GANGNEUNG, South Korea – In a season of firsts for Bradie Tennell, here’s one more:
She’ll be the first figure skater on the ice for the women’s short program Wednesday at the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018.
Skating order is determined by world standings combined with a draw. Because Tennell has few international points, she knew she would go early among the 30 skaters.
After all, most people outside the skating world – and some within it – had never heard of Tennell before her unexpected bronze medal at Skate America in late November.
“There are moments where it’ll hit me and I’ll be like, ‘Wow, three months ago I was nobody and now I’m U.S. champion,’” Tennell said after winning the national title in January. “I like to tell people I’m still the same person I was before, now I just have another title in front of my name.”
She added an additional title – Olympic bronze medalist – by skating the short program for Team USA in the Olympic team event.
Before she takes the ice for her next skate, here are seven things to know about Bradie Tennell:
1. She Has Overcome A Lot Of “Couldn’t”s
Tennell, who turned 20 on Jan. 31, started walking when she was about 10 months old.
“She could walk straight, but she couldn’t run,” said her mother, Jeannie. “Any time she would take off running, she would trip over one of her feet.”
Tennell was in orthotics by the time she was 11 months old to correct the pronation problem.
“She took it upon herself moving those little tiny one-inch orthotics from her shoes to her skates and her big thing was that she knew she had to wear those orthotics so that she could wear high heels when she gets older,” Jeannie said. “That was it.”
Then as a 5-year-old who loved to skate, “This kid couldn’t jump on two feet,” said her mom.
So they got a pink jump rope and worked on her coordination together on the backyard patio because “it was something that she didn’t want to give up,” Jeannie said.
But just as Tennell was making the transition from junior to senior skater, she suffered back fractures that put her in a brace twice for three months at a time.
“The doctor said it was an overuse injury, so just too much impact,” she said.
Two different vertebrae were affected and Jeannie made Bradie wear the back brace all day.
“It was in the middle of summer so it was very hot and I was off the ice and I had never been off the ice for that long before,” Tennell said. “It was very, very mentally tough. I had a hard time with it at first, but I talked to my mom a lot about it, and she really helped me put things in perspective and not give up on myself. I told myself that I would heal and that I would try my very best to return back to full strength.”
Jeannie, a single mom who is a registered nurse, made sure Bradie was doing her physical therapy exercises properly and kept whatever doubts she had to herself.
“She and I had many tears over it and the thoughts were in my head, like, ‘This could be it,’” Jeannie said. “I would never say that to her.”
Tennell made a full recovery. This is the first year at the senior level that she has been healthy.
2. She Wasn’t A Skating Prodigy
“I started skating when I was 2 ½,” Tennell said. “My mom tells me that she has no idea how I found out what it was. She came home from work one day and I just started begging her to take me ice skating, so that’s how I got started.”
Jeannie didn’t immediately notice talent. “I saw her as, ‘She’s trying.’” she said. “And when you see a little 3-year old in a class trying, you don’t want to stop that.”
When Tennell started competition, “She was never the best,” her mother added. “I taught her to congratulate the winner even when you come in last place or wherever you come in, and she did those kinds of things. She was very humble, she didn’t live ice skating when she was little, like decorate her room. Not at all. Ice skating was at the rink and when we came home, I had three kids. And that was it.”
Tennell has two younger brothers who play hockey. When they were growing up, Jeannie would take them to a public skate over lunch hour and all four would get on the ice.
Mentally, Tennell always had the right stuff. “I’ve never been a nervous competitor,” she said. “I’ve always really enjoyed competing and the energy in the arena.”
3. She Doesn’t Fall
OK, well every now and then she has taken a spill. At nationals, Tennell admitted that she fell while practicing at home a few days earlier. “It was a really crowded session and I went up for a jump that I probably should not have,” she said. “It was a little dangerous to go up for it, but I was like, ‘No, I’m going to do this.’ Luckily, nobody got hurt, but I fell so that I wouldn’t kill the little kid.”
Tennell takes pride in her consistency.
Scott Hamilton, the NBC commentator and 1984 Olympic gold medalist, said Tennell is as unflappable as Evgenia Medvedeva and Alina Zagitova, Olympic Athletes from Russia.
