Figure skating champion Bradie Tennell, a competitive ‘shark,’ making her comeback in new waters
A week after chronic foot pain forced Bradie Tennell to withdraw from the 2022 U.S. Figure Skating Championships, the impact of that situation hit her full force.
Tennell was the defending national champion, a good bet to make the 2022 Olympic team had she been healthy. But she was lying in bed in her family home in the Chicago suburbs as nationals was going on in Nashville.
She had lost the chance to realize her dream of skating in another Olympic Games. She had lost an entire competitive season. Then she realized a fundamental part of her also had been lost when walking to the kitchen became so painful it was easier to stay hungry until someone could bring her food.
“In my core, I’m an athlete,” Tennell said via telephone in an interview last week. “I take so much pride in being able to demand pretty much anything of my body and being able to do it. If I want to go on a 10-mile hike, I can go on a 10-mile hike. This was like my identity as an athlete being so suddenly ripped away.”
This lengthy phone and text interview was the first time the two-time U.S. champion and 2018 Olympian had spoken at length about what she described as an “honestly traumatic experience.”
Its nadir, feeling the loss of self, followed several difficult months in which the two-time U.S. champion had withdrawn from one event after another, seven in all, with a right foot issue whose source she said has never been diagnosed. She rejected a suggestion for what would have amounted to exploratory surgery to seek an answer.
Tennell had vowed to herself even before last season that it would not be her last as a competitor. Being physically able to fulfill that vow was an eight-month process that went on below the radar until her Aug. 22 post on Instagram revealed a startling change in the process: new coach, new training base on a different continent.
Maybe there should have been a hint to the switch in the posts a few days earlier that showed her floating blissfully on her back in the limpid turquoise water of a cove near Marseille, France, and gazing at the sea from rocks in Toulon. Tennell clearly seemed at home in the environment of southeastern France, so much so she has moved to Nice, a seaside city she will see for the first time when she lands there Monday.
She pulled up stakes to train at a rink she has never seen with a Peak Ice coaching team in Nice headed by Benoit Richaud, her choreographer since 2017. Tennell, 24, had spent the previous two seasons training with coach Tom Zakrajsek in Colorado Springs, Colorado, after 12 with Denise Myers in the Chicago area.
Her original plan had been to return to Colorado Springs once she was healthy enough to train. The idea of relocating to Nice began to attract Tennell while working with Richaud’s team at an August camp in La Garde, France, about 80 miles southwest of Nice.
“The vibes and atmosphere in the group there were very good,” said Tennell, whose French so far is limited to what she has gleaned from language learning apps.
During her second week in La Garde, she approached Richaud about training with his group full-time and found him “very open to the idea.” That was all the encouragement she needed.
“Bradie is at an age and point of maturity that she wanted to take responsibility for what is good for her,” Richaud said. “Over the years working together, we have had a very trusting relationship.”
She long had enjoyed working with Richaud, 34, a former ice dancer who choreographed the programs with which Japan’s Kaori Sakamoto won the world title and the Olympic bronze medal last season. But Tennell had no coaching history with Cedric Tour, 28, the Peak Ice technical director, who competed once in the French senior championships, finishing 12th.
It took just one session with Tour for Tennell to like his approach. She immediately told Richaud how impressed she was with the way Tour could fix flaws and explain the reasons both for doing it and for how he did it.
“I said that to Benoit after my first lesson with Cedric because he is so smart in technical corrections,” Tennell said. “Some of the things he was telling me I hadn’t heard before, and the exercises and drills he was putting me through was like a cold bucket of water over my head.
“I loved it because it showed me how much more I have to learn about jumping and technique in general. I think at this point in my career, it’s important to be excited not only for training every day, but also to learn about the how and why certain things are important.”
Richaud makes no secret of his disdain for continual pat-on-the back coaching when a skater needs criticism. He sees in Tennell a skater whose ego will not be bruised by having her mistakes pointed out.
“Everywhere I go, I always hear, ‘Good job,’ even when it’s a terrible job,” Richaud said. “Bradie is not a `good job’ girl. She craves correction. She wants to be better.”
“I have always been that way,” she said. “I prefer to have somebody tell me something bluntly than to beat around the bush and sugarcoat it. If something is bad, tell me it’s bad so I can fix it and move on to something else. Also, by working this way, it allows me to truly believe somebody when they tell me something is good or I’ve done a good job.”
In less than a month working in France, Tennell knew she had done a good job when she landed a clean triple lutz-triple toe loop combination, an element she had not executed successfully in nearly a year because of the pain when she did the right foot pick on the lutz takeoff. Tennell unashamedly cried after landing it.
“A very large part of me believed I never would be able to do it again,” Tennell said. “By some miracle, I’ve been able to continue. I keep that in the back of my mind, and I’m so grateful. I’m going to step on the ice and literally cherish every moment.
“In those dark winter months in Chicago when everything was going on without me, I really didn’t think this was a possibility.”
It has been a slow process to get back this point. The first step involved eliminating the pain, and much of the treatment simply was rest. She had been on crutches at various times and took days off but it wasn’t true rest.
So Tennell did not skate at all this year until the end of March, eased herself back onto the ice in April and May and did minimal jumping after then, including the first two weeks at the summer camp.
“Those first two months back were just getting a feel for the ice again,” she said. “I was allowing myself to come back in a way where I could process everything I had lost last season but also use the newfound kind of wisdom I had gained from going through the honestly traumatic experience.”
By early-summer, Tennell felt confident enough to ask for Grand Prix assignments, and she got two, for the fourth (England) and sixth (Finland) meets of the six-event series. She plans to do a couple other events before then. Her last competition was the World Team Trophy in April 2021.
Tennell will re-use half of the tango short program prepared for the Olympic season, with Richaud revising the other half. His choreography for her new free skate will give an oft-used piece of music in figure skating, Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons,” a strikingly different interpretation he chose not to reveal until it is performed.
“The point of this season will be her reconnection with competition,” Richaud said. “Bradie is addicted to competition. She is a shark on the ice.”
Like a shark, Tennell is relentless in pursuit of her goals, her devotion to hard training often maniacal. She does not intend to change out of fear of injury. Tennell wants more from herself than just being a good comeback story.
“I think I’m still going to be kind of a maniac because I have a lot of work ahead of me,” she said. “I will be much more careful and mindful but I’m not going to allow myself not to train as hard because I’m afraid of something happening. I want to fully give myself to the goals I have.”
Tennell came out of nowhere to win the U.S. title in 2018. She won it again in 2021 and made the podium in both years in between. She was the top U.S. finisher in women’s singles at the 2018 Olympics. She has finished as high as sixth in three world championship appearances.
She returns to a sport with a very different competitive landscape. The Russians who have dominated women’s skating the past eight seasons are barred because of their country’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine. The three U.S women on the 2022 Olympic team are either retired (Alysa Liu) or all but retired (Mariah Bell and Karen Chen). Two skaters moving up to senior international competition, reigning world junior champion Isabeau Levito and reigning world junior bronze medalist Lindsay Thorngren, presumably would be a healthy Tennell’s main national rivals.
“My job is still the same, and my goals are still the same,” Tennell said. “I want to show this is what I’m meant to be doing and what I love. I want to be national champion again. I want to be on the podium at worlds.”
Just being a warm and fuzzy comeback story is not enough for Bradie Tennell. That’s not how sharks roll.
Philip Hersh, who has covered figure skating at every Winter Olympics since 1980, is a special contributor to NBCSports.com.
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