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Bradie Tennell and Starr Andrews defy age at U.S. championships

Bradie Tennell found a place on the podium Friday, claiming a silver medal at the U.S. championships. (Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
5 min

SAN JOSE — By the standards of today’s women’s figure skating, in which 17 can feel old, they should have left years ago. But when their promise-filled primes dissolved into lost seasons of injuries and inconsistency, Bradie Tennell and Starr Andrews kept going forward, even if neither understood exactly where she was headed.

Now, they’ve arrived, long past what was supposed to be their time. Tennell, 24, and Andrews, 21, were two of the best performers at the U.S. figure skating championships, skating as composed and clean as ever. Tennell won the silver medal Friday night, posting a score of 213.12 and Andrews wound up on the podium with the fourth-place pewter medal. Both were behind 15-year-old Isabeau Levito (223.33).

Watching them and 23-year-old bronze medalist Amber Glenn blaze across the SAP Center ice is a reminder that skating can be about more than children with a tiny window to jump higher than everyone else.

The United States’ only true young female star is Levito, who tore through the fall Grand Prix season with two gold medals and three silvers. In Thursday’s short program, she gracefully landed a triple flip, a triple Lutz and a triple toe loop combination to pile up technical points to win the event’s first night.

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But America’s other best skaters are not like Levito. The United States does not have a line of 15-year-old super teenagers landing breathtaking jumps the way the Russians did at the Beijing Olympics. After Russia’s superstar Kamila Valieva wilted amid the scandal of a positive doping test in Beijing, the skating world was forced to grapple with the trauma that comes with young athletes being thrust into situations too big for their life experience. Last year, the International Skating Union announced the minimum age for skaters at the senior level will rise from 15 to 17 by the 2026 Winter Games in Milan.

Listening to Tennell and Andrews this week, it was easy to see why the change will matter.

“Oh, yes, definitely,” Andrews said when asked if experience had been a key to her recent career resurgence.

“When I was younger, I guess I just thought about everything like all at once. Like, ‘Oh, I have to do my short, [and], oh, after that I also have to do my long, and then, oh, I also have a practice and all of that.’ Now I just kind of take it one step at a time.”

Andrews was smiling a lot this week. Five years ago, in this same arena, she finished sixth in her first U.S. championships as a senior skater and promised to be a contender for the Olympics by 2022. She was 16. But then came injuries and the general confusion that comes with trying to get to the top as fast as a skater can. Last fall, she was diagnosed with a condition that had caused her heart rate to rapidly increase and underwent a procedure to correct the problem.

She said skating at the nationals in the same arena from five years ago feels like coming “full circle,” and during Thursday’s short program, she even wore the same red and silver outfit she wore in that first big performance in 2018.

“It’s definitely good not to get ahead of yourself because that’s when you spiral and overthink and you’re like, ‘Oh, no . . . I just feel so overwhelmed,’ ” she said of her approach now. “I think being older definitely helps with putting that aside and just focusing on what I have to do at that moment.”

Tennell probably can relate. In 2018, she was the future of American women’s skating, winning the U.S. championships in this building at 19 and then helping the United States garner a team bronze at the PyeongChang Olympics, finishing fifth in the individual women’s competition. Then came injuries and uneven seasons and finally constant soreness in her right foot that wiped out almost all of her last season and left her unsure of her future.

The word she says she uses to describe last year is “traumatic.”

“All of a sudden, through no choice of your own, no specific action your entire life, like everything you’ve held in your hands and have worked for, it like crumbles to sand,” she said. “And you don’t know why, and you still don’t know why.”

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The past few months have been a huge climb, with a silver medal and eighth- and 12th-place finishes in her three events between her return from injury and the U.S. championships.

“I don’t know that I would say I’m grateful for the experience because I feel like it was very, very hard,” she said. “But I think I’m grateful for the perspective that I now have and that I was able to gain from that experience.”

It had been some time since Tennell or Andrews had been in skating’s spotlight. Andrews gushed that her 68.97 in Thursday’s short program was the best short program score she has ever had. Later, while sitting at a news conference for the night’s three top finishers, she looked around the room and said: “I can’t believe I’m at this press conference; it’s so cool.”

A few minutes earlier, Tennell, sitting two seats away, briefly mixed up the protocol of the media gathering.

“I’ve forgotten how to do this,” she said with a laugh.

In a sport that increasingly has forced women their age to retire, they have refused to go. And they are skating as well as ever.