U.S. figure skater Bradie Tennell can't remember the last time she fell — until today

By Adam Carlson
February 20, 2018 09:13 PM

U.S. figure skater Bradie Tennell can’t remember the last time she fell — until today.

The 20-year-old was the very first competitor to take the ice for the start of the women’s figure skating event in the 2018 Winter Olympics on Wednesday morning (Tuesday night stateside).

Basically an unknown outside her sport a year ago, Tennell catapulted into the public eye with a third-place finish at Skate America in the fall.

She followed that with a win at the national figure skating championships in January, essentially guaranteeing her a spot on Team USA.

Until this week Tennell, a Chicago-area native, handled the growing competitive pressure and spotlight with the same calm that has distinguished her career in recent months — exemplified by her jumps, landed over and over and over again.

In the skating team event’s ladies’ short program, she placed fifth with a season’s best, helping the Americans ultimately earn a bronze. (Her artistry, in the judges’ eyes, is less compelling than her technical prowess.)

But when she returned to South Korea’s Gangneung Ice Arena for her individual event, she made an uncharacteristic mistake, falling on the second jump in her short program.

Figure skater Bradie Tennell during her short program in the women's individual event at the 2018 Winter Olympics

Before that slip, she told reporters afterward, she couldn’t recall the last time she had fallen. And despite her stumble, Tennell remained succinct and forward-looking.

“I could tell that something was just a little off,” she said of the fall. “And things happen, we’re all human. You make mistakes, so you just gotta get up and keep going.”

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Figure skater Bradie Tennell during her short program in the women's individual event at the 2018 Winter Olympics
MLADEN ANTONOV/AFP/Getty

“My timing was just a little off and my left arm got a little away from me, so I wasn’t able to get the snap,” she explained. She realized the issue coming out of her first jump, in the fractions of a second before the next.

Tennell said going first in the event was its own challenge, but one to overcome like all the others.

“I’m not very fond of skating first, but that’s kind of what you train for,” she said. “And you know, I practice it a bunch of times and you’ve just got to go out there and do what you can do.”

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With a total score of 64.01 for her short program, Tennell remained in first place as the rest of the event continued into Wednesday afternoon.

However, that result was already several points lower than her score in the team event, which placed her fifth, complicating her chances of being on or near the women’s podium.

Not that she was thinking about that after she skated: “I like to take things one step at a time and whatever happens, happens.”

Even Tennell’s morning beforehand had been uneventful from the rest, with a bowl of Corn Flakes and, later, Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” in her headphones, she said. (Belying her age, Tennell has a passion for ’70s and ’80s rock.)

She also got some time to spend with her mom, nurse Jean, before competing, she tells PEOPLE. Her family, including her two younger brothers, was also seen cheering her on from the stands.

Figure skater Bradie Tennell during her short program in the women's individual event at the 2018 Winter Olympics

Should Tennell qualify for the ladies’ free skate on Friday, which seems nearly certain, her family will be right back to support her.

And she’ll be back on the ice, looking for a return to form.

The fall was “a setback, but it’s important to not dwell on things like that,” she said, “and I’m just looking forward to the free skate.”

The 2018 Winter Olympics are airing live on NBC. To learn more, visit teamusa.org.

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