DETROIT – There was perhaps no better way to help begin the 2019 Team USA Champions Series, presented by Xfinity, than with the women’s short program at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships.
It was a night of record-setting performances from American women’s figure skaters as both the first- and second-place finishers made history at Little Caesars Arena on Thursday.
Bradie Tennell won the short program. Her score of 76.60 blew away the previous all-time top U.S. championships women’s score of 73.79, which Tennell herself had earned one year prior.
Alysa Liu came in second. Her 73.89 also bested Tennell’s 2018 score and for much of the night was the new all-time top U.S. championships score. Even more impressive, Liu landed a triple axel, becoming the first American woman to land a triple axel in the short program at nationals, as well as the third woman ever to land a triple axel at nationals and the youngest of those three.
Mariah Bell sits in third after scoring a 70.30.
“It was super fun to get back out there on championship ice; there’s nothing quite like it,” Tennell said. “And I’m really happy with how I performed tonight.”
Following her breakout 2017-18 season, Tennell was the one to watch going into Detroit. After finishing sixth and ninth at her two previous senior-level nationals, she made a name for herself last year in San Jose, California, by winning the U.S. title.
She first entered the conversation for a spot on the 2018 U.S. Olympic Team when she won bronze at Skate America in November 2017, becoming one of only two American women to medal on that season’s grand prix circuit.
Tennell continued the momentum by making her first Olympic team, then finishing ninth at the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018 and sixth at the world championships.
As she began her defense of the 2018 title, Tennell felt less nerves than she had in San Jose.
“I was super confident going into tonight. It is a little bit different (compared to last year). All the little sweepers are really cute; they all know me now, so that’s fun,” the 20-year-old, who turns 21 on Jan. 31, reflected. “The atmosphere is so great. Actually, I think last year I felt more pressure than this year because there was so much at stake, but anytime I’m here I love it.”
Liu also entered the competition hoping to win gold, but with a different perspective. Seven years Tennell’s junior, Liu is competing at her first senior nationals after winning the 2018 junior title. And, just like Tennell, all eyes were also on Liu after the Clovis, California, native landed a triple axel at the start of the season, becoming the youngest skater in history to perform a clean triple axel in international competition.
She then joined Tonya Harding and Mirai Nagasu as the only American women to land triple axels in international competition, and now joins Harding and Kimmie Meissner as the only women to land the jump at U.S. championships.
“I was actually really happy I did a triple axel in the short because it’s nationals, so I was really happy,” Liu said.
She was so struck by her own composure and performance that Liu cried at the end of the program.
“I was really happy because I did everything I wanted to do,” she told reporters of her tears as she began to cry again in the media mixed zone.
While Liu has been touted as a favorite, it did not faze her, as she admitted she does not go online and read articles about herself and the sport, though she has heard a few people refer to her as the future of the sport.
Liu does watch international competitions – though she is too young to enter the senior and even the junior world championships this year – to keep an eye on her future rivals.
“I actually really like them. A lot of them are an inspiration to me. I think I need (a quadruple jump) to keep up with them because a few of them have quads,” she laughed, though it was clear she eventually plans to work on a jump many men’s skaters struggle to master.
For now, her sights are set on one more record that’s within reach on Saturday: becoming the youngest woman ever to win the U.S. title. Tara Lipinski was 14 when she won in 1997.
“I know how bad she wants it. She definitely wanted to go in here and do two clean programs, and she does want to be the youngest champion of the U.S. nationals; that’s in the back of her head,” said coach Laura Lipetsky. “She really, really wants it, and we’ve been working really, really hard.”