Bradie Tennell returns to U.S. Figure Skating Championships after nightmarish comeback

Bradie Tennell was ready. Her bags were packed for an early October trip to the Japan Open, an event that had would have symbolic resonance for her. It was to bring a traumatic part of her life full circle toward its end.

Tennell would be returning to figure skating competition in the same country where she had last competed 20 months earlier, at the 2021 World Team Trophy, before a right foot injury that frustratingly defied diagnosis.  The two-time U.S. champion had missed an entire competitive season, missed a chance at going to a second Olympics, missed the part of her identity that was Bradie Tennell 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 home in suburban Chicago (before her injury, she had been training in Colorado Springs). She was hoping such a dramatic change could bring renewed energy to her oft-delayed comeback.

Tennell had been training well, regularly doing clean program run-throughs in practice. She had been able to work 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 off, 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’ve got to be kidding me,’’’ Tennell said via telephone. “It was like all the work I had done was going to be wasted.”

Doctors found nothing broken and prescribed rest until the pain went away. That rest lasted the remainder of October. She went to the rink for therapy but could not skate.

“I was miserable,” she said.  “I have had enough rest and free time in the past year. I didn’t need any more.”

Especially since the schedule began to get less forgiving. She needed to compete at Great Britain’s Grand Prix in mid-November to earn a bye to the 2023 U.S. Championships.

When she got to England, Tennell knew she wasn’t ready. And her performances in both programs showed it, resulting in her lowest scores since fall 2015.

“That was scarier than skating at the Olympics,” she said. “I had never felt that way in a competition. I stepped on the ice for the short (program), and I could see my hands shaking. I was almost hyperventilating. I knew I needed to calm down, and I didn’t know how because for the first time in my life, I couldn’t rely on training I had done.

“It was a really surreal experience. Of all the times I pictured my comeback in my head, I never once saw it going like that, 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 she finished an equally nightmarish free program.

“You’ve already won,” he told her. “You’ve made it back.”

Intellectually, she knew Richaud was right.  She had longed to be back in competition while last season went on without her, and now she had done that. Sure, she wanted to skate better, but Tennell had accomplished her main goal despite finishing a last-place 12th: she had earned the bye to nationals, at which Tennell begins her pursuit of a third U.S. title with the short program Thursday night in San Jose, California.

Tennell reminded herself of that as, with no energy left going into her final jumping pass in England, she ground through the last 45 seconds of the free skate.

“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 as her skating did improve at her next two events, Grand Prix Finland and Golden Spin of Zagreb.

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“There’s two voices in my head,” she said. “I am trying to be kinder to myself and acknowledge smaller victories, because I didn’t know if I would have this chance. But then there is the relentless competitor in me.

“It’s like the two sides are at war. On one hand, I’m incredibly proud to be back again. On the other, the competitive side of me is like, `It’s never enough; you can do better.’”

The original right foot problem had made it nearly impossible for her to do Lutz and flip jumps, which require picking into the ice on the right foot. She has brought them back slowly.

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 nationals.

“Now that I’ve had some training time, I’m feeling pretty good going into nationals,” she said. “I think people will be surprised with what I’m capable of.”

To the question of whether she is looking at a high enough placement to get her on the four continents Championships and/or world championships teams, Tennell replied unhesitatingly, “Absolutely.” (A top-three finish would put her in the best position for those spots.)

Between the left foot problem and the travel for three competitions in three different countries in just four weeks, Tennell had not been able to train consistently at her French home base between late September and mid-December.  She since has had more than a month of good training there and another week in Norwood, Massachusetts, where she arrived Jan. 15 to deal with most of the jet lag before going on to California on Monday.

“Knowing what I am capable of is what drives me,” she said. “But I’m not trying to get back to where I was before, not this big, dramatic, `She’s finally back to the Bradie we know.’’’

The Bradie we knew was the quiet, reticent person who stunningly went from an unnoticed ninth at the 2017 U.S. Championships to 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 nationals, 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 find strength in the vulnerability of revealing her struggles, hoping someone else who is struggling might gain 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 as traumatic as that and come out the same. It doesn’t affect just your sports life. It really affects you as a person.

“I’m going to take this new perspective and new maturity I feel 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 could not recover to compete again. First would be getting all her general education credits from McHenry County College near her home in Illinois and then transferring to a four-year school. Ultimately, she wants to coach. Nothing startling in any of that.

When it was clear 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 except her coaches and could not speak more than a few words of its language.

She lives with a host family, whose 15-year-old daughter, also a skater, helps her with French. Tennell has some French workbooks but relies mainly on Duolingo for lessons and likes the results, no matter how people chuckle when she tells them she is learning from the app.

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“I feel so privileged to be able to have this experience of immersing myself in a different culture,” she said. Tennell has enjoyed poking into the different neighborhoods of Nice. She has become amazed by French cheese, its assortment so great former French President Charles de Gaulle famously joked, “How can anyone govern a country with 246 varieties of cheese?” (It was actually a gross underestimate on his part, as the total is well over 1,000.) She is dazzled by pastry shops with confections that are works of art.

While she has unreservedly committed to continuing through the 2026 Olympic season, Tennell did pause over the question of whether she would base herself in France through then.

She replied with the English version of an old Yiddish proverb, “Man plans, and God laughs.”

“I picked up that expression last year,” she said of the adage. “It’s part of my vernacular now.”

She needed no translation app to understand what those words mean. Sadly or not, experience had taught her well.

Philip Hersh, who has covered figure skating at the last 12 Winter Olympics, is a special contributor to NBCSports.com.

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Bradie Tennell returns to U.S. Figure Skating Championships after nightmarish comeback originally appeared on NBCSports.com