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Bradie Tennell delivers her punch, seizes figure skating nationals lead

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GREENSBORO, N.C. – Bradie Tennell punched the air when she finished her winning short program at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships Thursday night.

For most athletes, that is a common reaction to a strong performance.

For Tennell, whose default mood is self-containment, it was an unusual outpouring of emotion.

And maybe it showed just how well she understood the way her choreographer, Frenchman Benoit Richaud, wanted her to perform a program in which her confident, sometimes sassy skating complimented the staccato, robotic music.

After all, she would be skating it in a look-at-me bright red dress.

When they first began working on the program, Richaud felt Tennell was characteristically trying to disappear into the woodwork by turning what were meant to be bold physical statements into understated movements.

“You need to make a splash,” he told her. “You need to feel like you’re the center of everyone’s attention.”

That is the last thing Tennell normally wants to be.

“It’s weird,” Tennell said. “I guess when I’m on the ice, that’s what I’m aiming for, but when I’m off the ice, I’m more introverted, so it’s not something I’m used to.”

Tennell, the 2018 U.S. champion, commanded the judges’ attention with a flawless performance begun with a strong triple Lutz-triple toe loop combination and ended with consecutive eye-catching spins. They gave her 78.96 points, leaving her 3.56 ahead of Alysa Liu, 14, who last year became the youngest senior champion in U.S. history.

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That is almost exactly the same situation as last year, when Tennell had a 2.71-point lead over Liu going into the free skate. Mistakes by Tennell and Liu’s higher-valued jump content reversed the order in the final standings.

Tennell was battling not only her reserved persona but nervousness over a lingering arm problem.

She had hit her elbow on a wall after a bad spill a few months ago, leading to swelling that went up and down intermittently since then. “For some reason, this week it got really swollen and really painful,” she said.

When she woke up Wednesday, she could not bend her arm. She went to the event medical staff for help. They told her she had an infected hematoma and gave her antibiotics. Her mother, an emergency room nurse for 25 years, added her expertise to the treatment.

That did not calm her nerves, though. It took the first jumping pass to do that.

“As soon as I landed the Lutz-toe, I was like, ‘I can get through this,’’’ she said.

Tennell has spent all season getting beaten by young Russians with more formidable jump arsenals. She insists being at such a disadvantage is not frustrating.

“I don’t think about it that way,” she said. “Luckily, I don’t have to compete against them here, so it’s not really on my mind this week.”

Yet a glance at the short program scores shows just how much an impact Liu’s more difficult jumps can have.

Liu started with a technical base value 5.18 points higher than Tennell’s. Despite Liu’s weaker spins and a wonky landing on a triple Axel, which resulted in a loss of 1.94 points on grade of execution, her overall technical score was only .16 behind Tennell’s.

“I did make a few mistakes,” Liu noted.

Liu’s base advantage increases in Friday free skate, where she plans to do two triple Axels and a quadruple lutz. Those three jumps are worth 10.4 points more than Tennell’s three highest-value jumps.

Of course, Liu has to execute those things, and ice is slippery, as Mariah Bell showed in falling on footwork at the end of her strong short program.

Bell (73.22) was third, 2.18 behind Liu. Amber Glenn was a close fourth (73.16) after giving the most captivating performance of the evening, flush with speed, power and emotion.

Karen Chen, the 2017 champion returning to nationals after a 2019 season lost to injury, was a solid fifth (70.41).

Two-time champion Gracie Gold, whose comeback from depression and an eating disorder has been widely celebrated, struggled to 13th. She botched the landing of a triple lutz and got no points after singling a planned triple loop.

The top three finished in the same order as a year ago. Once again, it was Tennell’s night. It isn’t so bad being the center of attention.

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

MORE: Gracie Gold rebuilds herself to return to nationals

As a reminder, you can watch the events from the 2019-20 figure skating season live and on-demand with the ‘Figure Skating Pass’ on NBC Sports Gold. Go to NBCsports.com/gold/figure-skating 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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Jason Brown reflects on nationals experience with 2022 Olympics still in play

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GREENSBORO, N.C. – For Jason Brown, coming to a national championships in Greensboro for the third time in 10 seasons meant opening a time capsule of fond memories and recalling how different his ambitions have been at each.

