By Karen Rosen | Feb. 07, 2019, 8:31 p.m. (ET)
Bradie Tennell competes in the women's short program at the 2019 U.S. Figure Skating Championships on Jan. 24, 2019 in Detroit.

 

ANAHEIM, Calif. – At the end of her short program, Bradie Tennell reaches out her arm and closes the palm of her hand as if grasping something.

“I just started doing that at practice one day and I really like how it makes me feel,” Tennell said, “At the end of a program, it’s like, ‘Yes, I nailed it.’”

She sure did Thursday at the Four Continents Figure Skating Championships, taking the lead over defending champion Kaori Sakamoto of Japan.

Tennell scored 73.91 points, shy of the 76.60 she posted two weeks ago at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Detroit. Sakamoto was next at a season-best 73.36, followed by Mariah Bell of Team USA at 70.02, which ties her season best. Ting Cui of the U.S. is seventh in her first senior international competition with 66.73 points.

The women’s free skate is Friday night at the Honda Center.

Skating to “Rebirth” by High Finesse, Tennell has grabbed hold of a personal style in her second full season at the highest level. She is competing with an intensity she didn’t display last season, when she won a bronze medal in the team event at the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018 and was ninth individually.

“She skated like a queen, empress, WOM-an,” said NBC commentator Johnny Weir of her Detroit performance. “This is mature beautiful skating.”

And Tennell said it’s nice that her effort has been noticed.

“I’m very grateful because I’ve really worked hard on my artistry and trying to step up my game in that department,” she said, “to have people recognize that, it makes all the hard work worth it.”

In the short turnaround between nationals and her Four Continents debut, Tennell only had about a week at home in Illinois, where she celebrated her 21st birthday last Thursday.

“It was colder where I live than it was in Antarctica,” Tennell said, “so I stayed at home and had a nice night in.”

She’ll spend tonight going over the little details she can improve upon in her free skate.

“I go into tomorrow thinking that I have a job to do and as long as I do that job, no matter what happens, I’ll be happy,” she said.

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Bell had a very dramatic finish to her short program skating to Celine Dion’s “To Love You More,” complete with fist pumps.  The program was choreographed by former training partner Adam Rippon.

“When the crowd can outscream Celine Dion, you’re doing something right,” a fan tweeted.

“I love this program so much,” said Bell, who saw Dion perform in Las Vegas over the New Year’s holiday. “Seeing her in person, she sang this song and it gave me chills, so even when I hear it start here, it gives me chills.”

She admitted to some nerves competing in the United States just 22 miles from her training base of Lakewood.

“I really want to do my best for the fans here in California,” Bell said, “but I’m always nervous. It never goes away. I’m getting used to it, I guess.

Performing so close to home, Bell said, “it feels sort of like when you’re little and you do local competitions. This is not a local competition! But I’m lucky that it’s here. It’s been really fun.”

Bell was third at U.S. nationals after a fall on her triple lutz and was fifth at Four Continents last year.

She said she was so excited by how well the program was going that she had to concentrate on maintaining her focus.

“You don’t want to have it slip out of your hands, and I’ve definitely had that happen before,” Bell said.

Cui skated to “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini,” also known as the theme to the film “Somewhere in Time.” This is her time as she competes in her first senior international event.

“It’s like, ‘Oh, I’ve made it with all of the big kids,’” she said. “This is it. There’s no level above it.’”

Cui had no major mistakes compared to two falls and no combination in the short program at nationals two weeks ago.

“I was just trying to keep (Detroit) out of my head,” she said of her first senior event. “It’s a new competition. A new start. This is not Detroit, so I should just focus on what’s happening right now.”

While Cui's start in Detroit left something to be desired, her finish was outstanding. Cui was in 12th after the short program but pulled up to fifth overall after an exquisite free skate in which she outscored Tennell.

In Anaheim, she hopes she got some of the jitters out.

“My legs were a little shaky during the footwork and some spins, so that’s something to work on,” Cui said, blaming nerves for her stiffness and failure to bend her knees more. “But overall I’m happy with my performance and how I skated the program.”

She flew straight to Anaheim from Ohio, where she participated in a camp that determined her placement on the junior world championships team. She was seventh at her last junior worlds, and this one could be her last as she progresses in the senior ranks.

“It’s really nice because everyone here, they’re older, so everyone’s really mature, too,” she said. “It’s like a different environment to be in. But it’s just really cool. I love being here with the seniors.”