Bradie Tennell saved the best for last.
The final skater in the ladies' short program Thursday night at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships, Tennell was sensational on competitive ice, scoring a 79.40 - a competition record - to lead by three points over two-time and reigning U.S. winner Alysa Liu.
The national championships are being held without fans in attendance at Orleans Arena in Las Vegas.
Liu has a four-point advantage (76.36) over Mariah Bell, the Skate America champ, in third at 72.37. Former U.S. champ and PyeongChang 2018 Olympian Karen Chen was fourth, at 70.99 and Amber Glenn just behind that, at 70.83, in fifth.
The ladies and pairs kicked things off on Thursday, with ice dance teams set to hit get underway on Friday and the men - featuring two-time world champ Nathan Chen - skating over the weekend.
Earlier in the day, Skate America champions Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier were the top of the class in the pairs short program, skating to a comfortable lead with a pleasing 77.46 score.
Ten out of Tennell: Bradie's big night
Without coach Tom Zakrajsek in attendance with her in Vegas, Tennell had the pressure on her shoulders as Bell, who skated earlier, turned in a strong performance before Liu was close to exceptional in her own short program.
As the 17th and final skater of the ladies' event, Tennell didn't let any of that impact her: She nailed an opening double Axel to calm her nerves, then flowed through a triple Lutz-triple toeloop combination and triple flip, clad in a slick black body suit and looking the part of a skating warrior in her Florence and the Machine-themed program.
"I went out there and attacked it," Tennell, the 2018 winner at this event, told reporters. "I’m happy with everything that has gone on this year that I put together a performance I’m proud of."
While Tennell is the short program leader for a fourth consecutive year, the last two years it's been Liu who had been able to overcome her older compatriot, the 2019 and 2020 winner armed with quad jumps and a triple Axel. But Liu has struggled with those big jumps in the recent months as the 15 year old has gained some three inches in height (7.6cm) and had a hip injury to boot.
No matter, however, as she delivered a triple flip, double Axel and triple Lutz-triple toe combo that was far and away the skate of the night until Tennell stepped onto the ice. Not yet a senior in the international ranks, Liu had lacked confidence at virtual events over the past few months without her trademark jumps, making this performance all that much sweeter.
She said: "I’m really happy with how I skated... I'm glad I (skated) how I have been in practice. This is my first live competition and my last (of the season)… it's a little strange, but I’m really happy that I got perform."
Bell 'disappointed'; Glenn tries triple Axel
There was plenty to talk about beyond the top two skaters on Friday night, with Bell, who had won Skate America in October in this very same venue, appearing just a tad bit nervous as her program came to a close.
"I am honestly pretty disappointed, I had a mistake on my Lutz that I honestly never make," said Bell, who received a -1.06 Grade of Execution (GOE) for her triple Lutz, her final jump of the program. Bell, known for her strong program components, received a level three on her step sequence, another loss of points that put her in third.
"I'm really looking forward to the long program," she added, confirming that she'll have a new dress for the skate having worn her short program outfit at Skate America due to a fitting mishap.
While Liu is currently without her triple Axel, Glenn did try hers, having landed a beauty of one in the six-minute warm-up. She stood up on the jump but was downgraded on it, meaning it only held points of a double Axel.
It was also a strong night for Chen, who has taken the year off from Cornell, saying she feels as though she's coming into her own as a skater and stronger for making her own decisions: "I left home and I'm living by myself and have this new found realization that I'm doing this for myself. I'm motivating myself... making decisions... I'm discovering more about me."
Each of Bell, Chen and Glenn are within less than two points of one another.
Pairs: Knierim/Frazier carry momentum from Skate America
“We did our job. It feels really good.”
Those were the words of Knierim after she and still-new partner Frazier skated to a 77.46 behind a strong short program, set to a cover of Linkin Park’s “In the End.”
The team, which joined forces in March of 2020 and won gold at Skate America just seven months later, are six points ahead of training partners Jessica Calalang and Brian Johnson, Calalang having fallen on their side-by-side triple Salchows. They scored a 71.30.
Audrey Lu and Misha Mitrofanov are in third with a 69.56, while 2019 U.S. champions Ashley Cain Gribble and Timothy LeDuc are fourth, at 65.81.
“We’ve worked so hard, I can’t even describe what we’ve put in to get here. The drills, the programs... even with all of that work and positive training that we came here with, you still are a competitor and an athlete and you have doubts when you hit that starting pose,” Knierim, a 2018 Olympic team bronze medallist with husband Chris, said. “I looked at Brandon and was like, ‘I need you.’ He said, ‘I need you, too.’”
Knierim/Frazier opened their program with a massive triple twist, which received a level four and a grade of execution (GOE) of +2.40. They were strong in their side-by-side triple toe loops as well as a throw triple loop, and ended the program with a dynamic lift that had Knierim acrobatically spinning over Frazier’s shoulder.
Like in the ladies’ discipline, the U.S. has only two allotted spots for pairs teams at the World Championships in Stockholm in March, should they go forward as planned.
Added Frazier: “Even when we’re under pressure... no matter how well trained you are, there still is that uncomfortable competitive feeling you get. We stayed locked in; we trusted one another. We got the job done... that feels good. This is experience for the bigger picture.”