Carpentersville native Tennell in position for run at Olympic gold
She has no idea how it all began.
But Bradie Tennell is pretty sure that her figure skating career, which started two decades ago when she was 2 years old, is getting closer to reaching her end game.
Tennell, a native of Carpentersville, wants to be an Olympic champion in 2022.
And last week at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Las Vegas, Tennell, freshened up by a new coach and a change of scenery, won her second national title since 2018, and gave what many experts called a "near flawless" performance.
"It's the best I've ever skated, and to be a national champion a year out from the 2022 Olympics is a pretty good position to be in," Tennell, 22, said of her performance. "I just relaxed and stayed in the moment and I allowed myself to really enjoy my performance."
It kind of felt like the old days for Tennell, currently ranked the No. 2 figure skater in the world by the International Skating Union. Make that the old, old days when she was first getting started and skated simply because she just loved it.
"I remember being on the ice for hours and hours and hours, dancing around to the music, having fun," Tennell said. "I just loved it. I'd be there so long I'd have to wear three pairs of gloves and a hat." Tennell remembers idolizing and mimicking skating greats such as Kristi Yamaguchi and Michelle Kwan as she got older. But, for the life of her, Tennell can't remember the earliest days and how exactly she got started, or why.
"I have no idea how I even figured out what figure skating is," said Tennell, the oldest of three children in a family where skating wasn't a thing until she made it one, and then younger brothers Austin and Shane followed suit by getting involved in hockey.
"I just remember I was really young. Maybe I saw something on TV, I'm not sure. All I know is that I would run up to my mom every day when she got home from work and I would beg her to take me to an ice rink."
That first ice rink, with Tennell showing up barely out of diapers, was in Crystal Lake.
Eventually, at around age 10, Tennell was training regularly in Buffalo Grove with elite coach Denise Myers.
Tennell won her first nationals championship under Myers in 2018, and that same year, she helped the United States win the team bronze medal at the 2018 Olympics in Pyeongchang.
But in the time since then, Tennell has fallen short in some major performances and felt that she had become stagnant and stale.
So Tennell sought out a fresh voice. She had heard good things about Tom Zakrajsek, who has coached multiple national champions and is based in Colorado Springs.
"At first, I went to Colorado to work with Tom, just to get some help with my jumps," Tennell said. "I was there for a few days and I realized that I really, really liked it. I liked how he was teaching me and what he was teaching me.
"It was different from what I was used to. I just knew in my bones that I was supposed to be there."
Tennell, who recently moved to Colorado and is apart from her mother and brothers for the first time, says she notices a difference in her approach to skating, a difference in her mentality and confidence, and all of that showed in the way she performed last week in Las Vegas.
"Bradie has always been known as reliable and consistent but she came to me telling me that she was feeling that there was always just that one thing that would keep her from doing a clean program under pressure," Zakrajsek said. "There was always something, she would say. So, we made some changes to her training and Bradie was very open to new ideas and drills. She's never said no to anything. She's not interested in the status quo. She wants to be better as a skater and as an artist.
"She's always been very good. But now, I think we're seeing Bradie 2.0. She's become a different skater."
Yet, at the same time, Tennell says that she is still that kid at heart, dying to go to the rink to skate and dance to the music for hours, wearing three pairs of gloves.
She believes her unwavering enthusiasm, coupled with the lessons she's learned from Zakrajsek and her growing maturity bode well for an Olympic run next year.
"In 2018, I was the fresh face, like a kid in a candy shop who was looking around at everything with those big doe eyes. Everything I saw was so cool," Tennell said. "Now, I'm more experienced in both skating and in life. I'm more sure of myself and I know the ropes better. I'll come in with a plan, and I'll stick with it. That's part of growing up."