Ice Network

Tennell edges Nagasu with record short program

Reigning champion Chen sits third; three-time winner Wagner slots fifth
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Bradie Tennell flowed through her 'Taegukgi' short program like water, executing each element with remarkable ease. The Skate America bronze medalist set a new U.S. record for short program score with 73.79 points, and she sits atop the leaderboard heading into the free skate. -Jay Adeff

At Skate America in late November, when Bradie Tennell won a surprise bronze medal competing at her first-ever Grand Prix event, her coach of 10 years, Denise Myers, said, "Anything is possible for her. She hasn't reached her peak."

Those words bounced around San Jose's SAP Center on Wednesday, when Tennell -- sharper, faster, more confident than just five weeks ago -- set a new U.S. championship record of 73.79 points with a near-perfect short program.

"I felt very prepared, and I did the program I was practicing, so I'm happy," Tennell, who doesn't waste words in the mixed zone, said.

The skater executed her short, set to music from the South Korean war film Taegukgi, with finely controlled attack, opening with a strong triple lutz-triple toe loop combination, snapping off a triple loop, and hitting a double axel out of a spread eagle. Her spins and steps all gained Level 4 and her program component scores -- in the past, a relative weakness -- ranged up to nearly 8.5.

"I've really worked on the components of my program and I think that really helped get it out there," Tennell said. "(I focused on) the interpretation to the music, really trying to develop the story."

Media attention and the weight of the occasion -- three U.S. ladies' Olympic berths are on the line, and to grab one, Tennell probably needs to finish first or second here -- don't seem to trouble the Chicago-area skater, who turns 20 later this month.

Tennell won the U.S. junior title in 2015, but stress fractures to lower back vertebrae in May 2015 and June 2016 limited her training the past two seasons. Time off, plus heavy doses of physical therapy and Pilates, has let her talent and technique shine.

"The biggest feeling right now is pride," she said. "I'm very proud of how far I've come this year, overcoming my injuries and just in the technical aspect of things."

"She's got a great mindset," Myers said. "After the short, she turned to me and said, 'One down, one to go.' It's back to business as usual. That's how she trains."

Unflappable, replete with Midwestern common sense, Tennell is peaking at just the right time. There's a vacancy on top, a need for a consistent, nerveless competitor with reliable technique and a calm head. She may be just what the doctor ordered.

"I think she's getting better and better with each competition," Myers said. "Her confidence is building. You can see the momentum."

Mirai Nagusu skated the best short program of her season and sits just 0.70 points behind Tennell after landing -- but over-rotating -- her triple axel in her short to a Chopin nocturne. She sailed through her triple flip-triple toe and triple loop, and gained Level 4's for her steps and spins, but her expression -- amped up considerably from her Grand Prix events -- was equally impressive.

Nagasu, who won the U.S. title at age 14 in 2008, placed fourth at the 2010 Winter Olympics and was controversially left off of the 2014 Sochi team in favor of Ashley Wagner, is determined to write another successful chapter in her career.

Winning a second U.S. title a decade after the first would certainly fit the bill.

"I was so nervous, I fought against my own nerves, and I feel really good," the 24-year-old skater said. "It takes so much to go out there and to still be there, it takes a lot. I'm so proud of myself and I'm happy I'm still out here fighting."

The triple axel, though imperfect, still gained 6.36 points, and Nagasu didn't let the mistake impact the rest of her short.

"When I landed forward, I stepped out and I said, 'Wow I'm a cat, I'm still on my feet,'" she said. "I thought to myself, the program is not over yet, the music is still playing, and I really enjoyed my footwork and my spins. That's all I can ask of myself."

"When the axel got too big and Mirai had the error on it, she had the poise to maintain the program and do it quite well," said Tom Zakrajsek, who trains Nagasu in Colorado Springs. "She knows she can take a risk on the axel because if she has a mistake on it in training, she skates the whole program and does the whole program. If you can't keep it together, you shouldn't risk it."

Defending champion Karen Chen under-rotated the second jump in her triple lutz-triple toe combination, but the rest of the self-choreographed short program to music from On Golden Pond was clean, fast and captivating. She sits third with 69.48 points.

"I'm not going to lie, I was extremely nervous, the short is something I always put a great deal of pressure on," Chen said. "To be able to skate a close to clean performance, I'm extremely happy with that. It's a solid base for the free skate on Friday."

"I think the short has always been the bigger challenge for her," said Tammy Gambill, who coaches Chen in nearby Riverside. "She's in the ballgame. There was a lot of pressure and she stepped up to the plate. She's in a good frame of mind, she's healthy, she's well trained."

Angela Wang hit a clean triple flip-triple toe in her stirring short to "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" and sits fourth with 67.00 points.

The biggest surprise of the night was Ashley Wagner's fifth-place finish. The three-time U.S. champion, second to Chen in the U.S. last season, under-rotated the second jump in her triple flip-triple toe combination, but performed the rest of her "Hip Hip Chin Chin" program with sophistication and aplomb. The judges did her no favors, though, and she ended the segment with 65.94 points.

"To go out there and skate solid, I'm happy," Wagner, 26, said. "I'm a long program skater, I'm not too far behind, and I know what I need to do on Friday."