Bradie Tennell competes at the 2018 ISU Grand Prix of Figure Skating Skate America on Oct. 21, 2018 in Everett, Wash.
The start of Bradie Tennell’s 2018 will be tough to top.
Just before her 20th birthday, the Carpentersville, Illinois, native won her first U.S. figure skating championship in January, leading to her making her first Olympic team that February in PyeongChang. While there, the rising star helped the U.S. claim a bronze medal in the team event, then went on to finish ninth in the individual women’s competition. And after that, Tennell closed out the season by finishing sixth at the world championships in March.
Those three months marked a whirlwind for Tennell, who came into the year as a little known up-and-comer, largely overshadowed by other, more veteran U.S. skaters.
How things have changed.
Being the defending national champion and an Olympian brings on new attention and expectations, and Tennell’s 2018-19 season has been an adjustment of sorts so far.
While she won both Challenger Series events she entered, Tennell has had some ups and downs on the higher-profile grand prix series. She finished fourth at the home stop, October’s Skate America, after singling a planned triple jump in the short program, but then used a strong free skate to move from sixth place to third at November’s Internationaux de France, her first career grand prix event outside the U.S.
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“This season so far — there have been bright spots and not-so-bright spots — but overall I think it’s a been a really good stepping stone coming off of the Olympic year,” she told reporters in a conference call on Tuesday. “I have been cranking away at my programs, and the daily grind leading up to nationals.”
After arriving at last year’s national championships as a relative unknown, Tennell comes to Detroit with a much higher profile. That’s especially true as Olympic teammate Karen Chen, who won the U.S. title the previous year, is missing the competition because of a foot injury. Meanwhile, Mirai Nagasu, who skated in her second Olympics in PyeongChang, is taking a break from the sport, and Gracie Gold, a 2014 Olympic team bronze medalist, withdrew earlier this week after returning to competition in the fall following a break in which she sought treatment for depression, anxiety and an eating disorder.
Still, Tennell doesn’t look at herself as the skater to beat.
“I don’t think of things in terms like that,” she said. “I think every time I go out on the ice, I want to do the best for myself. As long as I do that, I’m happy.”
Making her senior international debut last season, Tennell earned a reputation as a consistent jumper. Building on that this year has been a work in progress. During her performance at Golden Spin in Zagreb, Croatia, in early December, for example, Tennell was called for underrotating her jumps.
“I’ve been working on my technique, and trying to jump higher,” she said. “These things happen, and you don’t want to get those calls, but all you can do is take the lesson learned and move on.”
All the while, Tennell has also been focusing on developing the artistic side of figure skating this season. Her long program to “Romeo and Juliet” has helped her grow as an artist, she said, as has focusing specifically on artistry in practice.
“Up to this point, in Croatia I was a little disappointed in my performance on the artistic side. It was a little lackluster, in my opinion,” Tennell said. “Having all this time afterwards to train it and work on it, I’m really hoping to see some improvement at nationals.”
All the while Tennell, who turns 21 at the end of the month, is continuing to adjust to her new life as one of the biggest U.S. stars in the sport.
Tennell trains in suburban Chicago and has found her community there to be one of her biggest motivators. After the Olympics, Tennell celebrated her bronze medal with the Chicago Blackhawks and Chicago Cubs, but she found the biggest cheering section at her home rink.
“The community has been really supportive, and that means so much to me, to have all these people come out and show their support, and really get behind me,” she said. “I really love bringing all the attention to this sport, because that brings new interest. It always makes my day when I see a little kid on the ice for the first time, having so much fun.”
Tennell’s competition schedule means she is often away from her home rink, and her in-season training depletes her free time. Still, Tennell tries to find time to coach some of the younger skaters because of how it allows her to give back to the sport that has given her so much.
“I love being able to take the knowledge and experience I’ve gained and share it with the younger kids,” she said. “That’s something special. Not everybody gets to have that opportunity, so I really love being able to have that opportunity and be able to use it.”
Maggie Hendricks is based in Chicago and has covered Olympic sports for more than 10 years for USA Today and Yahoo Sports. She is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.