SAN JOSE — Bradie Tennell does not fall. She doesn’t slip. She doesn’t skid. She hardly stumbles in practice. She never trips in competition. The bright-eyed 19-year-old seems to find the ice more forgiving than others, seems to absorb it instead of fight it, to make the unpredictable so automatic those who watched her rocket into Olympic contention this fall could hardly believe she was real.
But Tennell is real, and her consistency withstood the stifling scrutiny of skating last in the free skate at the U.S. championships Friday. Tennell landed jump after jump after jump, just as she has for months now, and became the U.S. national champion — a title that would seem certain to provide her a spot on the U.S. Olympic team, something few foresaw even months ago.
“I’ve always loved the challenge,” said Tennell, when asked about her steady stoicism on the ice and in the air. “I’m not one to back down from something that’s hard, and I enjoy performing.”
The three-woman Olympic team will be announced Saturday morning after the U.S. Figure Skating committee deliberated Friday night. Because Tennell’s stunning skate pushed veteran Ashley Wagner from the podium, her emergence might just push Wagner off into a disappointing sunset. The 26-year-old acknowledged she was skating for her last Olympic chance this year.
While she skated a clean program, the judges appeared to take issue with her performance components more than they usually do. When she saw her score, she shook her head. Later, she told the Associated Press and others that she was “absolutely furious” with the scoring, which left her two points shy of third-place Karen Chen — and the podium.
“For me to put out two programs that I did at this competition, as solid as I skated and to get those scores,” Wagner said. “I am furious.”
Mirai Nagasu’s high-flying program earned her second place, with a technical score second only to Tennell’s and far above Wagner’s. Chen narrowly bested Wagner with an imperfect skate. Four years ago, Nagasu won the bronze but Wagner made the Sochi Olympic team. Wagner entered this competition with a less impressive recent résumé than she did then. She needed this week to solidify her status.
Perhaps because of the judges, perhaps because of a slip on a jump that left points on the table, she instead found herself mired in uncertainty. Wagner was the beneficiary of a committee decision once before. Her fate depends on the committee once again.
Nagasu had been the victim of one of those decisions. The 2010 Olympian was supposed to showcase her triple axel in this competition, but after missing that jump in her short program, slipped out of it again in her free skate Friday night.
But because of the unparalleled difficulty of that jump, and her program in general, Nagasu did not need perfection. As she landed her final jump, a triple Salchow, she pumped her fists. As she spun away the final seconds of her program, the crowd stood. As she skated to acknowledge the crowd, she bawled. Four years after she did all she could and was told it was not enough, Nagasu did more than she had to do.
“I think I put in my vote for the Olympic team,” Nagasu said.
Tennell did more than any of them. Once a bona fide PyeongChang prospect after she blew away the field at the 2015 junior national championships, Tennell slid back into obscurity due to injury, reemerging with a bronze medal at this fall’s Skate America. With that performance, she declared herself a contender. With her performance Friday night, she declared herself an Olympian.
She performed to a “Cinderella” medley in a shimmering light blue costume that seemed to suit her as perfectly as the program. Tennell once dressed as Cinderella for Halloween as a toddler, watched the movie again and again as a youngster — then again on her flight to San Jose. So far, she has shown none of the bravado or social media spunk of some of her more established competition. She has been quiet, steady and relentlessly upright.
She placed herself beyond controversy. She has, apparently, also moved beyond that troublesome tendency to succumb to gravity that plagues most mere mortals. Tennell simply doesn’t fall. Because of that, she rose — to the top of the podium, and into sudden stardom, just in time for PyeongChang.
As the men and women fight for Olympic spots amid ever-changing depth charts, the U.S. championships carry far less drama for the ice dancers.
The United States has three ice dancing spots in PyeongChang and three obvious teams to fill them. If there was drama around this competition entering this week’s nationals, it was not about which teams would go to South Korea but rather the order in which the three American pairs would do it. Those three teams — Maia and Alex Shibutani, Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue, and Madison Chock and Evan Bates — stand in first, second and third after Friday’s short dance, just as everyone thought they would.
To the extent that there was a favorite this week at all, it was the Shibutanis — the ShibSibs, colloquially — who won the 2017 U.S. title. They delivered a performance as sparkling as their sequined costumes Friday, spinning their way into the lead and a standing ovation.