Bradie Tennell just — does — not — fall.
And she didn’t fall this time either: the 20-year-old made her Olympic debut on Sunday afternoon in the figure skating team event at the 2018 Winter Games in South Korea. (Just as she began, a small child was heard chanting “USA, USA, USA.”)
Skating third in the ladies’ short program at the Gangneung Ice Arena, Tennell quickly leapt to the top of the leaderboard with as technically confident a skate as she has given all season.
“I’m really happy,” she told reporters, all smiles, after competing. “I don’t think I could have asked for a better first program at the Olympics.”
Tennell’s total score of 68.94 was her best all year and kept her in the No. 1 spot for much of the competition, until a succession of skaters from Canada, Italy, Japan and Russia bumped her to fifth — but she was still good enough to keep the U.S. in third overall at the team event as they head into the second half.
She was hamstrung, however, by the component score of her program, which measures composition, interpretation and performance, among other elements, and includes judgment of a skater’s artistry.
But Tennell’s technical score alone — the other half of her total score, measuring how she executed elements of her short program such as her jumps and spins — was the second best of the group, behind only Russia.
Asked what she was thinking just before she began to skate, she tells PEOPLE: “‘You’ve done this program a million times, it’s just a million and one.’ “
Meanwhile France’s Maé-Bérénice Méité earned notice of her own skating to a combination of Beyoncé’s “Halo” and “Run the World (Girls).” Though she ended in ninth, she told Cosmopolitan of her music choice: “[It] is crazy, wild, and fun. You can just dance to it, and that’s how I am.”
Ever focused and succinct, Tennell says there was no thought to how she might juice up the artistic parts of her program: “No, you know here when I’m competing, I just go on autopilot. I compete like I train.”
“I get butterflies right before my music starts, but then when my music starts I kind of go on autopilot and just lose myself,” she told reporters, noting that it “felt like I was doing another program at a practice session.” (Beforehand, Tennell was seen listening to what she later explained was a mix of ’80s rock songs — some of her favorites — such as AC/DC and Boston.)
Tennell’s mother, Jean Tennell, watched her from the arena seating though they had not yet met up when Bradie spoke with reporters after her skate. “But I know she’s here supporting me,” Bradie said.
Essentially an unknown to the broader public a year ago, Bradie, a native of the Chicago area, made her first big splash in the sport with a third-place finish at Skate America in November. She followed that up in January with a first-place victory at the national skating championships, making her one of Team USA’s best shots at a medal in figure skating this year.
“I was injured the past two years, so it really took a toll on my skating and my consistency,” she said on Sunday, adding, “Now being healthy this entire year has really made a huge difference.”
Mom Jean, a nurse, was crucial as she healed, Bradie said: “When I was down, she was there to pick me up, and her support really got me through that.”
Did Bradie ever doubt, amidst her injury, that she would see success?
The 2018 Winter Olympics are airing live on NBC. To learn more, visit teamusa.org.