In 2011, Brown was 16, making his senior debut, second youngest in a field of 22. He delivered a breakthrough free skate, bringing the crowd to its feet, moving from 11th after the short program to seventh overall, leading his coach at the time, Kori Ade, to proclaim, with seeming hubris, that Brown’s goal would be to make the 2014 Olympic team.

Which, in fact, he did.

His goals going into the 2011 nationals free skate had been more modest than to begin establishing himself as an Olympic team contender. Brown simply wanted to make the 2011 U.S. team for the Junior World Championships, which he did, and get on TV, which he didn’t, much to his bemusement.

“I told all my friends I was going to be on TV because I was in one of the final two groups. But they showed just nine of the 12, and I was one of the other three,” he recalled, with a laugh, just before boarding a Thursday flight in Toronto on his way to North Carolina.

Four years later, after his 2014 Riverdance free skate had become a viral sensation and he had won an Olympic bronze in the team event, Brown returned to Greensboro aiming for the U.S. title. That changed mindset told him how far he had come.

And he won what remains his only national title, as his artistry, elegant blade flow and striking spins no longer were enough in an era when his lack of success with quadruple jumps became an insurmountable and ever-growing disadvantage against rivals landing multiple quads.

Brown’s best total score since the judging system’s calculations dramatically changed before last season is more than 70 points behind that of three-time defending U.S. champion Nathan Chen.

“I don’t look at that in any negative way,” Brown said. “Nathan is killing it, and he is so dominant I am in awe of him and respect him so much.”

The jumping side of the sport has gotten away from Brown, 25, and, with it, his chances to win again. His view of that situation is grounded in realism and, he insists, free of frustration.

Brown understands that even if Chen is out there in another galaxy, there is still a chance for him to be the best Jason Brown possible, which is a fine skater.

“It’s a competition, and you want to be atop the podium, but it’s not a disappointment when that doesn’t happen,” he said. “I’m aware I can’t push the sport in the direction they (the quadmeisters) are pushing it, so I have to push in the way I am capable of.

“My goal is just to be in the top three, to get back to worlds and help the team maintain its three spots. For me, this competition is not about being national champion as much as it is being a gateway to other events.”

The primary other event on his mind, what he calls his “biggest goal, hands down,” is the 2022 Olympics. It is why, after failing to make the 2018 Olympic team, Brown left longtime coach Ade and Colorado and moved to Canada to work with Team Orser, notably his primary coach, Tracy Wilson, on a four-year project to get him back to the Winter Games.

Both Wilson and Brian Orser have worked on changing so much of Brown’s jump technique – getting into rotation sooner, having more efficient arm positions – and even basic skating skills that his first two seasons training with them have been marked by consistent inconsistency.

“I’ve gone through a lot of change the last 18 months and with change and uncertainty comes a lack of confidence,” Brown said.

“Last season, we put the changes on pause midway through, and I kind of got my bearings. This year, they are not holding back in the amount of change being thrown at me.”

He managed to get third at last year’s nationals and go to worlds, where Brown was ninth. Chen won, and teammate Vincent Zhou took the bronze.

Wilson said the extra load this season is part of the long-term plan.

“We see what he is capable of. We know what he wants to achieve,” Wilson said. “It’s not going to come to you in your comfort zone.

“Under pressure, he has reverted to old habits. What we are looking for now is to have him keep the new technique under pressure.”

Leading up to these nationals, where the men skate the short program Saturday and the long Sunday, this season has been more of a struggle for Brown than last season.

A big piece of it undoubtedly was related to the concussion he sustained in a late August car accident in Colorado. Wilson said Brown’s training was limited for six weeks.

He withdrew from his first planned competition, Nebelhorn Trophy in late September. He was unable to do full program run-throughs until two weeks before Skate America in late October.

