GANGNEUNG, South Korea — Bradie Tennell will not be stopped. On her Olympic debut on Sunday, a month after becoming the surprise U.S. champion, the 20-year-old put down a beautifully clean skate to notch a new season’s best of 68.94 points in the women’s short program of the figure skating team event.
Team USA ended the day in third place, thanks to Tennell’s rock-solid showing as well as strong performances from sibling ice dance team Maia and Alex Shibutani in the short dance, and husband-and-wife team Alexa Scimeca-Knierim and Chris Knierim in the pairs long program.
Tennell has seemed unflappable in her rapid rise since Skate America in November, where she first grabbed headlines by winning the bronze medal. When asked at nationals if anything does make her nervous, she gave a rather curious answer: “I love good storytelling. I enjoy books and movies and TV, and unresolved storylines make me nervous for some reason.”
If that’s the case, she should be anxious now, given her own Olympic storyline is still to be written. But she seems as undaunted as ever. When she got on the ice Sunday, she said she told herself, “You’ve done this program a million times. It’s just a million and one.”
When asked if the startlingly poor performance from Nathan Chen, the U.S.’s gold-medal favorite coming into these Games, just two days before had any impact on her, Tennell’s answer was similarly straightforward: “It doesn’t really affect me. We’re two different people.”
But Tennell’s road to the Olympics has not been easy. At 20, she’s arrived in the international spotlight at a slightly older age than usual. Her teammate Karen Chen, the 2017 national champion, comes into her first Games aged 18, while Mirai Nagasu, who will represent the U.S. in the women’s long program in the team event on Monday, made her Olympic debut eight years ago in Vancouver, at just 16.
Tennell seems to have come out of nowhere because she was off the ice for the last two seasons, battling back injuries after winning the 2015 world junior championship. “It really took a toll on my skating and my consistency,” she said. “I hung out in the junior grand prixs a lot and I didn’t do well.”
Suffering from what she describes as overuse injuries to two different vertebrae, she had to wear a back brace all day every day for six months. “It was terrible,” Tennell said in January. “It was in the middle of summer, so it was very hot, and I had never been off the ice for that long before.”
She credits her mother Jean Tennell, a nurse who previously worked as a personal trainer, for keeping her focused and making sure she did her rehab correctly. “It’s hard to get a kid to do the kind of exercises she had to do,” Jean said at nationals. “I would make sure she’s using proper form with the exercises she had to do at home.”
The mental side of rehab was just as tough, though Bradie says she never doubted that her Olympic dream was over. Instead, she and her mom took her recovery one day at a time, exactly the same way they approach her skating.
“You can’t say, ‘I’m not going to be able to skate again.’ It’s, what do you have to do today that will help you get there?” Jean said. “She and I have always talked about, it’s one competition to get to the next. You can’t think of the Olympics if you haven’t even passed through regionals. One competition to get to the next, and that’s the way I approached her back injuries.”
Her mom was in the audience in Pyeongchang to watch Bradie land her triple jumps and spin on top of the Olympic rings etched in the ice, even though Bradie herself didn’t know where Jean was sitting. Her younger brothers will arrive in Korea next week to cheer her on in the women’s event, starting Feb. 21, where she will face her toughest competition yet.
That’s when her Olympic story-this chapter of it, at least-will be resolved. She’ll be determined to write a good ending.