GANGNEUNG, South Korea — In Bradie Tennell, U.S. Figure Skating has found a competitor with elite technical ability and an unflappable demeanor — a 20-year-old who is seemingly impervious to pressure.
Making her Olympic debut in the team event of the 2018 PyeongChang Games on Sunday, Tennell landed every jump in her short program — from her opening triple Lutz/triple toe combination to her triple loop — in a sparkly red dress that seemed to underscore her sense of belonging on her sport’s biggest stage.
Tennell’s spotless execution drew raves from NBC analyst Tara Lipinski, who was unapologetically blunt in assessing fellow American Nathan Chen’s disastrous short program in his Olympic debut two days earlier.
“She has never been under this type of pressure, and that’s her first skate?” said Lipinski, the 1998 Olympic champion. “This is a competitor.”
But the performance also revealed that, while Tennell can keep pace with the world’s elite skaters in technical ability, she has far to go in matching their artistry — the more subjective aspects of figure skating that are reflected in the component scores (skating skills, transitions, performance, composition and interpretation of the music).
In that regard, Olympic judges didn’t place Tennell in the same category as the Russian-born defending world champion Evgenia Medvedeva, 18, who earned a world record 81.06 points for her evocative short program to a Chopin nocturne. With a ballerina’s grace and diva’s range of emotion, Medvedeva also earned the highest component score, 38.23.
Tennell’s component marks were well behind, at 30.00. Still, she was thrilled with her error-free performance.
“It felt like I was doing another program in a practice session,” Tennell said. “[I told myself], ‘You’ve done this program a million times; it’s just a million and one.’ . . . I’m really happy. I don’t think I could have asked for a better first program at the Olympics.”
Medvedeva’s first-place marks earned 10 points toward the Olympic Athletes from Russia’s pursuit of a team medal. Russia, which is not being recognized at these Winter Games, is the defending gold medalist in the team event.
Despite Tennell’s technical proficiency, it was only good enough, in the judges’ eyes, to warrant fifth (at 68.94) among the field of 10. That earned the U.S. team six points. With the four-point swing in the women’s short programs, the OAR vaulted ahead of the United States to move into second, behind Canada, heading into Monday’s final round (which was slated to start at 8 p.m. Eastern time Sunday).
Only the top five nations would contend for medals Monday, when the ice dance and men’s and women’s free skates were to be performed. The U.S. team made two substitutions for the free skate, tapping rookie Adam Rippon, 28, and 24-year-old Mirai Nagasu, who finished fourth at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics.
Ice-dancing siblings Maia and Alex Shibutani, who got the United States off to a strong start Sunday with their well-received short program, would make the quick turnaround to compete their free dance Monday.
The Shibutanis’ dance blended elements of Mambo, cha-cha and Samba, and their score put them in first until Canadians Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, the 2014 Sochi silver medalists, jumped ahead with a program set to a medley of the Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil,” the Eagles’ “Hotel California” and Santana’s “Oye Como Va.”
Canada finished with 35 points entering Monday and appeared to have the gold clinched, barring calamity. The OAR was second (31), followed by the United States (29), with Japan and Italy (26) tied in fourth place.
For many sports fans, who tune into figure skating only once every four-year Olympic cycle, Sunday’s women’s short program offered the first look at Tennell, the 2018 U.S. champion, who had no international profile to speak of just six months ago.
She started skating at age 2. But after winning the U.S. junior title in 2015, she dropped off the competitive radar while dealing with injuries. In that span, Tennell said, her mother, a nurse, was her rock throughout.
Asked if she ever got nervous, Tennell confessed to butterflies the moment before she takes the ice for competition. That’s why she wears headphones — so she can listen to classic rock, like AC/DC and Boston, that pumps her up. Then, she said, the moment she hears her performance music, she’s on “autopilot.”
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