“After he did something in training, instead of telling him, ‘That’s good, do it again,’ we were saying, ‘Okay, how are you feeling?’” Wilson said. “That wears on you after a while.

“I feel he’s really ready for this competition. I’m curious to see how he does.”

After finishing second to Chen at Skate America, Brown was fifth at the NHK Trophy, falling twice in each program. He went on to win the Golden Spin of Zagreb for the second straight year but his skating there a month ago was so relatively desultory that his score was 21 points lower than in 2018.

“I’m trying to be patient and trying to see it as objectively as I can,” he said. “But when you’re in it, you’re wondering, `What’s happening to me? Why aren’t I as consistent? What’s going on? Why can’t I perform the way I used to?’

“I’m not the kind of skater who will get super, super (mentally) defeated. I’m always able to take a step back, regroup, refocus and move forward.

“I’ve had these glimpses as the year goes on of what could be, of how bright and shiny the future can be. That has carried me to be so positive and continuing to trust (his coaches’) judgment.”

The dark cloud on the horizon remains, as always, the quad issue.

According to skatingscores.com, Brown has attempted 16 quads in international competition and one at the U.S. Championships, including 15 toe loops and two salchows. They have resulted in eight falls, seven downgrades and seven under rotations. Three have received full rotational credit, but none of the 17 has been landed cleanly.

Brown laughed when I brought up the subject by saying, “This wouldn’t be a conversation between Phil and Jason if I didn’t ask about the quad.”

“Of course,” he said. “I don’t think it’s a conversation with anyone without it coming up.”

Brown intends to try a quad toe loop in the free skate as he did last year, when it was downgraded.

This year, at least, Brown won’t need to live through the four-day costume drama of a year ago, when he discovered while packing for nationals in Detroit that his competition costumes had been left behind in Zagreb.

He was prepared to do the short program in black pants and plain black turtleneck, but his parents worked logistical miracles to get the costumes to the arena just before he skated.

“I couldn’t put my mother through that again,” Brown said. “The costumes are in my suitcase.”

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

MORE: Canadian ice dancers overcome wardrobe malfunction at nationals

As a reminder, you can watch the events from the 2019-20 figure skating season live and on-demand with the ‘Figure Skating Pass’ on NBC Sports Gold. Go to NBCsports.com/gold/figure-skating 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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‘At last,’ Knierims bring total package to lead pairs’ short program

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GREENSBORO, N.C. – The title of their romantic music said it all for Alexa Scimeca-Knierim and Chris Knierim: At Last.

After a 2018-19 season of upheaval, with moves from Colorado Springs to Germany, Chicago and, finally, Southern California – “We were couch-hopping before nationals,” Scimeca-Knierim said – the two-time U.S. champions (2015, 2018) had a settled training situation. Full teaching schedules providing a financial cushion. A renowned technical specialist, Rafael Arutunian, to address their longtime nemeses, side-by-side triple jumps.

And, on Thursday at the 2020 U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Greensboro, North Carolina, they had something that eluded them the first half of this season, as well as all of last season: a short program with seven clean elements, at last.

“I’m actually extremely emotional,” Scimeca-Knierim said. “I was excited after the program, I was excited when I got my scores, but then I started to cry a little bit and now I feel like it’s coming up again and I’m going to cry.”

“No one sees how much work we put in, how much struggles we have on the day-to-day,” Knierim said.

Their tender yet powerful short, opening with a soaring triple twist and clean side-by-side triple toe loops, with a strong throw triple Lutz in its second half, earned 77.06 points. They take a near seven-point lead into Saturday’s free skate.

“It was a dream that was attainable to skate the way we did today, but it always seems something gets in the way,” Scimeca-Knierim said. “I’ve just been wanting for this moment to happen, because it’s been a little bit of time for Chris and I to have a skate that makes you feel, like, alive. I’m just so happy.”

Their moment of triumph nearly died aborning when Knierim tripped on a connecting step early in the routine, but the skater recovered in time to set up for the triple twist.

