SAN JOSE, Calif. – Bradie Tennell was unflappable. Mirai Nagasu was a bundle of nerves.
While both broke the record for a short program score at the 2018 U.S. Figure Skating Championships, Tennell is the leader with 73.79 points and Nagasu, who stepped out of her signature triple axel, is second with 73.09 points.
Defending champion Karen Chen, from nearby Fremont, California, is in third place at 69.48 points, followed by Angela Wang (67.00) and three-time national champ Ashley Wagner (65.94).
The women’s free skate is Friday afternoon. A committee will then choose the three women who will represent Team USA at the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018.
“I just kind of ignored that aspect of it, think of it as just another practice day,” Tennell said, explaining her lack of butterflies.
But Nagasu couldn’t do that.
“I was so nervous and I fought against my own nerves,” said Nagasu, a 2010 Olympian who was famously left off the 2014 Olympic team despite finishing third at nationals.
“This is what I’ve been training for and this is my dream and when you work for something for so long it just means so much. I’m sure you all know when the moment matters and when you’re expected to deliver, it’s hard to.”
Nagasu said she gets nervous every time she performs, whether it’s a competition or exhibition “because I love it so much. Sometimes I wish I was a pairs skater because then I could squeeze my partner’s hand and say, ‘We’re in this together,’ but at the same time, it’s just me out there and so it’s a lot to handle. But I love it and I’m still here.”
Chen’s mindset was closer to Nagasu’s than Tennell’s. “I’m not going to lie, I was extremely nervous,” she said. “The short is something I put a lot of pressure on myself. I want to put myself in good position for the long.”
Tennell, who won the bronze medal at Skate America in November, was the first of the top contenders to skate, performing to “Taeguki” by Lee Dong-Jun. She started with an exquisite triple lutz/triple toe loop and made no mistakes in the 2 minutes, 40 seconds program.
She shattered her personal best of 67.01 points from Skate America as well as Chen’s mark of 72.82 from last year.
“I felt really good,” Tennell said. “I felt like I was very prepared. I did the program that I’ve been practicing, so I’m very happy.”
She credited her higher score to working on her components and interpretation of the music to develop a story.
“I’d say the biggest feeling I have is pride, I’m very proud of how far I’ve come this year overcoming my injuries,” Tennell said.
The 19-year-old had been hampered by back problems and said being injury-free has been instrumental in her success this year.
Did having such a high score make her nervous watching the rest of the skaters? “No,” she said without hesitation.
Nagasu had a higher base value than Tennell as the third American woman and the first since 2005 to land a triple axel in competition. Nagasu, 24, was successful on two triple axels this week in training, then missed her first try in the warmup. She hit her second.
But in her program, performed to “Nocturne in C Sharp Minor” by Chopin, Nagasu over-rotated on the 3 ½-revolution jump, landing on one foot and then stepping out. Unfazed, she finished the rest of her program beautifully.
“When I stepped out, I was like, ‘Wow, I’m a cat. I’m still on my feet,’” Nagasu said. “I thought to myself it’s not over yet and the music was still playing. I really enjoyed my footwork and my spins and that’s all I can ask of myself.”
Actually, Nagasu did ask something of herself as she stood at center ice before starting her program. She could be seen mouthing some words.
“I think every brilliant mind is a little bit crazy,” Nagasu said, “and sometimes I doubt myself and that was me telling myself, ‘I’m fully capable and I can do it.’ As soon as the music started, I was in the moment and I feel good about how I did.”
Tennell also had some last words for herself: “You can do this.”
She said her thoughts about going to the Olympic Winter Games haven’t changed although her prospects have increased exponentially this season. “It’s always been in the back of my mind,” she said, “but I don’t focus on it because that can be a little overwhelming.”
To take her mind off nationals, Tennell has been binge-watching “How to Get Away with Murder.”
And that actually could make her nervous. “I love good storytelling,” Tennell said. “I enjoy books and movies and TV, and unresolved storylines make me nervous for some reason. It’s very weird.”
So will her own unresolved storyline – will she or won’t she make the Olympic team? – make her nervous?
Tennell isn’t going to let herself think about that. “I’ll probably just watch more TV,” she said.