“When I'm on the ice, that's kind of what I'm aiming for,” Tennell said after her performance. “But when I'm off the ice, I'm more introverted so it's not something that I'm used to, but I think I really enjoy it now when I'm on the ice.”
The 2018 champion looked more than comfortable in the spotlight during her near-flawless short program, surging past defending champion Alysa Liu to lead the standings.
Tennell earned 78.96 ahead of Liu’s 75.40 with last year’s bronze medallist Mariah Bell third on 73.22.
2014 Olympic team bronze medallist Gracie Gold returned to the event for the first time in two years after struggling with depression and finished in 13th after the short program.
Skating to music by Kirill Richter, Tennell rattled off impressive technical content including an opening triple Lutz-triple toe loop combination. That jumping pass fuelled the rest of her program.
“As soon as I landed the Lutz, toe, I was like, 'All right, I can do this,'” she said.
Ready to defend
Liu made history a year ago as the youngest American woman to claim a national title and the only one to land three triple Axels in a competition.
Her technical expertise gives her the ability to challenge the dominant Russian women and has turned a bright spotlight onto the 10th grader.
Though many see her as Team USA's best chance for a medal at Beijing 2022, it hasn’t translated into pressure for the reigning champion.
“I don't really worry about [defending my title],” she said in a pre-event teleconference. “I don't feel pressure that much right now of me. I think I've trained enough. I think I'm ready.”
Despite an error on her opening triple Axel, Liu finds herself very much within striking distance of Tennell and is satisfied with the start of her title defence.
“I was happy with how I performed,” she said in the post-event press conference. “I did make a few mistakes but you always learn from them. I’m going to stay focused for the long.”
Gold's comeback story
“It took a lot. It took a long time. It took a lot of hard work. And it took a lot of hard work with no result for a very long time, which that's the hard part of anything,” said Gold after her skate.
Gold, the 2014 and 2016 U.S. champion, scored 54.51 points after a short program which included a two-footed landing on her opening triple Lutz-double toe loop combo and a popped attempt on a triple loop.
“Oh, not very good,” she said bluntly when asked to assess her performance afterwards. “I guess that seems kind of like a silly question.”
Despite her assessment of the performance, the crowd on hand in the Greensboro Coliseum stood at the end of her program, clearly acknowledging how far she’s come and what it’s taken for Gold, who has been open about her struggles both mentally and with an eating disorder, to arrive back at the nationals.
“To actually see a light of some sort at the end of the tunnel, that's a story," Gold said. "America loves a comeback story.”