GANGNEUNG, South Korea — The butterflies come before she takes the ice for figure skating competitions. But the moment Bradie Tennell hears the music over the loudspeakers, she goes on “autopilot,” as she explains it.
And that’s precisely how Tennell handled her Olympic debut Sunday at Gangneung Ice Arena, where she delivered a letter-perfect, technically proficient short program that lacked the emotional range international judges like to see.
While Tennell earned a season-high 68.94 points for her performance, it was only good enough, in judges’ eyes, to place her fifth among the field of 10 women representing their countries in the Olympic team event.
Helped considerably by the second-place finish of the Shibutani siblings, Alex and Maia, in their short ice-dance, the United States advanced to the final phase of the team competition, which will be contested Monday when medals are awarded after the free skates in dance, men’s and ladies.
The United States was second in the standings entering Sunday’s competition, trailing Canada and just ahead of the Russians, competing here as Olympic Athletes from Russia (OAR) under International Olympic Committee sanctions for evidence of state sponsored doping at the 2014 Sochi Games.
But OAR vaulted ahead of the United States after a beautiful short program by defending world champion Evgenia Medvedeva, 18, that earned a record score of 81.06 and thrilled a cheering section of Russian fans who brandished their nation’s colors on hats, scarves, signs and banners.
Only the top five teams advance to Monday’s final phase. Canada leads with 35 points; the OAR is second (31), followed by the United States (29) and Japan (26).
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, a 20-year-old from Carpentersville, Ill., who had no international profile to speak of just six months ago. But Tennell handily earned a spot on the 2018 Olympic team with her steadiness in a technically rigorous program at U.S. Figure Skating Championships in January, not missing a jump throughout the competition.
Seemingly impervious to pressure, Tennell has proven effective in racking up points under figure skating’s scoring system. But the artistic dimension of her skating is not yet on a par with the emotive range and grace of Medvedeva or four-time Olympian Carolina Kostner of Italy, whose short program earned the second-highest marks.
Still, Tennell 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.”