Bradie Tennell applauds fans after competing at the 2019 ISU World Figure Skating Championships on March 22, 2019 in Saitama, Japan.
Standing center ice at the completion of her free skate Friday night at the ISU World Figure Skating Championships in Saitama, Japan, 2018 Olympian Bradie Tennell let out a roar: This is the kind of skating she wanted to show the world she could do.
Following a frustrating short program two days prior, Tennell roared back to a personal-best 143.96 score, raising her arms above her head in fists of triumph. The nearly-flawless program vaulted her from 10th in the short to seventh overall, with a total score of 213.47.
It was a career-best free skate for American teammate Mariah Bell, as well, with Bell skating to a 136.81 for a 208.07 total, finishing in ninth place.
While the U.S. women miss out on qualifying a third skater for the 2020 world championships (they needed their combined placements to total less than 13), they leave the ice with their heads held high against a world-class field that delivered sensational skating throughout the week.
Olympic champion Alina Zagitova of Russia can add a world title to her resume, a run-away winner at 237.50. Kazakhstan’s Elizabet Tursynbaeva landed the first quadruple Salchow in international senior women’s competition for silver (224.76), while two-time world champ Evgenia Medvedeva of Russia capped what was a tough season for her with bronze (223.80).
Host nation Japan ended up off the podium, with Rika Kihira, Kaori Sakamoto and Satoko Miyahara going 4-5-6. Kihira was just 0.31 points off the podium.
Though no third spot was gained, Tennell was proud of herself for the effort in Saitama, coming in seventh a year after being sixth in her debut at the same event.
“I’ve really been working on my artistry this season,” said the 21-year-old from the Chicago area. “I’m trying to show more maturity in my skating. I’m really happy with the progress I’ve made. I think my confidence wavered a little bit this season, but since Four Continents I’ve really tried to bring it back. I wanted to come here and skate for myself and show everyone what I can do.”
She added: “I know that I belong here.”
Skating in the penultimate group, Tennell would have to be at her best to be factored in with the top skaters of the night. She took the ice with a stern look on her face for her “Romeo and Juliet” free skate, and after she landed a double axel to start and then a triple Lutz-triple toe combination in the opening seconds, she said was able to settle into some of the best skating of her career.
“After the first combination, going into it, I was trying to relax and breathe, telling myself, ‘You’ve done this a million times,’” she admitted. “After that, I felt like, OK, I can do this.”
And “do this” she did. Tennell received no under-rotation calls after being “hammered” (as she characterized it) with such calls at Four Contintents last month. (She was called for three unders in the free skate there). As she hit her final pose, Tennell couldn’t contain herself, receiving a standing ovation. Rarely one to outwardly celebrate, she thrust both arms overhead in excitement.
It was the trip to the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018 that gave her a lens into what she can be and achieve, and Tennell said she’s already excited about the season to come and wants only to get better, both technically and artistically.
“PyeongChang taught me that the sky is the limit,” she said. “It showed me that I belonged there. I’ve spent my life working for this.”
So, too, has Bell. The 22-year-old was making her third consecutive appearance at worlds but for the first time finished inside the top 10 following a pair of 12th-place results in 2017 and 2018.
After a fall in her free skate at both the U.S. championships in late January and Four Continents in February, she was determined not to make the same mistake again in the free skate at worlds, where the stakes were even higher.
Bell’s lovely yet chilling “The Piano Experience” music sent her flowing into her jumps, including her hardest pass, a double axel-triple toe to open. She was called for no under-rotations in the free skate, and skated with a kind of beauty and strength that she’s come to be recognized for, often drawing comparisons to 2016 world medalist Ashley Wagner.
“I’m really proud of myself,” Bell said, explaining she has worked on her mental toughness this season. “In the past I would get too excited… that’s what happened at nationals (when I fell).”
Bell fought for the landing on her final jump, a triple Lutz, then finished the program with her signature spins. She, too, let out a triumphant celebration at center ice in a week that has been challenging for her away from competition.
“It was about staying in the moment,” Bell said of her performance. “Sometimes I think about the big picture too much (mid-program). I was able to do that today and I’m really proud of that.”
The U.S. women will maintain their two spots for worlds in 2020, set for Montreal. Tennell and Bell will lead that charge, while reigning U.S. champ Alysa Liu, 13, will still be age ineligible for senior international competition.
Many believe Ting Cui, the 16-year-old who just won a bronze at world juniors, could factor into that conversation, as well. She was fifth at the U.S. championships in January. Fifteen-year-old Hanna Harrell was fourth at U.S. championships, while former U.S. champ Gracie Gold continues to work on her comeback to the sport.
Bell said she’ll focus on improving her technical prowess (she was the lone skater in the top 10 not to do a triple-triple combo) in the off-season, including working on a triple axel with coach Rafael Arutunian.
It will be an off-season of improvement for the U.S. women in general, but both Tennell and Bell (as well as Cui and Harrell at world juniors) finish it on a high: personal bests on the world’s biggest stage. That’s, in sports, what they call “peaking.”