SAN JOSE — About eight hours after the ladies’ free skate concluded Friday night, a quick night’s sleep after Bradie Tennell, Mirai Nagasu and Karen Chen stood atop the podium at the U.S. figure skating championships, that trio was officially declared the United States’s squad for next month’s Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea.
The announcement was made on NBC’s “Today” show, which catered to East Coast markets and therefore left interested West Coasters to set their alarms to learn the news. For the second straight Olympic cycle, the team was not clear-cut when nationals wrapped up. But unlike last time, U.S. Figure Skating stuck to the numbers Friday night, choosing bronze medalist Chen as the third member of the team instead of Ashley Wagner, an Olympian in 2014, who finished fourth. While Wagner’s scores fostered heated discussion Friday night, the news that came Saturday morning left little room for argument.
“I don’t think she’s missed an element all season,” U.S. Figure Skating President Sam Auxier said.
Tennell, who won the gold medal, is peaking at just the right moment. Nagasu’s triple axel and technical ability have allowed her to hover in the Olympic conversation for three full cycles now, uncommon longevity in a sport often geared toward shooting stars. And Chen, the 2017 U.S. champion, had a strong free skate despite spending most of Thursday sick in bed, shuttling to her sports psychologist and acupuncturist to give her any chance of competing Friday night. She turned in the fourth-best free skate of the evening.
So as a means of introduction, as all three women will undoubtedly find themselves in the spotlight over the next few weeks, here’s a quick look at the members of the 2018 U.S. Olympic ladies figure skating team.
Bradie Tennell, 19
Tennell was at the Fairmont hotel, talking to a group of people, when her mother called her over late Friday night to tell her she had made the Olympic team.
“I teared up a little bit,” Tennell said. “But I was surrounded by people so I didn’t want to, you know, go all out. But I was extremely happy.”
Her emergence as a figure skating star did not come out of nowhere — not to those who watch this sport throughout the Olympic cycle, not just at the end. Tennell won the 2015 U.S. junior championship by blowing away the field.
Then she was diagnosed with a stress fracture in her back. A year later, doctors found another. She missed six months of competition over two years before making her senior international debut in November 2016. Fourteen healthy months later, Tennell won the senior national championship.
Tennell’s gift is her jumping ability, which she showcased to perfection Friday night. While she does not have the explosive aerial capabilities of Nagasu, she has been the steadiest American jumper of the past few months, hardly falling in competition — hardly falling at all, and therefore maximizing technical points, even as she requires more polish in the nuanced aspects of performance-based scores.
Mirai Nagasu, 24
Nagasu is the most veteran of this year’s Olympic trio, a 24-year-old who warmed up all week in Hogwarts sweatpants and was eating a celebratory piece of pizza when she got a text telling her she had made the team.
“It said, ‘This is private,’ ” Nagasu said. “But I was like, there’s something about the first person you tell, and I wanted it to be my mom. … They say don’t tell anybody, but mom doesn’t ever count.”
Nagasu, well respected for her work ethic and enduring status as elite, is a formidable, technically advanced force. Her current claim to fame is her triple axel. Earlier this season, she became the first American woman since Tonya Harding in 1991 to land that jump in international competition. Although she did not land it cleanly this week, she didn’t have to, showcasing a varied and deep technical arsenal that is far from dependent on that jump alone.
Nagasu was left off the 2014 Olympic team despite winning the bronze medal at that year’s U.S. championships. Asked about that decision all week, Nagasu was thoughtful and polite, though she wrestled with emotion every time.
Asked about her showing in Friday night’s free skate, a near-perfect performance in which she slipped out of her triple axel but never fell, Nagasu said only that she felt she had cast her vote for an Olympic spot. This time, she got it, earning that spot and freedom from any controversy with a stunning skate that left her in tears after four years of waiting for another chance.
“In Vancouver [in 2010], it all happened so fast. And I feel like in 2014, I missed that chance,” Nagasu said. “Now, it just means everything to me.”
Karen Chen, 18
Chen will be the youngest of this year’s contingent, a rookie who earned her spot not only by besting Wagner this week but by winning the 2017 U.S. championships and finishing fourth at the world championships that season.
Chen was sick Thursday and had gone back to her hotel room after a riveting free skate, more nervous than the others because her status was less certain. Then, sometime between 11 and 11:30 p.m., the text came.
“I screamed. I jumped up. I was exhausted, too, but I had just enough energy to scream,” Chen said. “My mom looked at me, and she was like, ‘Is this it?’ And I was like, ‘Yes, it is.’ I was just in complete shock.”
“But at the same time,” Chen added. “I was just so ready for bed.”
Chen could rest easy after a strong free skate followed an even stronger short program, which she tinkered with more than most would in an Olympic cycle and which she choreographed herself. She was not perfect but she adjusted on the fly, earning a score that pushed her just ahead of Wagner — and onto the Olympic team.
“The discussion between Karen and Ashley was pretty academic,” Auxier said. “Karen was fourth last year at worlds; Ashley was seventh. And then third versus fourth at this year’s U.S. championships. It was a very straightforward, clear criteria for selecting Karen as the third member of the team.”
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