Bradie Tennell didn’t enjoy a sequin-bedazzled, marble-smoothed journey to figure skating stardom.
The reigning U.S. national champion and 2018 Olympic bronze medalist, Tennell unabashedly remembers the struggles: The financial hardship for her single-mother Jeannie to pay for ice time; Bradie’s envy of other skaters who had the latest skates, newest cell phones, and fanciest costumes; and the modest finishes early in her skating career.
“The challenges we face in our lives help make us stronger and build us into the person that we should be,” Tennell says. “I wouldn’t be me without those challenges, so I’m grateful that they happened.”
That wasn’t always the case, of course.
Tennell remembers being nine years old when other skaters came to training at the rink with an iPod Touch.
“I wanted one so badly,” she says.
But Jeannie shut that down with a simple question.
“Do you want an iPod or do you want to skate?”
Neither Bradie nor her mother can pinpoint what compelled her interest in figure skating at the age of 2½. But once she got on the ice, Bradie didn’t want to come off.
Ice time often came early in the morning, and Jeannie would ask, “Do you want to go skating?”
Bradie would always say, “Yes!” and jump out of bed.
But ice time was pricy — and precious. If Bradie was chatting too much, Jeannie would push her to keep skating.
Not a pushy sports parent, Jeannie wanted Bradie to have fun and work hard but also wouldn’t allow her to make excuses.
Jeannie certainly didn’t.
Jeannie’s bitter divorce with Bradie’s father was finalized when Bradie was 16 years old, and he’s not a part of her or her two brothers’ lives. Jeannie often worked two shifts as a nurse, and the four of them once lived in a two-bedroom, one-bathroom apartment.
“We faced our fair share of challenges,” Bradie says. “But I’m proud of the way I was raised, and I’m proud of my mom. She had a huge — huge — role in everything. After a tough day at the rink, I can count on my brothers to make me laugh and my mother to give me support.”
Bradie projected her future in a drawing when she was seven years old. She was atop an Olympic podium, flanked by two of her role models, Michelle Kwan and Sasha Cohen.
Who gets the gold?
“Oh, I was on top, obviously,” Bradie quietly but confidently says. “I was thinking, ‘Someday I’ll get there. Someday I’ll get there. …’ ”
But Bradie didn’t obsess about the Olympics or competition finishes. She says a key for her is that she just had a passion and love for the sport.
Not that she had much of a choice early on.
In fact, when she looked at the results sheets, Bradie started looking for her name from the bottom.
“She was never the best,” Jeannie told Team USA in February. “I taught her to congratulate the winner even when you come in last place or wherever you come in, and she did those kinds of things.”
Bradie started to train with Denise Myers when she was 9, and she won her first competition at the age of 10. Bradie’s first notable medal was a novice bronze at the 2013 U.S. Championships.
When she was 12, she was among the 12 to compete at the “Big Nationals,” which included senior competitors.
“I was happy I didn’t finish last,” says Bradie, who placed ninth.
In 2015, at the U.S. Championships, Bradie won the junior gold medal by more than 16 points. Her confidence soared.
But just as quickly, her momentum halted when she was diagnosed with a stress fracture in her back. She had to wear an uncomfortable back brace for three months. Even worse, she couldn’t be on the ice; her longest break away from skating was a two-week vacation with her family years earlier.
“I was bored and so down in the dumps,” she says. “I thought everyone would be so much better than me when I returned. I thought, ‘This is terrible.’ “
Shortly after her return, Tennell suffered another back injury.
“It was this crushing feeling,” she says. “I was like, ‘What did I do wrong? Why did this happen two years in a row?’ ”
They were dark times for Bradie, with lots of tears and heart-to-hearts with her mother.
“My mom did everything in her power to keep me skating and looking on the bright side,” Bradie says, “and she also had to provide for us. It was a really rough point in my life.”
After another three months off the ice, Bradie had four months to prepare for Nationals. She worked as much as her body would allow, mindful not to push herself too hard and suffer yet another injury. She finished a disappointing ninth.
She recalls feeling as if an angel and devil were on her shoulders, trying to get in her head.
“But deep down,” she says, “I had that hope. That ruled my drive to get better.”
In January, Bradie had a near-perfect free skate, and she outshined more heralded competitors to claim the national title. Then, at the Olympics, she sizzled and helped the U.S. win the team bronze medal.
The medal ceremony was in the mountains in South Korea, and the temperatures were frigid.
“It felt like the arctic tundra,” she says. “But I saw the American flag, and I thought, ‘This is the moment I dreamed about since I was 5.’ I’m still speechless.
“How do you describe a lifetime of dreaming and pouring your heart into the sport, and achieving that goal?”
In the ladies’ singles, though, Bradie was disappointed, particularly with her short program. She fell on her opening combo, something she hadn’t done in quite some time.
But she rebounded, with a strong long program, and she placed ninth, highest among her U.S. teammates.
“I didn’t give up,” she says. “I fought for everything. I was proud of that.”
I never think about the medals. I think about what I want to achieve.
- Bradie Tennell, U.S. figure skating champion
Afterward, she received a phone call from Peggy Fleming, and Scott Hamilton heralded her mental toughness.
“She is a machine,” 1998 Olympic gold medalist and NBC analyst Tara Lipinski said after Tennell’s performance. “She has nerves of steel.”
Figure skating — for both males and females — has a long history of competitors that succumb to pressure. But Bradie is proud to be known for her resilience and toughness, and she attributes it to her mentality.
“I never think about the medals,” she says. “I think about what I want to achieve. I feel that’s a much less stressful way to look at it. If I say, ‘I want to win.’ Well, it’s a subjective sport. I can’t control what the judges see. So I want to focus on performing the way I practice.”
Bradie says she does not pay attention to what her competitors are doing or saying, removing herself from social media leading up to competitions.
“The sport is 90 percent mental and 10 percent physical,” Bradie says. “At these big competitions, you put blinders on and focus on yourself. Don’t mind that thousands are watching, and what other skaters did before you. You can’t control it, and worrying about it doesn’t do any good.”
Naturally, Bradie’s mom modeled that perspective for her.
“I would go to her, and I would be like, ‘Mom, so and so has this jump,’ Bradie recalls. “She said, ‘And? Well, that jump is better. But you worry about your jump.’ I would say, ‘Mom, you’re supposed to be on my side here!’ ”
But Jeannie has never left Bradie’s side.
Bradie couldn’t have achieved her Olympic dream without her mom’s all-all-encompassing support. And though she may have lacked in material things, the now 20-year-old Bradie has no regrets about missed devices and dresses.
“There were things that were out of reach,” Bradie says, “but she did the best she could, and now that I’m older, I can appreciate her sacrifices, and I’m glad I didn’t get those things.”