Bradie Tennell: "This is just the beginning"

February 9, 2023
By Reut Golinsky
Photo © Tina Tyan

These have been the toughest twenty months in Bradie Tennell's career. We haven't seen her skate since the 2021 World Team Trophy, her foot injury prevented her from competing the whole season after that and fighting for the spot in the U.S. Olympic team. Last summer she made a sudden coaching change and moved to Nice to work with Cédric Tour. The new season started with more withdrawals - from the Japan Open and the Budapest Trophy. When she finally arrived to compete at the MK John Wilson Trophy, there were so many questions to ask and so much curiosity about what was going on.
After Bradie finished her official practice, we agreed to meet in the mixed zone and have an interview after her free skate. Three days later I was going to the mixed zone not knowing what to expect. The competition was, frankly, a disaster for her, she finished last, far from the comeback skate she was dreaming of, she'll admit later during our interview. I was ready to see someone upset and broken and, understandably, not willing to talk. I couldn't be more wrong as I found a fighter, someone realistic about her present but optimistic about her future.

The beginning of the season was not easy for you, as you hoped things would finally get back to normal, but then there was setback after setback, withdrawal after withdrawal...

Yes, I came to Benoît Richaud's camp in the last week of July and then I went to the Champs Camp in August (an invitation-only camp for high performance athletes organised by U.S. Figure Skating - ed). I was slowly making progress. I basically started training for the season in the beginning of August, this is when I would say the hard training started. I was already late, but I was just taking it day by day, week by week. I switched to the AURA skates, and I've absolutely loved them; it's a new company based in Canada, and they're fantastic, they're so light, so comfortable, I love them. So, I switched to their skates, I figured some things out with them, and everything was great. The training was going really well during September. I was skating clean short programs every single day, in my free skates I was making maybe one small error. I was feeling good heading into the Japan Open and then the day before I left for Japan I picked [toe pick preceding a jump] weirdly for a triple toe, and something went wrong... I had to withdraw and take some time off.

I tried to get back on... Each time it felt: "Maybe I can do it?" And then: "No, I can't..." And so, I had to take more time off. It's been this back and forth for the past month until last week I got back on, everything felt good and then I finally started doing all my jumps again at the beginning of this week. This wasn't what I had in mind for my comeback skate, just like last year when I made plans and the universe said: 'Ha-ha, no!'

It's hard mentally and it's hard physically. It's hard mentally because I know what I'm capable of and it's hard for me to feel all right with myself after having put out a skate like that. It's hard to be kind to myself and say: "No, that's okay, given these extenuating circumstances this is okay. This is the beginning; you must start somewhere. And even though it's not what you've been dreaming about for the past year and a half - or almost two years - it is what it is, and you'll get to grow." All last year there was really hardly anything I wouldn't have given to be able to even just go out and skate like that. Looking at it in the big picture, for me it's a very positive step. Because just stepping on the ice here I've already made it.

I hope you also felt that you were welcomed back, by fans and journalists. We all were very happy to see you.

Yes, I have to say that the fan reception here has been amazing, I feel so welcomed back. it's so nice hearing my name and I can feel that people are excited for me. It's something very special because I think people know how much I want to do this. I'm very excited and then for them to also be excited for me is awesome. And, yes, my team members, my teammates, the people surrounding me are so positive for me and everyone is very in my corner, I feel so blessed to have that. Their support really has made all the difference, not only helping me to take that first step to coming back to high level competition but also to being okay [with the skate I had]. Everyone knew that this wasn't going to be some kind of miracle, that this was going to be difficult for me and then to have my team leader come up to me and say: "Listen, this was really good..." While objectively it was not good, I fell three times!

You mentioned that it wasn't how you imagined your comeback skate, but in life it rarely happens immediately like in the movies: she gets back and wins her gold medal. The process is slower but, in a way, healthier, you have more time to adjust.

Exactly! It is an adjustment. Every time I step on the ice, I ask myself to be the best I can possibly be and today that's what I did. I know I can land all my jumps out of my program. The difficult part is putting them in the program together with everything else, with the spins, the steps, the artistry and then trying to perform it all. That's the fun part for me, so I'm looking forward to getting back to Nice and training that aspect of it, because I love my programs. Benoît put so much thought into creating this concept for me, and I've worked really hard on my artistry to bring it to a level where I can effectively portray the concept that I'm trying to this year. I can't wait to work, work, work to get it up to the level that I know I can bring it to.

You've been working with Benoît for many years now, right? I think in a way you are one of those skaters who brought him into the spotlight.

