When she was 10, Bradie Tennell was with her coach at a skating competition when they heard a mom talking to her daughter.
“The mom said, ‘That Bradie Tennell, she’ll never beat you,’ ” Tennell’s longtime coach, Denise Myers, recalled. “I was with Bradie and I turned to her and said: ‘Don’t worry about it. You can’t control that. You just be the best you can be.’ ”
Tennell won that competition.
The soft-spoken athlete competes in a powder-blue sequined ensemble to a delicate song titled “Cinderella.”
But make no mistake: She’s a fighter.
“I’m always striving to be better,” Tennell said. “My biggest competitor is myself.”
That grit and power — exemplified in her strong jumps — propelled the Carpentersville, Ill., resident to her first U.S. figure skating championship in January after a nearly flawless performance. Suddenly she’s a contender to win gold at the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea.
“I called her … a scrapper,” said Myers, who began training Tennell in Buffalo Grove, Ill., about 10 years ago. “She wouldn’t give up. She fought for what she wanted.”
Tennell was considered a little-known up-and-comer before winning bronze at Skate America in November.
“She is a machine,” 1998 Olympic gold medalist and NBC analyst Tara Lipinski said after Tennell’s performance. “She has nerves of steel. I have so much trust in her leading into these Olympic Games as a rookie.”
Since being named to the Olympic team, Tennell has been welcomed into figure skating’s inner circle.
She got a phone call from 1968 gold medalist Peggy Fleming. At an Olympic meet-and-greet event recently, a woman who said she was 1956 gold medalist Tenley Albright’s daughter gave Tennell a gold necklace of the Olympic rings she bought the 1972 Olympics with her mother.
Tennell said she plans to never remove the necklace.
She’s even been recognized around town by strangers — a flattering but unique experience for the homebody athlete who prefers reading and baking.
“I’m kind of dealing with it,” she said of the new attention. “I’ve gotten more used to it.”
While Tennell is being depicted as an overnight sensation heading into the Olympics, she has already endured significant trials in her career.
Tennell, 20, battled through two stress fractures in her back, causing her to wear a brace and sit out of skating for three-month stretches.
She made her mark as a rising star when she won the 2015 junior U.S. championships. But a few months later, Tennell suffered the back injury. She returned to place sixth in the 2016 nationals and 11th at the world juniors.
Another back injury sidelined her again. She returned in 2017 to place ninth at the nationals and seventh at the worlds.
Tennell said she knew the back problems wouldn’t stop her.
“I knew it wasn’t a career-ending injury,” she said. “People have come back from far worse.”
Tennell started skating when she was 2. Her mother would come home about 7 a.m. from her overnight shift as a nurse, and little Bradie would be eagerly waiting.
“She would meet me at the door and say, ‘Mommy, please take me ice skating,’ ” Jean Tennell said. “I have no idea where she got that idea. It just became repetitive. ‘When can we go?’ She wasn’t going to let up on it.”
Jean looked up a rink in the telephone book and found Crystal Ice House in Crystal Lake, Ill.
“She took me skating, and I’ve never wanted to stop,” Bradie Tennell said.
Jean Tennell, who also has two teenage sons who play hockey, said she never pressured her daughter into competition.
“I wasn’t one of those moms going: ‘Come on. You’ve got to go. Do you want to make the Olympics?’ ” she said. “Never, ever, ever did I talk like that. I’m a mom who never says, ‘No, you can’t do that.’ I say: ‘Anything is possible. They’re going to send someone. Why not you?’ ”
Bradie Tennell credits her mom for shuffling her to lessons and helping her pursue her dream. She calls her mom her role model and “No. 1 supporter.”
“There were many sacrifices,” said Tennell, who was home-schooled and has taken online college courses. “She works nights so that she could be home with us during the day. She’s skipped meals. She’s gone without sleep. I can’t even begin to name all of the things.”
After Tennell started competing, her mother connected with Myers about 10 years ago to become her daughter’s coach. Tennell’s consistency with her coach and rink is not exactly common among Olympians, who switch coaches as they excel and often move to other cities to train.
Myers has coached competitive skaters for more than 30 years, including Lake Forest’s Megan Hyatt, who won the 2006 junior title. But Tennell is her first Olympian.
Tennell has skated most of her life at Twin Rinks in Buffalo Grove. She now starts most mornings by teaching lessons to young children at the rink before her own practices.
After winning the national title and earning her way onto the Olympic team, supporters at the rink hung long white poster paper where fans wrote messages to Tennell. In multicolored markers, hearts were drawn and dozens of messages read:
“So amazed and proud of you. Hope you have the time of your life at the Olympics.” “Enjoy every moment.” “You did so great and we are all so excited.”
Tennell said she has remained with her coach and rink for a simple reason.
“I have a lot of memories when I was younger watching the bigger kids,” she said. “I would watch them do triples and think I want to do that one day. I loved how fast everybody moved. When I came here, I was not very good. I found inspiration in them.”
Before competitions, Tennell said she doesn’t get nervous. Her coach doesn’t think the lofty Olympic expectations will frazzle her.
“I don’t think she’s overly concerned about expectations from anybody else,” Myers said. “She has a standard she set for herself, and together we know what she wants to accomplish. That’s what she’s shooting for.”
Tennell said she’s excited to experience the opening ceremony. Mostly, she said, she’s eager to compete again, adding:
“I’ve been working for it my entire life.”