For one particular first-time Olympian and figure skater, going to the Winter Olympics is a dream she wouldn't have predicted three years ago. It seems fitting then that for Bradie Tennell's free skate in the 2018 Olympics, the 20-year-old chose music from Cinderella, the 2015 live-action movie. She wasn't the face or golden girl of U.S. figure skating for most of the years leading up to her Olympic debut. The tenacious skater had to overcome the odds — a career plagued by by injuries — and was a relative unknown until she was crowned the 2018 U.S. National Champion in January.
Figure skating commentator and two-time Olympian Johnny Weir has described "consistency" as Tennell's greatest strength. He may have been surprised then to see Tennell make an uncharacteristic fall in her short program at the women's individual competition. She would enter the free skate in 10th place, well away from podium territory.
"Dealing with this pressure, these expectations she’s never, ever had to deal with before is really hard for such an inexperienced skater as Bradie at an international level,” said Tara Lipinski, a figure skating commentator and Olympic gold medalist. “Sometimes it takes years for skaters at an international level to be able to handle this.”
But Tennell, dubbed the Cinderella story by NBC, put in a cleaner skate on Thursday night and will still leave PyeongChang with the highest placement for Team USA's women skaters.
Tennell will also take home a bronze medal in the Olympics figure skating team event. The national champ had never been to a major international competition until this year’s Winter Games. Then in her debut in PyeongChang, she skated a nearly flawless short program that helped the United States secure a third place finish in the team competition.
So how did Tennell, once considered an unlikely contender for the Olympic team, become the dark horse in U.S. figure skating? Six weeks ago, she was hardly a household name in the figure skating community, unlike Ashley Wagner, the most recognizable skater from the 2014 Sochi team.
Tennell, who hails from the Chicago area, began skating at age 2, but had a pronation problem that caused her to trip over herself and unable to jump on two feet, her mother, Jeannie, told Hollywood Life. Jeannie gave her daughter a jump rope so she could work on her coordination. And it must have worked: Tennell rose up in the figure skating ranks, all the way to winning the U.S. Junior Championship in 2015.
Before she could make her senior debut, Tennell suffered from stress fractures in her back that put her on the sidelines with a back brace. Her return to skating led to another stress fracture and another back brace. She began competing again in the 2016 season, but she struggled to return to top form after the break in her momentum.
Then, in 2017, her first year as a senior competitor, Tennell started propelling herself to Olympic team potential. She placed third at her first Grand Prix event. Then she won the U.S. National Championship, punching her ticket to PyeongChang.
“I get butterflies right before my music starts, but then when my music starts, I go on autopilot," Tennell said after her team event skate, reported USA Today.
Her fairytale journey still comes with a few tumbles. The skater who hardly falls botched her triple toe loop combination in the Olympics short program. Still, she came back with a better free skate, capping off her Olympic competition with a program set to the score of Cinderella, a film that features Tennell's favorite Disney princess. When she was 3 years old, Tennell would come home every day from ballet or ice skating lessons and put on her Cinderella Halloween costume, Jeannie Tennell told the Team USA organization. Jeannie recalled: "She had a little crown, the white gloves and she just loved the story of Cinderella and that she was a hard worker. She knew hard work gets your dreams.”