Bradie Tennell, '80's rocker at heart, lifts U.S. in Olympic figure-skating debut

GANGNEUNG, South Korea – Just before taking the ice, Olympic ice at last, Bradie Tennell fought her nerves and focused on the precision and artistry she needed to compete by slipping on some oversized head phones and listening to …

“AC/DC,” Tennell said. “‘Jailbreak.'”

Wait. What?

A petite, 20-year-old figure skater has a semi-deep cut from an aging Australian rock band as her pre-routine tune for the biggest performance of her life — the short program here in the team skate where the Americans could medal?

A song that opens with the following lyrics?

There was a friend of mine on murder
And the judge’s gavel fell
Jury found him guilty
Gave him sixteen years in hell

“Yeah, it’s kind of weird,” Tennell said. “People look at me, blonde hair, blue eyes. It’s just weird. I just always loved ’80’s rock. I’ve just always loved that music. It’s great for getting pumped up and working out.”

Bradie Tennell said she didn’t think she “could have asked for a better first performance at the Olympics.” (AP)
Bradie Tennell said she didn’t think she “could have asked for a better first performance at the Olympics.” (AP)

Never mind the song was actually released in 1976. It’s also not all AC/DC. Boston. Kiss. She likes anything from the genre.

“The playlist is nine hours long,” Tennell said. “All ’80s.”

Whatever it takes, whatever she’s doing, it’s working.

Tennell, after a couple years of injury, has rocketed onto the international scene, coming into her own during the fall and winning the national championship in January, surprising veteran Ashley Wagner. It continued here Sunday with a clean, crisp performance that delivered a season-best score (68.94) to finish fifth, just 0.01 from fourth.

“I am really happy,” Tennell said. “I don’t think I could have asked for a better first performance at the Olympics.”

It was enough to help stake the Americans to third place in the team event going into Monday’s medal rounds and survive a rough performance by the pairs team of Alexa Scimeca Knierim and Chris Knierim, who wound up fourth. Ice dancers Maia and Alex Shibutani also did well, delivering a strong effort to finish second behind Canada.

The team event debuted at the Sochi Games — the U.S. won bronze there — and features combined scores of four different disciplines competing twice: men’s, ladies, pairs and ice dance.

For the Americans, a bronze is there for the taking. They trail Canada and Olympic Athletes from Russia while standing ahead of Japan.

For most people watching Tennell, the idea of her becoming an Olympic medalist seemed unlikely. She was talented, but inconsistency and a rash of injuries — which helped create the inconsistency — rarely made her a contender at even the American level. Yet the Carpentersville, Illinois, native never saw it that way. She figured once she got healthy, anything was possible.

“Just a lot of hard work and determination,” Tennell said. “… My mom [Jean] really helped with that. When I was feeling down, she was there to pick me up. Her support really helped. Just pep talks and kind of just being there for me.”

Bradie Tennell reacts to scores after her debut performance at the 2018 Winter Olympics. (AP)
Bradie Tennell reacts to scores after her debut performance at the 2018 Winter Olympics. (AP)

Tennell is so unknown on the international level that she skated in the first (or lower) group here Sunday, mainly because she doesn’t have the built-up scores to qualify where she should. It made no difference. She took the ice with no noticeable nerves and certainly no fears.

“You’ve done this program a million times,” she said to herself. “It’s just a million and one.”

If anything, that’s how she is trying to avoid the pressure. She’s admittedly shy, which is a hurdle when you are now standing alone at center ice with the world watching. Getting over that is a constant challenge. She does best, she said, when she just forgets about the stage and the stakes, and just skates.

“Here, I just want to compete and go on autopilot,” Tennell said. “I compete like I train.”

So, the classic rock playlist was there to fall back on, a last blast of familiarity from back home, all the way over here with a life’s work on the line. She blared some AC/DC and then delivered for herself and her team.

When it was over, she stared up into stands, focused on a banner featuring Olympic rings and finally exhaled.

“I thought, ‘I just did that on Olympic ice,'” Tennell said. “That’s pretty cool.”


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