Bradie Tennell was ready. Her bags were packed for a trip to the Japan Open in early October, an event that would have had symbolic resonance for her. It was to bring a traumatic part of her life to an end.
Tennell would return to figure skating competition in the same country where she had last competed in the 2021 World Team Trophy 20 months earlier before suffering a right foot injury that frustratingly defied diagnosis. The two-time US champion had missed an entire competitive season, missed an opportunity to go to a second Olympics, missed the part of her identity that Bradie Tennell was the athlete.
It was the day before she was to leave for Japan. Tennell was practicing at her new training base in Nice, France, where she moved last September from her suburban Chicago home (before her injury, she trained in Colorado Springs). She hoped such a dramatic change could bring renewed energy to her oft-delayed comeback.
Tennell had trained well and regularly did clean programs in practice. She could have worked her way back slowly and deliberately, with a schedule that allowed her to be patient.
And then, in her words, “something weird” happened on the landing of a triple toe loop jump. And now she had pain in her left foot, and the trip to Japan was cancelled, as was a planned trip to Hungary for the Budapest Trophy a week after the Japan Open, as was… another season?
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“It was like, ‘You’re kidding,'” Tennell said over the phone. “It was like all the work I’d done would be for nothing.”
Doctors found nothing broken and prescribed rest until the pain was gone. That calm lasted the rest of October. She went to the rink for therapy, but couldn’t skate.
“I was miserable,” she said. “I have had enough rest and free time in the past year. That’s all I needed.”
Especially since the schedule started to get less forgiving. She had to compete in the British Grand Prix in mid-November to say goodbye to the 2023 US Championships.
When she arrived in England, Tennell knew she wasn’t ready. And her performance in both programs showed it, resulting in her lowest scores since the fall of 2015.
“That was scarier than skating at the Olympics,” she said. “I had never felt this way in a match. I stepped on the ice for the short (program) and I saw my hands shaking. I was almost hyperventilating. I knew I had to calm down, and I didn’t know how, because for the first time in my life I couldn’t trust the training I had been doing.
“It was really a surreal experience. Of all the times I pictured my comeback in my head, I’ve never seen it that way, except in my nightmares.
Benoit Richaud, her choreographer since 2017 and one of her coaches since last summer, immediately helped Tennell put the experience into perspective after finishing an equally nightmarish free program.
“You’ve already won,” he told her. “You came back.”
Intellectually, she knew Richaud was right. She had longed to be back in competition as last season went on without her, and now she had. Of course she wanted to skate better, but Tennell had achieved her main goal despite finishing in last place in 12th: she had earned the bye from the nationals, whereupon Tennell will begin her hunt for a third US title with the short program Thursday night in San Jose, California.
Tennell reminded herself as she went through the last 45 seconds of the free skate, with no energy going into her last jump pass in England.
“I was like, ‘You just have to finish this. You have the rest of the season to improve. We’re starting at the bottom of the ladder. This is the first step,'” Tennell said.
Emotionally it was harder to accept, even though her skating improved in her next two events, Grand Prix Finland and Golden Spin of Zagreb.
“There are two voices in my head,” she said. “I try to be kinder to myself and acknowledge smaller victories because I didn’t know if I would get this opportunity. But then there’s the ruthless competitor in me.
“It is as if the two sides are at war. On the one hand, I’m incredibly proud to be back. On the other hand, the competitive side of me is like, ‘It’s never enough; you can do better.'”
The original problem with her right foot had made it almost impossible for her to do Lutz and flip jumps, which required her to pick the ice with the right foot. She slowly brought them back.
At Golden Spin, two of her three triple Lutzes were clean. She has yet to do a competitive triple flip this season, but insists she will have one at the national championships.
“Now that I’ve had some training time, I feel pretty good about going to the Nationals,” she said. “I think people will be surprised with what I can do.”
When asked if she’s looking to rank high enough to get her championship and/or world team championships on the four continents, Tennell answered without hesitation, “Absolutely.” (A top-three finish would put her in prime position for those spots.)
Between the left foot problem and traveling for three matches in three different countries in just four weeks, Tennell had been unable to train consistently at her French home ground between late September and mid-December. She has since trained well there for over a month and another week in Norwood, Massachusetts, arriving on Jan. 15 to deal with most of the jet lag before heading to California on Monday.
“Knowing what I’m capable of is what drives me,” she said. “But I’m not trying to go back to where I was before, not this big, dramatic, ‘She’s finally back with the Bradie we know.'”
The Bradie we knew was the quiet, coy individual who went from an unnoticed ninth place finish at the 2017 U.S. Championships in stunning fashion to the top of the podium in 2018 and then won a team bronze medal at the PyeongChang Olympics. She made the top three in her last four appearances at national championships, also winning in 2021.
The Bradie who turns 25 next Tuesday has morphed into a more worldly, more insightful, more open person, one who can draw strength from the vulnerability of revealing her struggles in hopes that someone else who is going through a hard time can benefit from it. may have by hearing Tennell describe how she has dealt with them.
“I’m a different person than I was before this big injury,” she said. “You can’t go through something so traumatic and come out the same. It doesn’t just affect your sports life. It really touches you as a person.
“I’m going to take this new perspective and the new maturity I think I have and let it shine through in my skating.”
In her months away from the ice, Tennell necessarily thought about what her future would look like if she couldn’t recover to compete again. She would first get all of her general education credits from McHenry County College near her home in Illinois, then transfer to a four-year school. Ultimately, she wants to coach. Nothing shocking in all that.
When it was clear that she would have a competitive future, Tennell, once a homebody, surprisingly chose a different path forward by moving to the south of France, where she knew no one but her coaches and said no more than a few words about her could speak. language.
She lives with a host family, whose 15-year-old daughter, also a skater, helps her with French. Tennell has a few French workbooks, but mostly relies on Duolingo for lessons and loves the results, no matter how people chuckle when she mentions learning from the app.
“I feel so privileged to have this experience of immersing myself in a different culture,” she said. Tennell has enjoyed poking around the different neighborhoods of Nice. She has been amazed by French cheese, the range so vast that former French President Charles de Gaulle famously joked, “How can anyone rule a country with 246 kinds of cheese?” (It was actually a gross underestimation on his part, as the total is well over 1,000.) She is dazzled by confectioners with confections that are works of art.
While she has unconditionally committed to continuing the 2026 Olympic season, Tennell paused when asked if she would settle in France until then.
She replied with the English version of an old Yiddish proverb: “Man plans and God laughs.”
“I picked up that phrase last year,” she said of the saying. “It’s part of my language now.”
She didn’t need a translation app to understand what those words mean. Unfortunately or not, experience had taught her well.
Philip Hersh, who has competed in figure skating at the last 12 Winter Olympics, makes a special contribution to NBC Sports. com.
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