, who began working with Tennell before last season, has choreographed the free skate in way that shows off her long line and allows Tennell to present herself in a much different manner than she could with “Cinderella,” no matter that Shakespeare’s Juliet is a much younger character. Staccato, abrupt arm movements near the start of the final section, “O Verona,” emphasize the medieval, mysterious, percussive quality of the music. There is expressiveness in Tennell’s face that was absent last year.

“We wanted something different from last year and different from her short program, which is very modern,” Richaud said. “Everyone always used just one version of ‘Romeo.’ Here we tried to combine things to make it look a little more fresh.

“I hear people say she has no personality. I wanted to show this is wrong, because she has a lot. She is a very strong girl. You can really see in these three different pieces three different feelings. It doesn’t matter what you are feeling. The important thing is for people to see she is feeling something.”

Maturity, Richaud noted, comes from an aggregate of experiences: being U.S. champion, going to the Olympics, traveling with Stars on Ice, being noticed.

“It’s like a beautiful mixed salad,” he said. “You can’t do it with just lettuce. You need tomato, mustard, vinegar, pepper, oil. You need everything.”

Tennell’s nature is such that she is likely to remain an athlete who performs more than a performer who does the necessary athletic tricks. It also explains her limited presence on social media.

“I was very shy last year,” she said. “I’m working at coming out of my shell a little bit. But I’m not one of those people that’s going to be in your face all the time.”

The choice of words there is telling. Tennell is “working” on it. Working is what she knows best, what she does best, what got her from the weeds to the 2018 Olympics, what she counts on to get her to the next Winter Games in 2022, why she took no real vacation after the longest – and most productive – season of her career.

“I was impressed from the beginning with how humble she is and what a hard worker she is,” Richaud said. “She is one of the easiest skaters I have to work with. When you talk to her and say something, she understands and does it.

“Every week, I see improvement on everything. She cares, and she wants to develop. Not everyone wants that – even big champions.”

So it was with her practicing the changed jumps.

“I really want to hammer those in, to get it like second nature,” she said.

Another revealing word choice: “hammer.” For Bradie Tennell, there is no other way to go at things but hammer and tongs.

She grabbed her phone and cued up the music again.

Philip Hersh, who has covered figure skating at the last 11 Winter Olympics, is a special contributor to NBCSports.com/figure-skating

As a reminder, you can watch the ISU Grand Prix Series live and on-demand with the ‘Figure Skating Pass’ on NBC Sports Gold. GO HERE to sign up for access to every ISU Grand Prix and championship event, as well as domestic U.S. Figure Skating events throughout the season…NBC Sports Gold gives subscribers an unprecedented level of access on more platforms and devices than ever before.

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Assessing figure skating’s Grand Prix season at the midpoint

Yuzuru Hanyu, Nathan Chen
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The early figure skating season produced the usual dominance from Yuzuru Hanyu and Alina Zagitova, but also surprises, such as defeats for Yevgenia Medvedeva and a mild shakeup atop the pairs’ order.

We’re halfway through the Grand Prix campaign, with early favorites emerging for December’s Grand Prix Final, which takes the top six per discipline from the six-event series.

The most anticipated Final fields are singles, where Hanyu and Nathan Chen are expected to meet for the first time since PyeongChang. Hanyu repeated as Olympic champion in February, while Chen rebounded from a short-program disaster to top the free skate for fifth overall.

Likewise, the Grand Prix Final should feature Zagitova and former training partner Medvedeva in their first head-to-head since they were separated by 1.31 points in PyeongChang. That is assuming Medvedeva takes care of business at her second Grand Prix in two weeks.

A discipline-by-discipline look at the figure skating season so far …

Men
Top Season Scores
1. Yuzuru Hanyu (JPN) — 297.12
2. Nathan Chen (USA) — 280.57
3. Shoma Uno (JPN) — 277.25
4. Shoma Uno (JPN) — 276.20
5. Mikhail Kolyada (RUS) — 274.37
6. Keegan Messing (CAN) — 265.17
7. Yuzuru Hanyu (JPN) — 263.65
8. Cha Jun-Hwan (KOR) — 259.78
9. Michal Brezina (CZE) — 257.98
10. Keegan Messing (CAN) — 257.16
Jason Brown (USA) — 234.97
Jason Brown (USA) — 233.23
Vincent Zhou (USA) — 225.75

Favorites Hanyu, Chen and Uno won their opening Grand Prix events, though Chen’s jumping program at Skate America included half the quads he attempted in PyeongChang. Chen’s score from winning the Hanyu-less world championships last season would have taken gold at the Olympics. We’ve never seen Chen and Hanyu hit all of their jumps in the same competition. Brown and Zhou were fifth and sixth, respectively, in their Grand Prix openers, putting them all but out of the running for the Final.

