Bradie Tennell wins her second national figure skating title

By Meri-Jo Borzilleri

Bradie Tennell uprooted her life last summer, moving from suburban Chicago to Colorado Springs in hopes of finding what she needed to reclaim a national figure skating title. Tennell had won in 2018, then watched Alysa Liu, a sprightly phenom seven years her junior, take the next two championships.

On Friday night at Orleans Arena in Las Vegas, Tennell, 22, skated a nearly flawless long program to win her second U.S. championship, three years after her first.

“That was exactly the performance I wanted to give, and I enjoyed every second of it,” said Tennell, who wrapped her arms around her head and closed her eyes in the picture of satisfaction after her free skate, which featured seven triple jumps and two double axels, along with the grace and artistry that have become her trademarks.

“Winning my title back means everything to me,” she said. “It was one of the driving forces behind my move to Colorado. It was the driving force for me to wake up and go to training every day.”

Amber Glenn, a 21-year-old from the Dallas area, was a surprise runner-up, vaulting from fifth place in Thursday’s short program to claim her first national championship medal. In third place was Karen Chen, 21, the 2017 national champion who is taking a gap year from Cornell to refine her skating.

Liu, 15, who recently went through a growth spurt that added nearly 4 inches to a 4-foot-9 frame, finished fourth.

Tennell’s new coach, Tom Zakrajsek, had to watch her victory on television from 800 miles away because he had tested positive for the coronavirus in a screening about two weeks earlier, just before he had planned to depart for the championships. After he saw Tennell’s only obvious mistake in the long program, a brief slip at the very end, Zakrajsek said he knew that fatigue had taken over and that she had pushed herself to new limits.

“That was the cue to me she left it all out there,” Zakrajsek said in a telephone interview.

Even though Tennell was a champion and a 2018 Olympian — she finished ninth at the Pyeongchang Games as the highest-ranking American woman — she had come to Zakrajsek with a desire to change her reputation as a steady Eddie, he said.

“She said, ‘They always say Bradie gets the job done,’” Zakrajsek recalled. “I said: ‘OK. Now they’re going to say Bradie gets the job done really well.’”

Zakrajsek, 57, said he had experienced only mild symptoms from the virus.

Like so many other sporting events over the past 10 months, the figure skating championships were upended in various ways by the pandemic.

The federation moved the championships from their original site in San Jose, California, shortly after Las Vegas hosted Skate America in October. Skating officials said they decided to return to a familiar environment where their virus precautions had already been tested.

In the kiss-and-cry area at Orleans Arena, skaters found no one to kiss and no shoulder to cry on. Skaters wore masks while awaiting their scores and while giving interviews. Cardboard cutout fans filled the rows closest to the ice, and recorded spectator noise was piped in.

Tennell came out of Thursday’s short program in first place, with a solid lead of 3.04 points, but the same thing had happened at the previous two nationals, where Liu ultimately ended up atop the podium.

Skating to “Sarajevo” by Max Richter and “Dawn of Faith” by Eternal Eclipse on Friday, Tennell earned 153.21 points in the long program to finish the competition 17.28 points ahead of Glenn.

Glenn became the first publicly LGBTQ women’s medalist in the U.S. championships, according to U.S. Figure Skating. Glenn, who has said she is bisexual, finished fifth last year.

She had briefly quit the sport as a 15-year-old because of what she described as mental health struggles.

“I went to a public school and didn’t see a rink for six months,” Glenn said, but discovered that “normal life” bored her. She chose a new coach and a new mindset, she said, deciding to skate “for my own happiness. For now, to come back and have a national medal five years later is amazing.”

Liu, who in 2019 became the youngest U.S. champion in history at 13, changed coaches this year and had to cope with a hip injury in addition to the growth spurt.

Liu’s coaches shelved — for now — the quadruple Lutz and triple axels that she is known for and worked on developing more artistry. At nationals, her first competition since March, she had trouble landing some of her triples.

“It was a really good learning experience,” said Liu, who will turn 16 in August and become eligible for senior international competition. “Glad it happened this season and not another season.”

That was surely a reference to next year, when the Winter Olympics in Beijing are scheduled and a host of young Russian skaters already performing quads and triple axels awaits. The 2022 U.S. championships, scheduled in late January, will determine who is on the Olympic team.

Until then, Tennell will savor her return to the top spot. “They say it’s about the journey, not the destination,” she said. “But the destination feels pretty great, too.”

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