Yeah, sometimes I joke with him: "Benoît, you and me, we made each other!" It was the spring of 2017, so nearly six years now. I met him at the Junior Worlds in Taiwan. I met him in front of the ice rink, on the street corner, and I even remember exactly what he was wearing because he terrified me. He was very tall, he had a gold earring in his ear and he was wearing all black: a black fedora, a really long black trench coat, black pants and black platform shoes. I thought: "Who is this and what vampire movie did he step out of?" But then I got to know him better. It was clear right from the beginning that he could bring something special to my skating. I'm so grateful that he saw me and agreed to work with me, because he totally transformed my skating and now I can't even imagine my skating or my career without him.

Saying all that have you ever considered working with some other choreographer, even if for the show program?

Actually last year I was going to have my exhibition program done by somebody else but then I didn't get to use it. But for my competition programs there's nobody else that I would trust more than him. He always has the most innovative ideas, he puts so much thought and effort into creating something that stylistically challenges me but also brings out the best in me. Year after year he's proven that he really understands my skating and me as a person.

I wonder how this creative process you have usually works? He comes to you and says: "Listen, there is this crazy idea we haven't tried yet"?

It's interesting for me because there's no possible way I could understand how his mind works, that's the thing about crazy and genius, they go together. We collaborate, he will send me [musical] pieces that he thinks I'll like and most often I do like them. If I don't like something, he'll say: "Okay, we don't do this" and will send me something else. We will keep options in mind and then we sit on it a little bit, then we try stuff out, see what we vibe with and take it from there.

Do you usually start from a certain theme and then try to find music for it? For example, with your free skate this season?

Actually, it was a fun story. I had wanted to skate to the "Four Seasons" a few years ago and we wound up doing something else instead. This year I had it in the back of my mind: maybe I should bring up the "Four Seasons" again? And then literally the very next morning Benoît texted me: "What do you think about doing the 'Four Seasons'?" And my reaction was: "How do you do this? Do you read my mind or something?" So, it was really funny. We just seem to be on the same wavelength when it comes to such things. When he told me he had this idea about advocating for climate change and editing Greta [Thunberg]'s voice I loved it. I think it's so special, and it's important to me to do this program justice, because I feel it can be so much bigger than just skating.

For me that's a responsibility but also there's so much joy that I feel when I skate, and I want that to show in my program. I want to look like I'm having fun but I also love being able to slip into the character that I'm trying to portray. It's so challenging but it's the fun part for me. I'm so happy to be back and being able to skate and train and do what I love and have this team around me, it's all I could ask for, honestly.

This season must feel easier for all U.S. girls, because the pressure to make the team during the Olympic season is intense. This season it's probably easier to take your time and enjoy what you do. Last season the timing of your injury was unfortunate, but in a way the timing of coming back this season is probably good - imagine all this happening one year earlier.

That's crazy, I think back to last year, the stress that I was feeling, the sleepless nights, the seemingly endless tears... I remember laying in my bed staring at the ceiling and thinking: "What am I going to do? This is an impossible position to be in..." Early enough in the year I really thought that it was still a possibility for me to skate at Nationals. I was determined: "I have to keep trying, I have to give it everything." At that point I still never received a diagnosis on what was wrong. I thought that I had to at least try everything I could think of, so that if this situation becomes permanent and I can't skate again, I can go out knowing that I've done absolutely every single thing I could think of and allow myself that peace. Thank goodness that wasn't the case and I'm able to skate again but there were so many times I didn't think that this would be a possibility. And now, sitting here after my first event in 20 months I feel so light, this pressure in my chest that's been living there for so long - it's gone! I'm so excited about everything and I'm so motivated to get back and work and show everyone that I'm still here, I'm not going anywhere. I have more things to do, definitely, and this is just the beginning.

Slowly but surely Bradie's performances this season were improving, both at her second Grand Prix event in Finland and at the Golden Spin of Zagreb. "I'm learning how to relish the small victories in the process of getting back to peak condition. I'm encouraged by the progress I've made in the last week and a half, and I'm excited to get home and continue training," she wrote in her Instagram post returning from Espoo.
She had more than a month of good training at her current base in Nice and came to the Nationals focused on finishing high enough to get on the Four Continents and/or Worlds team. Second in both segments and second overall, she was selected for both teams. "Obviously, I'm a little disappointed in my errors, but I think given how the season has gone and my road to competing again I have a lot to be proud of," she said after her free skate. Bradie definitely has a lot to be proud of and, like she told us in Sheffield, this is just the beginning.

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