SAN JOSE, Calif. — The women’s competition at the 2018 U.S. Figure Skating Championships featured all the drama skating fans have come to expect, especially in an Olympic season:
-A decorated field of three Olympians, three past national champions and five past world team members vying for three Olympic spots
-A reigning national champion who has struggled to return to that top form all season
-A 2010 Olympian who, after controversially being left off the team four years ago, was yearning for her return
-A 2014 Olympian and 2016 world silver medalist who sat in fifth after the short program, leaving her Olympic fate in question
-And finally, a literal Cinderella story
Bradie Tennell – aka Cinderella personified – lived out her childhood dreams this week, becoming the unexpected star and surprise first-time winner of the championships.
Skating to a “Cinderella” medley from the 2015 Patrick Doyle soundtrack, Tennell won the title Friday night. She was first after the short program, where she scored 73.79, and held that lead with a free skate score of 145.72 for a 219.51 total.
“I really don’t think it’s sunk in quite yet, I’m still kind of shocked,” Tennell said an hour after her win.
More importantly, the virtual unknown as of two months ago placed herself front and center in contention for a spot on the three-woman Olympic team that will be named Saturday morning.
It was a moment 17 years in the making for the 19-year-old Tennell.
“I’ve always loved Cinderella since I was 2 years old,” she said of her music choice. “At 3 my mom made me a Halloween costume, a Cinderella dress. When the movie came out (in 2015), I went to see the movie about 10 times; I actually watched it on the plane ride here, it never gets old. I just love the character, I love the story, I look like her.
“It’s something that I’ve always identified with, and with all the struggles I’ve had in the past I felt like this season was a good time to skate to this music.”
Tennell wasn’t the only woman competing at the SAP Center who had faced struggles.
Mirai Nagasu had finished third at the 2014 nationals but was passed up for fourth-place finisher Ashley Wagner on the Olympic team. She fought tooth and nail to finish second on Friday, 10 years after her national title, with a total score of 213.84 and did everything she could to prove why she belongs on the team headed to the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018.
“I’m usually not one to be at a loss for words, but I am super happy with how things have gone,” Nagasu said. “With mistakes, I scored the highest I’ve scored at a U.S. championships and right now I am super proud of myself… I think I really, really put in my vote for the Olympic team.”
Karen Chen surprised last season to win the U.S. title and then finish fourth at worlds, but could do no better than seventh at her grand prix assignments this fall. Then, on the one day between her short and long programs in San Jose, Chen caught a virus. Unable to practice, she spent the day in bed and seeing doctors, but recovered remarkably to take the bronze medal with a 198.59 total.
And Ashley Wagner – with three national titles, a world medal and an Olympic team medal under her belt – left the event “furious,” finishing fourth and 2.4 points behind Chen.
“For me to put out two programs that I did at this competition as solid as I skated and to get those scores, I am furious,” Wagner said. “And I think deservedly so. I am a performer and that second mark (program component score) is just not there. I am absolutely OK with them being strict on my rotations. That’s what I think U.S. Figure Skating should demand of their judges, but it needs to be across the board and I don’t necessarily think it’s been that way at this event so we’ll see how things pan out.
“Even though I’m mad about my score, that program was such an experience for me and I skated with heart. I took a program that’s a month old and I delivered something that was solid and something that I’m proud of.”
Wagner finished fourth at nationals four years ago but was chosen over Nagasu for the 2014 Olympic team based on her international resume. The question now is whether a similar situation will occur again or if the top three finishers at nationals will go to PyeongChang.
Cinderella – ahem, Tennell – wasn’t a complete unknown.
The Carpentersville, Illinois native won the 2015 U.S. junior title, which she says is when the Olympic dream first entered her mind – “A lot of past Olympians have won the junior title, so 16-year-old me was like, this is the first step in going to the Olympics” – but was then plagued by stress fractures in her lower back in May 2015 and June 2016 that limited her training for two years.
“It’s been kind of a long road – the past two years I’ve been injured,” she said. “I was off for a total of six months between the two years and coming into this year my main goal was to stay healthy. I knew it was an Olympic year and I knew that somebody has to go, so I just kept it in the back of my mind all season and I put out clean programs and I just relied on my training, really.”
Once she was healthy, Tennell took advantage of her first opportunity to make herself known.
After another U.S. skater withdrew, Tennell was granted her career-first grand prix - Skate America in Lake Placid, New York, this past November – where she earned personal best scores across the board and won the bronze medal. She became the first U.S. woman in 10 years to medal at her grand prix debut.
Tennell improved on all three of her personal bests this week in San Jose, outscoring her Skate America total by 15.41 points, while her short program score on Wednesday was a U.S. championships record.
While she does not have the international experience of her competitors, she proved to the Olympic selection committee that she is consistent, even when the pressure is at its highest.
Skating last in a field of 20 women, and after strong performances from Wagner, Nagasu and Chen that had the audience cheering raucously, it would be easy to understand if Tennell was nervous. But as she has all season, Tennell proved she truly is unflappable.
“I wouldn’t say nervous,” she explained. “I was a little bit anxious in the warmup, I could feel it. But I used the time I had between the warmup and when I skated to calm myself down and reassure myself that I knew I could do it, I knew what I was doing and there was no reason for me to be anxious.”
And now it is a matter of hours before last year’s ninth-place finisher knows if she is making her Olympic debut next month.