Bradie Tennell Lands an Unlikely Spot on the Olympic Figure Skating Team


Six weeks ago, few considered her a contender for the Olympic team. But she took third place at Skate America. And she followed on Friday with a composed, nearly flawless performance as Cinderella to finish first at the United States national championships.

On Saturday, Tennell, of Carpentersville, Ill., was named to the Olympic team, along with Mirai Nagasu, 24, of Montebello, Calif., and Karen Chen, 18, of Fremont, Calif.

“Coming into this year, my main goal was to stay healthy,” Tennell said. “I knew it was an Olympic year and somebody had to go. I just kind of kept it in the back of my mind.”

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Tennell reacted after delivering her nearly flawless free skate at the national championships.

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Chang W. Lee/The New York Times

Self-possessed and unexcitable, Tennell handled the immense pressure of Olympic qualification with no outward sign of nervousness on her face or in her performances.

She landed her triple Lutz-triple toe loop combination jump here with metronomic precision. According to the skating website Ice Network, Tennell has not missed any triple jump in her last three competitions.

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Mirai Nagasu, who won nationals in 2008 and was a 2010 Olympian, capped her comeback with a flowing performance to finish second and earn a spot in next month’s Olympics — a berth she was denied in 2014 by the selection committee.

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Chang W. Lee/The New York Times

“I’ve never been a nervous competitor,” Tennell said. “I’ve always really enjoyed competing in the energy of the arena.”

A redemptive performance by Nagasu returned her to the Olympics after she was left off the team for the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, Russia, in a controversial decision by American skating officials. She is the most mature and elegant of the American women and possesses the most difficult jump — a triple Axel, which requires a takeoff from a forward position and three and a half revolutions in the air.

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Karen Chen, the defending champion, was third on Friday night.

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Chang W. Lee/The New York Times

Nagasu has been alternately brilliant and erratic in her career, sometimes troubled by self-doubt. But she finished fourth at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, British Columbia. And if she can land the triple Axel in South Korea and skate consistently, she might have a chance to win a medal in a sport now dominated by Russian teenagers. No American woman has won an Olympic skating medal since Sasha Cohen took silver at the 2006 Winter Games in Turin, Italy.

“I wasn’t going to let a decision that wasn’t mine keep me from my dreams,” Nagasu said of being left off the 2014 Olympic team. “It’s like getting into university. If you don’t get in the first time, what are you going to do, not apply again? No, you keep applying until you make it happen.”

Chen, the 2017 national champion and an airy jumper, battled what she believed to be a virus during these championships. She was bedridden part of the time and visited her sports psychologist and acupuncturist to help her perform, telling herself: “I trained so hard for this moment; I don’t want to regret it. I can’t let this cold or virus win.”

Ashley Wagner, 26, a three-time national champion who had been placed on the 2014 Olympic team ahead of Nagasu in a disputed decision, finished fourth at these championships and was left off the 2018 Olympic team.

Wagner said on Friday night that she was “furious,” feeling the judges had underscored her on marks for artistry. But Wagner, who won a silver medal at the 2016 world championships, has struggled throughout this season. And as her highly regarded career may have come to an end, Tennell’s has begun its unlikely rise.

To lessen the chance of back injuries, Tennell has begun performing Pilates and attempting fewer jumps in training. Wearing a back brace was “very tough,” she said, adding that her mother “really helped me put things in perspective and not give up on myself.”

And now she is headed to the Olympics.

“It’s incredible,” Tennell said. “I’m so extremely proud of myself and how far I’ve come.”

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