GANGNEUNG, South Korea — Nerves have killed more than their fair share of figure skating careers. Handling the athletic demands of the jumping and spinning on a slippery sheet of ice is especially tough if the brain freezes, as well.
But if you can handle the pressure — truly embrace it and thrive on it — then the most difficult part of the skating puzzle already has been solved.
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Enter Bradie Tennell, the 2018 U.S. national champion who had never been to a major international competition until this week. Starting off with the Olympics would be daunting for most. But there’s something very different about this 20-year-old late bloomer from Carpentersville, who spent much of the last two years dealing with back problems.
Apparently, she doesn’t get nervous.
“I get butterflies right before my music starts,” she said after a perfect short program in the team figure-skating competition Sunday, “but then when my music starts, I go on autopilot.”
If you have been watching figure skating for any period of time, you will attest to the fact that more skaters definitely need to go on autopilot. Many more. There’s definitely way too much thinking in this sport.
Tennell has this mystery solved. She is bright, to be sure, and loves to read, but she truly has figured out the sport. Her strategy is not involved and goes something like this: Just go out there and do it.
“It felt like I was doing another program on a practice session,” she said of her meticulous Olympic debut, good for fifth place in a very strong field. “You’ve done this program one million times. This is just one million and one.”
There’s a simplicity to Tennell’s skating and to her interviews. A technical marvel on the ice, she is hardly loquacious when talking to reporters. Dragging whole sentences out of her might become an Olympic event. Ashley Wagner she most definitely is not.
But who needs Winston Churchill in the mixed zone when you can have Tara Lipinski on ice, a solid bet to land jump after jump after jump, come what may?
A moment in the six-minute warmup before she skated spoke volumes about Tennell’s fortitude. She badly botched her triple-triple combination jump with less than a minute left before the skaters needed to leave the ice. But, with no sense of urgency or hurry in her step, Tennell swirled back around the ice, set up for the combination and landed a beauty.
“We’re human, right,” she said. “We make mistakes. So just go and do it again. I’ve done the jump like a million times. And I know I can nail it. Again, it’s determination. You just gotta do it.”
She was sitting no more than 10 feet from the ice when teammate Nathan Chen turned in his horrible skate on the first day of the team competition. It was natural to wonder how this might affect a rookie like Tennell. On second thought, don’t wonder.
“It doesn’t really affect me, because we’re two different people,” she said matter of factly, which is how she says everything. “Everybody handles stress differently. Obviously I wish him all the best.”
She did take a second to soak in her Olympic moment Sunday, but only after she was done with her short program.
“It hit me when I finished,” she said. “I looked up and I could see the [Olympic] rings on one of the banners out there. I was like, ‘Wow, I just did that on Olympic ice. That’s pretty cool.’ ’’
Enough of that. Let’s get back to business.
“I’m really happy,” said Tennell, who will return to the ice Feb. 21. “I don’t think I could have asked for a better short program.”
Hardly poetic, but that’s exactly what she’s here to do.
Follow me on Twitter @cbrennansports.