Sports

JOHN POWERS | OLYMPICS

Can US women’s figure skating return to being a medal-winning machine?

The country that produced some of the all-time greats hasn’t had an Olympic champion since Sarah Hughes and Michelle Kwan won gold and bronze in 2002 in Salt Lake City.

Bradie Tennell, second from left, poses after winning the women's free skate event with second place finisher Mirai Nagasu, left, third place finisher Karen Chen, second from right, and fourth place finisher Ashley Wagner at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships in San Jose, Calif., Friday, Jan. 5, 2018. (AP Photo/Tony Avelar)
Tony Avelar/AP
Mirai Nagasu (left), Bradie Tennell, and Karen Chen will represent the US at the Winter Olympics with Ashley Wagner (right) serving as first alternate.

Ever since her mother made her a Cinderella dress for Halloween when she was 3, Bradie Tennell has identified with the fairy tale character. “I look like her,” says America’s new women’s figure skating champion. “It’s something I’ve always identified with. With all the struggles I’ve had in the past I felt like it was a good time to use the music.”

After finishing a distant ninth at last year’s nationals, the 19-year-old Tennell won this month’s event with an assured performance that suddenly made her a medal contender at next month’s Winter Olympics in South Korea.

Should Tennell make the PyeongChang podium she’ll end the longest drought for the United States in seven decades and become an instant role model for her young countrywomen.

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“Maybe they envision themselves up on that podium,” mused Peggy Fleming, whose 1968 triumph at Grenoble began the star-spangled renaissance in the wake of the 1961 plane crash that wiped out the entire American team. “It takes a lot of luck and mind-set to be able to be at that pressure-cooker level of competition. Not everybody can do it.”

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The country that produced an Albright and a Heiss, a Fleming and a Hamill, a Yamaguchi and a Lipinski, hasn’t had an Olympic champion since Sarah Hughes and Michelle Kwan won gold and bronze in 2002 in Salt Lake City. The women’s side of the sport now belongs to the Russians, who won their first gold medal on their Sochi home ice four years ago and are favored to repeat with two-time world titlist Evgenia Medvedeva, assuming that she recovers from her October foot fracture.

The Motherland, which once paid minimal attention to its women’s singles skaters, now has developed a deep and talented pipeline of teenagers who’ve won seven of the last nine world junior titles and who dominated this season’s senior Grand Prix circuit, placing 1-2 in the final with 15-year-old Alina Zagitova and 17-year-old Maria Sotskova and sweeping the junior podium.

“For the younger generation of skating there’s a huge culture difference between Russia and the US,” says Ashley Wagner, the three-time national champion and the only American world medalist since 2006. “They’re training these girls from a very young age at a very high elite level. It’s a hard thing for any American parent to wrap their heads around: My kid is going to give up their life at 5, 6, 7 for something that we don’t know if it’s going to pay off or not.”

Kristi Yamaguchi embraced Nancy Kerrigan (right) on the Olympic podium after winning gold and bronze, respectively, at the 1992 Winter Games.
Marcy Nighswander/AP/File 1992
Kristi Yamaguchi embraced Nancy Kerrigan (right) on the Olympic podium after winning gold and bronze, respectively, at the 1992 Winter Games.

For nearly half a century the golden payoff for US women was all but guaranteed. Between 1953 and 2006 they won 26 global and seven Olympic titles and five times placed two skaters on the podium at the Games.

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The Americans also claimed eight of the first 14 world junior championships with the likes of Elaine Zayak, Rosalynn Sumners, Tiffany Chin, and Kristi Yamaguchi, and swept the award stand in 2007 and 2008.

That medal machine since has broken down. The United States hasn’t claimed a junior medal in six years and failed to qualify for the last two senior Grand Prix Finals after winning the first three. For decades the junior ranks reliably provided future senior contenders, more recently Wagner, Mirai Nagasu, Rachael Flatt, and Gracie Gold.

But over the past decade only four domestic junior victors — Agnes Zawadzki, Gold, Polina Edmunds, and Tennell — have gone on to win a senior medal, and none of them has managed it at a world event, where the Russians have collected five over the last three seasons.

The difference, particularly with a scoring format that rewards risk, is technical daring and discipline. The Russians, who are pushed early to try challenging jump combinations, have those qualities in abundance. American skaters, brought up in a system that stressed athletic and artistic balance, largely have lacked them.

“They were rewarded for cleaner skates, which means if they do an easier jump and make a cleaner skate and have a more artistic program, that was rewarded,” said Tara Lipinski, whose 1997 victory made her the youngest world champion at 14. “Over the years it’s been stagnant. You haven’t had a skater that was pushed technically when they were really young to a certain point when they had to learn to be mature and become artistic, like what you’re seeing with 15-year-olds in Russia.”

Karen Chen was the 2017 US women’s champion.
Matthew Stockman/Getty Images
Karen Chen was the 2017 US women’s champion.
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With the Olympics on the horizon the Americans have scrambled to catch up to their Russian rivals. Tennell and Karen Chen both have triple lutz combinations in their short and long programs. And Nagasu, who was bypassed for Wagner for the 2014 team after finishing fourth at the 2010 Games, picked up the difficult triple axel at 24. “I’m not going to be afraid to make a mistake,” she said going into nationals, where Nagasu placed second after coming in fourth the last two years. “I’m not going to be afraid of failure.”

Performing under pressure has been an exceptional challenge for recent American contenders. Gold, who just missed a medal in Sochi, went into a tailspin last year and skipped this season to continue treatment for anxiety, depression, and an eating disorder. And Chen struggled with confidence problems after winning last year’s US crown.

“That’s when it all came over me,” said the 18-year-old. “It was overwhelming at first and that’s why I put so much pressure on myself this whole season because I wanted it so bad and I felt myself get tense every single time I thought about it. Obviously, that didn’t help at all.”

Chen, who was fighting a virus at the Olympic nationals, held it together with her confidence mantra: “I have to fight and I’m going to fight and I’m going to do this.” “I just kept repeating that over and over in my head until I believed it,” she said.

Tennell, who bounced back from fractured vertebrae that kept her off the ice for six months over two years, was a long shot coming into the season. “I knew it was an Olympic year and I knew that somebody has to go,” she figured. “So I just kind of kept it in the back of my mind all season.”

When her moment came in San Jose, Tennell submitted two clean programs with nary a wobble. It was a Cinderella story with a toe pick attached to the glass slippers. “I’m still kind of shocked,” she said.

If Tennell can keep her composure at Olympus, where golden carriages have turned into pumpkins for her countrywomen at the last three Games, she may be among royal company on the podium.

And since figure skating will be a morning event in PyeongChang, she won’t have to worry about a midnight deadline.

After winning the US crown, Tennell is now a medal contender at next month’s Winter Olympics in South Korea.
Matthew Stockman/Getty Images
After winning the US crown, Tennell is now a medal contender at next month’s Winter Olympics in South Korea.

John Powers can be reached at john.powers@globe.com.