Ice Network

Cinderella Story: Unflappable Tennell wins U.S. title

Nagasu holds steady to take silver; Chen overcomes virus, claims bronze
  • Ice Network on Facebook
  • Ice Network on Twitter
Overnight leader Bradie Tennell delivered a crowd-pleasing performance of her 'Cinderella' free, for which she earned a segment-best 145.72 points, and she captured her first U.S. title with a total score of 219.51. -Getty Images

There's a photo on skating coach Denise Myers' phone of a little blonde girl, smiling for the camera in a blue satin formal, all dressed up as Cinderella for Halloween.

Eighteen years or so later, the girl in the photo, now a young woman, put on another blue dress and won the U.S. ladies title, skating to music from Cinderella.

"I always loved Cinderella since I was two years old," said Bradie Tennell, who captured gold Friday night at the 2018 U.S. Figure Skating Championships. "At three, my mom made me a Halloween costume, a Cinderella dress. When the movie came out I probably watched it 10 times. It never gets old. I actually watched it on the plane here."

Cinderella crashed a ball; Tennell set a sport on its head. Just six weeks ago, she was an unheralded former U.S. junior champion, fighting to make a name for herself in a crowded U.S. ladies field. On Friday night in San Jose, after a near-perfect free skate to Cinderella, Bradie Tennell was crowned U.S. champion.

"I really don't think it's sunk in quite yet," Tennell, who will turn 20 later this month, said. "I'm still kind of shocked."

"Our plan was to plan for the next four years," said Myers, Tennell's coach of 10 years. "It just happened earlier than we thought."

Tennell certainly wasn't among the names bandied about at the start of this Olympic season. Ashley Wagner, Karen Chen, Mirai Nagasu, Mariah Bell and one or two others ranked ahead of her on the list. But timing is everything, and only Tennell was consistent, hitting strong triple lutz-triple toe loop combinations in both programs at her last four competitions. She has not missed a triple jump in her last three events: Lombardia Trophy, Skate America and, now, the U.S. championships. That's Russian-like consistency, and no other U.S. lady has come close.

"I've always loved the challenge. I'm not one to back down from something hard," Tennell said. "I always enjoy performing, especially this (free) program, it's very close to my heart. I think I just went out there and it showed."

On Friday, after nailing her opening triple lutz-triple toe, Tennell landed five more triples, two in combination, backed by Level 4 spins and expressive Level 4 steps. Her 145.72 points easily won the free skate, and her total tally of 219.51 points defeated silver medalist Nagasu's by 5.68 points.

"She really does trust her training," said Myers, who trains Tennell with Jeremy Allen in Buffalo Grove, Illinois. "We've practiced the scenario of (skating) last, we've practiced the lights and noise and sound. It's different when you walk into the arena past the black curtain, but we were really prepared."

Prepared, and confident with their material. When Tennell brought Cinderella -- including a vocal to "A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes" as well as selections from the Prokofiev ballet -- to U.S. Figure Skating's Champs Camp this summer, some officials suggested she change the vocal to something more mature. After due consideration, Tennell stood her ground.

"We took the advice to heart," Myers said. "We tried 10 different versions and nothing was as good as the original (edited by Hugo Chouinard). So, we stuck with our plan."

And why not? If the slipper fits, wear it.

Nagasu, the 2008 U.S. champion, hit another high in her roller coaster career with a strong skate to selections from Miss Saigon. The 24-year-old rotated but stepped out of a triple axel, and then recovered quickly to hit a triple flip-triple toe as well as a double axel-triple toe-double toe and three other triples. Only a triple lutz was judged under rotated.

"I think tonight I went into this performance not expecting myself to be perfect," Nagasu, fourth in the U.S. last season, said. "I think I made that mistake last year. I was training strong, probably not as strong as this year, but I was fully capable of doing what I did tonight last year. Tonight I was prepared to make those mistakes and work around them. I knew I wanted to be tired at the end of the night and to push through it and that's exactly what I did."

Suffering from a virus, defending champion Karen Chen, third after the short, fought to deliver an imperfect but gutsy routine, landing her jumps but earning three under-rotations, a downgrade and an edge call from the technical panel. She placed fourth in the free and third overall with 198.59 points.

"Yesterday I was unable to practice and was really sick, stuck in bed," Chen said. "I caught a virus or something. I couldn't sleep at all after the short (on Wednesday). I was up all night in a lot of discomfort. All morning I had body aches and pains."

Chen, who hails from nearby Fremont, talked to her sports psychologist and visited her acupuncturist.

"I did all the steps I could so I would feel better today," she said. "A lot of it was mental strength. I had to stay as positive as I could and keep thinking to myself, 'I trained so hard for this moment, I don't want to regret it, I can't let this cold or virus win.' I repeated it over and over until I believed it, and I just skated with my heart."

Three-time U.S. champion Ashley Wagner finds herself in the same, uncomfortable position she did four years ago, placing fourth after singling an intended triple salchow in an otherwise solid debut of her La La Land free skate. As in the short program, conservative program component scores -- in this case, 68 points to Chen's 69.58 points -- put her 1.14 points out of the top three.

"I am absolutely furious," Wagner said in the mixed zone. "I know when I go and lay it down, and I absolutely left one jump on the table, but to put out the two programs that I did at this competition, as solid as I skated, I am furious. I am a performer and that second mark is not there."

The decision for the three U.S. ladies spots at the PyeongChang Games in February is in the hands of U.S. Figure Skating's International Selection Committee, who will consider tiered criteria ("body of work") in addition to the placements in San Jose.

Last season's bronze medalist Mariah Bell shrugged off a disappointing Grand Prix season to land seven triples in her West Side Story free skate to place fifth. Up-and-coming 16-year-old Starr Andrews, 12th at the 2017 World Junior Figure Skating Championships, skated a sparkling routine to a self-performed cover of Whitney Houston's "One Moment in Time" and finished sixth.