Women
Top Season Scores
1. Alina Zagitova (RUS) — 238.43
2. Alexandra Trusova (RUS) — 221.44 (junior)
3. Alexandra Trusova (RUS) — 221 (junior)
4. Satoko Miyahara (JPN) — 219.71
5. Rika Kihira (JPN) — 218.16
6. Alina Zagitova (RUS) — 215.29
7. Kaori Sakamoto (JPN) — 213.90
8. Mai Mihara (JPN) — 209.22
9. Bradie Tennell (USA) — 206.41
10. Elizaveta Tuktamysheva (RUS) — 206.07
Bradie Tennell (USA) — 192.89
Mariah Bell (USA) — 190.25
Mariah Bell (USA) — 188.97
Ashley Lin (USA) — 181.21

Noticeably absent from the top-10 scores list is Medvedeva, who went undefeated for more than two years from 2015 through 2017, then finished second or third in her last four events dating to January. Perhaps the biggest story in skating the rest of the Grand Prix season will be whether Medvedeva, after finishing third at Skate Canada, can qualify for the Grand Prix Final. She may need to win in France in two weeks to lock up a spot. It’s looking like the Grand Prix Final will be all Russian and Japanese women after Tennell finished fourth at Skate America. The U.S. is searching for depth with Mirai Nagasu and Ashley Wagner taking indefinite breaks and Karen Chen missing her Grand Prix opener with a foot injury. Sochi Olympian Gracie Gold is set to compete in two weeks for the first time in nearly two years.

MORE: Figure skating season TV schedule

Pairs
Top Season Scores
1. Vanessa James/Morgan Cipres (FRA) — 221.81
2. Vanessa James/Morgan Cipres (FRA) — 210.21
3. Peng Cheng/Jin Yang (CHN) — 206.42
4. Yevgenia Tarasova/Vladimir Morozov (RUS) — 204.85
5. Peng Cheng/Jin Yang (CHN) — 201.08
6. Kirsten Moore-Towers/Michael Marinaro (CAN) — 200.93
7. Yevgenia Tarasova/Vladimir Morozov (RUS) — 198.98
8. Natalya Zabiyako/Alexander Enbert (RUS) — 198.51
9. Aleksandra Boikova/Dmitriy Kozlovskiy (RUS) — 196.54
10. Natalya Zabiyako/Alexander Enbert (RUS) — 196.15
Ashley Cain/Timothy LeDuc (USA) — 181.56
Alexa Scimeca Knierim/Chris Knierim (USA) — 177.22
Ashley Cain/Timothy LeDuc (USA) — 175.06

Deanna Stellato/Nathan Bartholomay (USA) — 174.91

All the Olympic medalists are sitting out this fall or retired. The French burst through that opening. It’s not a huge surprise given they were fifth in PyeongChang and third at worlds. But James and Cipres were outscored by Tarasova and Morozov at each of the last four world championships and European Championships. Cain and LeDuc have an outside chance at the Final after their first Grand Prix medal at Skate America (bronze), but they likely need a silver in a deep Rostelecom Cup field next week.

Ice Dance
Top Season Scores
1. Madison Hubbell/Zach Donohue (USA) — 200.82

2. Alexandra Stepanova/Ivan Bukin (RUS) — 200.78
3. Alexandra Stepanova/Ivan Bukin (RUS) — 200.49
4. Madison Hubbell/Zach Donohue (USA) — 197.42
5. Kaitlyn Weaver/Andrew Poje (CAN) — 197.27
6. Victoria Sinitsina/Nikita Katsalapov (RUS) — 196.42
7. Charlene Guignard/Marco Fabbri (ITA) — 196.29
8. Victoria Sinitsina/Nikita Katsalapov (RUS) — 195.17
9. Piper Gilles/Paul Poirier (CAN) — 194.12
10. Charlene Guignard/Marco Fabbri (ITA) — 193.28
Rachel Parsons/Michael Parsons (USA) — 180.95
Lorraine McNamara/Quinn Carpenter (USA) — 180.57