“I thought it was a little funny in the moment,” Scimeca-Knierim said. “I was like, ‘Here we go again, it’s always something that gets in the way,’ and then it didn’t go that way.”

Too often, what has “gotten in the way” are the skaters’ triple jumps. The couple credits the tough-talking but caring Arutunian, who began work with them last May, with re-working their technique and rebuilding their confidence.

“You know Raf, he’s going to tell you if you’re horrible, and he does sometimes,” Scimeca-Knierim said. “But knowing he believes in us, he was the only person I needed to hear it from besides myself. I think that’s what helped me get my confidence in my jumps.”

“We take his morning stroking classes a couple times a week, with Michal Brezina and Nathan (Chen) there sometimes and Mariah (Bell), all his high-level kids,” Knierim said. “When we started, it was eye-opening how far behind we were. It was a little embarrassing being in the class and being so terrible at everything. Now I think it’s played into our skating a little bit. There are a lot of exercises we do day-to-day to help our jumps.”

Todd Sand, who coaches the pair with his wife, Jenni Meno, in Irvine, California, called Thursday’s short program “a validation” of the couple’s training plan.

“Last year was a challenge for them, it was hard, they were just trying to survive, I think,” Sand said. “Chris had wrist surgery (last February). It took a while to get going, but now they are doing great. They’ve been working really hard with Raf, and he’s been wonderful, but these changes take time, and the same thing with some pair things, too.”

Sand revealed it will take additional grit for his team to get through their free skate on Saturday.

“They had a setback the last few weeks, Chris hurt his shoulder pretty seriously, so he wasn’t lifting for a while,” he said. “It’s only been healthy the last week or so, and it still gives him little issues. They have a lot of foundation from early in the year and I think they are relying on that. If they just trust themselves, they will be fine.”

Tarah Kayne and Danny O’Shea sit second with 70.35 points after a near-clean program. Their only notable error was an under-rotation on their triple Salchows (VIDEO).

The couple, who won the U.S. title in 2016, debuted a new short set to Debussy’s “Claire de Lune” after their coach, Dalilah Sappenfield, determined their previous routine (set to “Sweet Dreams”) wasn’t showing them to best advantage.

“Over the international season, we never felt the short program scored the way we thought it should,” O’Shea said. “It wasn’t coming across to other people. Dalilah and Tarah came up with the idea for ‘Claire de Lune’ and I think it’s amazing.”

“I get really nervous at competitions,” Kayne said. “The music comes on and I feel comfortable … It puts me in the right headspace to skate.”

The skaters kept their “Sweet Dreams” step sequence designed by Charlie White, and worked with Sappenfield to put the new routine together in three days.

“I said, ‘We’re going to go to Zagreb for Golden Spin, and if you skate clean and don’t score 70 or above, we’re going to have to scrap it,’” Sappenfield said. “And they scored about 66 points, so it went. I wanted Tarah to shine in the short, and I felt in the other one, Danny overshadowed her.”

Defending champions Ashley Cain-Gribble and Timothy LeDuc, third with 68.86 points, lost ground when their death spiral was invalidated by the technical panel, costing them about four or five points (VIDEO).

Coach Peter Cain, who also works as an ISU pair’s technical specialist, explained that the technical panel determined LeDuc lifted his blade’s toe pick off of the ice during the element.

“From the video that I saw, you can see the pick move back, but it never leaves the ice,” Cain said. “The blade doesn’t completely go down… It is what it is. They decided not to go with the skater and take it away. It puts us a little bit in a hole; we would have been right behind Alexa and Chris, which would have been really good. Now we have some work to do to get back up.”

Haven Denney and Brandon Frazier, winners of two bronze medals on the fall Grand Prix circuit, had a disappointing program, including a fall on their throw triple loop. The 2017 U.S. champions sit sixth with 61.33 points (VIDEO).

MORE: Gracie Gold rebuilds herself to return to nationals

As a reminder, you can watch the events from the 2019-20 figure skating season live and on-demand with the ‘Figure Skating Pass’ on NBC Sports Gold. Go to NBCsports.com/gold/figure-skating 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.

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!