Bradie Tennell skates in the Ladies Short Program during the U.S. Figure Skating Championships on Jan. 14, 2021 in Las Vegas.
Bradie Tennell, who usually lets her skating do her talking, summed it up in a few words at Thursday’s post-event press conference: “It’s been really weird.”
The 22-year-old, who hails from the Chicago area but now trains in Colorado Springs, Colorado, had just won the women’s short program at the 2021 U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Las Vegas, part of the Team USA Champions Series, presented by Xfinity. She did it in high roller’s style, earning 79.40 points to break her own record and set a new U.S. standard.
“I think I really went out there and attacked it,” Tennell said. “I’m just really happy that with everything that’s gone on this year, I was able to put out a performance I’m really proud of.”
The weirdness of this year of COVID-19 impacts Tennell in a big way this week, as she competes in Las Vegas without her primary coach, Tom Zakrajsek, on hand to manage her practices, correct her jumps and do the hundred other things figure skating coaches do for their athletes at big events.
Zakrajsek is home in Colorado Springs, recovering from what he called a “very mild case” of the virus. One of his other students, Paige Rydberg, tested positive for the virus and withdrew from the event.
“I tested positive on Jan. 4,” he relayed via text message. “My symptoms of a runny nose and cough began on Jan. 2.”
His absence is keenly felt by Tennell, who relocated to Colorado Springs last summer to shake up her training and gain Zakrajsek’s famed technical expertise in an effort to regain the U.S. title she won in 2018.
“He is here with me in spirit,” Tennell said. “It’s been a bit strange, especially because of all of the recent changes I’ve made, so now not to have my head coach with me at a competition is a completely new experience for me. But like I was telling somebody the other day, I don’t remember the last time life has gone according to my plan. I’m trying to dodge and weave, roll with the punches.”
Tennell did anything but dodge and weave in her short program, choreographed by Benoit Richaud to “Moderation” by Florence and the Machine. Relaxed, confident and fluid, she landed her jumps — including a triple lutz-triple toe loop combination — with seeming ease. Her transitions, steps and choreography were the most intricate of the event, and she took a three-point lead over two-time defending champion Alysa Liu.
“I think I perform better under adverse circumstances,” Tennell said. “I’ve performed this program so many times in practice. From the first note, I was into the performance. The music kind of takes you. It just flowed, everything was just flowy …. I don’t know how to describe it. It was so much fun and it felt natural.”
Zakrajsek texted that he “was jumping up and down” as he watched his student.
“We have been training for the gold-medal performance,” the coach texted. “She has a reputation of always getting the job done, but we are working on Bradie giving the total performance with the utmost quality in every aspect of her skating. I call that the gold-medal run through. She has done many of those types of run-throughs in both short and long (programs) in the lead-up to nationals.”
As good as Tennell was, Liu matched her jump for jump and made some magic of her own.
Performing an exuberant short to music from “La Strada,” the 15-year-old from Richmond, California, proved she is more than a teenage jumping phenom, showing off improved skating skills and vastly more mature presentation. Even without her trademark triple axel, she notched 76.36 points, more than she scored last season.
“I was really happy with my program, because that’s how I would do it in practice,” she said. “That’s all I wanted to do, a solid program like I do in practice, so I was really happy.”
Liu’s program was far more than solid. She arrived in Las Vegas a question mark, having struggled at a made-for-TV team event held directly after Skate America in October. But this week, she looks fit, confident and ready to challenge for the title even without her biggest jumps, the triple axel and quadruple lutz.
Credit must go to Massimo Scali, the Italian former ice dance competitor who assumed the day-to-day coaching of Liu last spring, after the skater parted company with her longtime coach, Laura Lipetsky. Liu also works virtually with Toronto-based Lee Barkell. Four-time U.S. champion Jeremy Abbott joined her coaching team in the fall.
A hip injury practicing for the team event limited her training for about a month, forcing Liu to take a break from jumping.
“I really love skating a lot and I found a new appreciation for skating skills and spins, because before I would just focus on jumps,” she said. “I started to enjoy the skating part of skating.”
Mariah Bell, too, had a fine short, but a slight hesitation on the landing of her triple lutz cost her several points. She sits third with 72.37 points.
“I’m honestly pretty disappointed right now,” Bell, 24, said. “I had a mistake on the lutz that I honestly never make. But I know we are all really lucky just to be able to compete, so I’m looking forward to skating again tomorrow.”
Karen Chen, the 2017 U.S. champion, skated a strong program marred only by an under rotation on one of her triple jumps. She is fourth with 70.99 points. Amber Glenn, who landed a triple axel in her group’s six-minute warmup, faltered on the jump in her short, but still sits fifth with 70.83 points.
Knierim, Frazier Take Pairs Lead
Alexa Knierim told reporters she felt “a little tight” at the start of her short program on Thursday night. Then she looked up at her partner, Brandon Frazier, took his hand, and said, “I need you.”
Frazier gazed down at his 5 foot, 2 inch partner and replied, “I need you, too.”
Moments later, Knierim shook off her nerves to jam her toe pick into the ice as Frazier tossed her into the air for a high, strong triple twist. Next, she and Frazier landed side-by-side triple toe loops.
By the time Knierim landed the pair’s final high-risk element — a throw triple loop, landed a bit forward, but still solid — she and Frazier were all smiles. Their clean short program, set to a contemporary medley including Linkin Park’s “In the End,” earned 77.46 points, giving them a 6.16 point lead over training partners Jessica Calalang and Brian Johnson. The two pairs also placed first and second at Skate America in October.
“Overall, we’re really just happy we see the progress each time we go out (to compete),” Frazier said.
Knierim, 29, and Frazier, 28, who teamed up six months ago after many years of competition with former partners, have mustered every drop of experience and maturity in their skate bags to make their teaming work. With just over a year to the Beijing Olympics, there’s no time to waste, especially since the pandemic forced them off of the ice for a few months this spring.
“I think about (Beijing) when I get up to go to the rink in the morning, and it’s what keeps me going all day,” Knierim said.
Calalang and Johnson would be far closer to the lead had Calalang not fallen on a triple salchow in the team’s program to Queen’s “Who Wants to Live Forever.” The skaters’ pair moves, including a death spiral and lift, were superior, as were their spins and steps.
“Since Skate America, we’ve really focused on the overall package, the fine details, homing in on the consistency,” Calalang said.
Audrey Lu and Misha Mitrofanov, who train at the Skating Club of Boston, sit third with 69.56 points.
The two top teams — and Katie McBeath and her partner, 2014 Olympian Nate Bartholomay, who placed seventh in the short — train together at Great Park Ice & FivePoint Arena in Southern California under coaches Jenni Meno and Todd Sand, three-time U.S. pairs champions skated who together at two Olympics (1994, 1998), and Christine Fowler-Binder. Knierim’s former partner and husband, Chris, with whom she won a team bronze medal at the PyeongChang Games, is also a member of the coaching team.
“We have very good pairs in the rink and they push each other, and I think that’s also helped both of the top teams as well,” Sand said, adding, “Alexa and Brandon, they come in every day and they’re motivated. They communicate very well with each other. They’re like, ‘Okay, what’s the plan today?’ They really put in the extra work, the two of them, so that's why they gelled so quickly.”