Rising star Bradie Tennell continued her breakout season by winning the women's short program Wednesday night at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships.
Tennell saved the best short program of her career for the most important event. With takeoffs and landings so soft a butterfly would be envious, her 2-minute, 40-second program floated by. She scored 73.79 points.
Tennell was third at Skate America just months after finishing seventh in world juniors. She was ninth in the U.S. Championships a year ago, so her rise has been quick at a time when many of her peers have been faltering.
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Mirai Nagasu, the 2008 U.S. champion and a 2010 Olympian who was passed over for the team four years ago, finished second, .7 behind Tennell. Defending champion Karen Chen, who has had a poor campaign, reversed that as the final skater and was third.
The top three skaters at nationals won't necessarily make the Olympic team for Pyeongchang. The federation uses a system that takes into account more than one event.
But Tennell, Nagasu and Chen clearly were the standouts on opening night.
"I'd say the biggest feeling right now is pride," Tennell said. "I'm very proud of how far I've come this year, overcoming my injuries and just the technical aspect of things."
Earlier in the day, 1998 Olympic champion Tara Lipinski pegged Tennell as the skater to watch.
"Bradie has not missed one jump," Lipinski said. "She has the mental strength that maybe seems to be lacking in some of these ladies."
Had Nagasu landed her triple axel — she's one of the few women who tries the 3 1/2-rotation jump — she almost certainly would be on top. But she stepped forward out of it.
The rest of her routine was spot-on, and the 24-year-old Nagasu was thrilled with her performance.
"This is my dream and what I have been trying for," she said. "And when you work for something for so long, it means so much, and when you are expected to deliver at that moment, it is hard.
"I was so nervous and I fight against my nerves. I feel so good; it takes so much to go out there and to still be here, it takes a lot. I'm happy I'm still out there fighting."
The presumptive favorite at nationals was three-time champion Ashley Wagner, the 2016 world silver medalist. The 26-year-old Wagner has been fighting it for most of the season, though, and her short program was riddled with errors.
Wagner messed up the second part of her combination jump, losing balance, and while her program was lively and seductive, the judges weren't impressed. She stood fifth heading into Friday night's free skate.
"I think that the great thing about nationals is that this is some really fair judging," Wagner said, "and I shouldn't get rewarded for things that aren't there.
"I'm happy and for me I'm a long-program skater and that's where I make my money. I'm not too far behind and I know what I need to do going into Friday."
Chen certainly is in good position for the Olympic team; the games begin on Feb 9. Her season has been a huge disappointment, but Chen was smooth and graceful for 69.48 points.
"I was extremely nervous. The short program is something I always put a great deal of pressure on myself because you want to put yourself in good position," she said. "To be able to skate a close-to-clean performance, I am extremely happy with that, and it was a solid base for Friday."
Just behind Chen was Angela Wang with 67.00 points.
Polina Edmunds, a 2014 Olympian who has slumped since, was the first of the 22 skaters in the short program. She skated cleanly, but with little flair, and finished seventh.