“If you look back over the last eight years, when a skater took the ice you were hoping they’d skate well,” Hamilton said. “With Bradie, you just watch her skate well. There’s something really comforting about knowing that the U.S. ladies champion is someone that’s going to deliver the goods under any circumstance, and without drama or without all that ‘Hold your breath every time they go into a jump.’”
However, Tennell does not score as high in the “components,” the artistry marks.
“I feel like I have pretty strong technical abilities, but I feel like my artistry can improve,” she said. “The components aspect of skating is something that I’ve really been working on this season and I feel like I’ve made some good improvements in that area.”
“She’ll grow,” Hamilton said. “A lot of that is how do you handle diverse styles of music? How do you entertain? How do you package yourself to create this climactic excitement at the end of your routines? All of that will be there. Think about what she’s been through with her back fractures and injuries.
“I look at that and I’m inspired because as human beings, we’re much more geared towards challenge than we are to good fortune. All that injury time forged her in fire.”
4. She Has Really, Really Long Hair
“It’s down to my butt,” said Tennell, who is relatively tall for a singles skater at 5-foot-6.
She didn’t get her first haircut until she was 13.
“It was down to about my calves,” Tennell said.
She donated her blonde hair to an organization that makes wigs for people who lost their hair to illness. “Then I grow it back out and I donate it again.”
“The first time I cut it, I cut off 21 inches,” she said, “and then I waited about a year to cut it again and I cut off about 16 inches.”
Tennell keeps her hair in a bun while skating, which usually only takes about 5 minutes to do.
She used to put her hair in a braid and wear a pink hat, tucking the braid into her shirt to do jumps. “When I was 8 or 9, it stuck out the back end of my shirt,” Tennell said. “Everybody always said I had a tail. Of course, when I started doing double axels and triples, I had to figure out a different way, so I got rid of the hat and I put it in a bun.”
5. She Never Wanted To Move Away From Home To Train
Many top American singles skaters have moved to Los Angeles or Colorado Springs, Colorado, to work with top coaches.
Tennell trains in Buffalo Grove, Illinois, in suburban Chicago, an hour’s drive from her home in Carpentersville. She has had the same coach, Denise Myers, for 10 years.
“My philosophy has kind of been, ‘If it’s not broken, don’t fix it,” Tennell said. “I have great people surrounding me here and I like being here, all my friends are here and I didn’t really see the point of moving and kind of changing my entire lifestyle when what I’m doing here is working.”
Because Jeannie works at night, a friend would take Bradie to practice in the morning after Jeannie called to wake up her daughter.
“I would ask her every morning when I woke her up, ‘Come on Bradie, do you want to skate today?’ She got up and she just got ready.”
While Tennell said she hates getting up at 4 a.m. on freezing winter days, “I love just being able to go out on the ice and just skate. And I love the feel of the wind in my face. I love how powerful I feel when I jump. Just skating in general, I love the sport so much.”
She even teaches students ranging from ages 8 to 14, but had to take a break because of the Olympics. “I’m kind of sad,” she said.
6. She Is Getting Used To The Attention
On one of those 4 a.m. mornings when she was eating her cereal and watching TV, Tennell was surprised to see herself featured on a morning news program.
“That was kind of crazy,” she said.
“As I go through it, I’m getting more comfortable with this (attention),” she said. “It is not my strong suit, but I love a challenge.”
She has a role model in teammate Mirai Nagasu.
“Watching Mirai talk to really anybody is very fun,” Tennell said. “I really admire the way she handles herself and I try to emulate that a little bit.”
She’s not worried about pressure. “For me there’s only pressure if I put it in myself,” Tennell said. “I kind of block out everything. It’s all kind of a swirling mess that I can’t control.”
7. Cinderella Has Always Been Her Favorite Princess
Tennell skates to music from the movie “Cinderella” for her free skate. People say she even looks like Cinderella.Jeannie made her a costume for Halloween when she was 3. “She would come home every day from her little ballet lessons or ice skating and put that dress on,” she said, “so it was more than just a costume for Halloween. It was her every-single-day dress. She had a little crown, the white gloves and she just loved the story of Cinderella and that she was a hard worker. She knew hard work gets your dreams.”
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