The top returning couple this season, French Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron, has not competed internationally. They’ll now miss this week’s NHK Trophy after Cizeron hurt his back in a training fall last week. The Final was expected to be a showdown between Papadakis and Cizeron and training partners Hubbell and Donohue, who were fourth in PyeongChang and second at worlds behind the French. Papadakis and Cizeron would be ineligible for the Final with just one Grand Prix start. Instead, Hubbell and Donohue could have their hands full with Stepanova and Bukin. They were second at last season’s Russian Championships, but Bukin was not invited to the Olympics by the IOC. They later finished seventh at worlds. Two more promising U.S. couples, Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker and the Parsons siblings, make their Grand Prix season debuts this week.

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MORE: Olympic pairs’ champions from Russia retire

As a reminder, you can watch the ISU Grand Prix Series live and on-demand with the ‘Figure Skating Pass’ on NBC Sports Gold. GO HERE to sign up for access to every ISU Grand Prix and championship event, as well as domestic U.S. Figure Skating events throughout the season…NBC Sports Gold gives subscribers an unprecedented level of access on more platforms and devices than ever before.

Alina Zagitova wins her Grand Prix opener; Yuzuru Hanyu leads

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Alina Zagitova wasn’t flawless in her Grand Prix season opener, but she didn’t have to be.

The Olympic champion from Russia totaled 215.29 points in Helsinki, winning the event by 17.72 over countrywoman Stanislava Konstantinova. Japan’s Kaori Sakamoto improved from seventh after the short program for bronze, two weeks after her second straight Skate America silver medal.

Zagitova did not fall between two programs, but she singled a jump in Friday’s short and had two under-rotation calls in her free.

“I’m not happy with my short program,” she said through a translator. “The free skating was better, but it still was not ideal.

“It was tough for me to leave behind the short program. I was analyzing for a long time, almost the whole night.”

Her score ranks second among women this Grand Prix season behind Skate America winner Satoko Miyahara of Japan. But Zagitova’s score from her lower-level season debut in September — 238.43 — remains best in the world overall this season by 17 points.

The Helsinki field lacked Zagitova’s top rivals like Miyahara and Olympic silver medalist Yevgenia Medvedeva, whom the 16-year-old will not face until December.

She had margin for error in her first top-level event since falling three times in the world championships free skate in March and finishing fifth, her only loss in a little more than a year on the senior international level.

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Earlier Saturday, double Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu moved into position to win his Grand Prix opener for the first time in his nine-year career.

The Japanese megastar was nearly flawless on his jumps, with a slight turnout on the back end of his quadruple toe loop-triple toe combination. The score — 106.69 — is the highest men’s short program in the world this season, knocking off Olympic silver medalist Shoma Uno.

“Today was a bit challenging,” said Hanyu, who chose his short-program music, Otoñal, partially as a tribute to Johnny Weir. “I can say I landed [the jumps], but I can’t say perfect.”

Hanyu takes a 13.38-point lead over Czech Michal Brezina into Sunday’s free skate. Hanyu will not face Uno or world champion Nathan Chen this season until December’s Grand Prix Final at the earliest.

Russia swept the pairs’ and ice dance titles among fields with no Olympic or world medalists (aside from team events) or prior Grand Prix event winners.

Natalya Zabiyako and Alexander Enbert erased a .59 deficit from the paris’ short program to beat Italians Nicole Della Monica and Matteo Guarise. They totaled 198.51, distancing the Italians by 12.74.

The Russians’ total ranks them fifth in the world this season, far behind French leaders Vanessa James and Morgan Cipres (221.81).

Alexandra Stepanova and Ivan Bukin topped both the rhythm dance and free dance for 200.09 points, 3.8 clear of Italians Charlene Guignard and Marco Fabbri. Americans Lorraine McNamara and Quinn Carpenter were third, their first Grand Prix podium.

Stepnova and Bukin rank second in the world this season behind world silver medalists Madison Hubbell and Zach Donohue. However, Olympic silver medalists and world champions Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron of France have yet to debut.

As a reminder, you can watch the ISU Grand Prix Series live and on-demand with the ‘Figure Skating Pass’ on NBC Sports Gold. GO HERE to sign up for access to every ISU Grand Prix and championship event, as well as domestic U.S. Figure Skating events throughout the season…NBC Sports Gold gives subscribers an unprecedented level of access on more platforms and devices than ever before.

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