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Tennell, Liu top standings after short program at nationals

January 25, 2019
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Bradie Tennell performs during the women's short program at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships, Thursday, Jan. 24, 2019, in Detroit. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

DETROIT (AP) — Bradie Tennell answered questions with the calm confidence of a defending champion.

Alysa Liu — all of 13 years old — seemed a little more in awe of her surroundings.

Tennell and Liu sat next to each other at the news conference after Thursday night’s short program at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships. They’re next to each other in the standings, too. Tennell has the lead as she pursues a repeat title at this event, but Liu is a strong second after landing a triple axel.

“I went out there and I just did what I do every day, and I just enjoyed my performance,” Tennell said. “There really wasn’t much thinking involved. I just kind of go on auto pilot and get in the zone.”

Tennell skated a sharp, clean program and earned a score of 76.60, nearly three points higher than her short program when she won this competition in 2018. But nobody else was able to top Liu, the reigning U.S. junior champion who could be well on her way to stardom.

In August, Liu became the youngest woman to land a triple axel in international competition. It was part of her program Thursday as well, and her score of 73.89 had her in the lead for a while.

“I was a little nervous, but I was just really excited to be here,” she said shortly after she finished skating.

Later, when she appeared with Tennell and third-place skater Mariah Bell in front of a bunch of reporters, Liu admitted that she was a little taken aback by the idea that she was having a news conference. But she didn’t seem bothered by the pressure when she was on the ice.

She earned 10.17 points for her triple axel. Tennell began her routine with a triple lutz-triple toe loop combination that earned 12.04 points.

Tarah Kayne and Danny O’Shea led the pairs competition after the short program.

The free skate is Friday night for the women and Saturday for the pairs.

The last time nationals were held in Detroit was in 1994, when Nancy Kerrigan was attacked after a practice. Tonya Harding won that year, but her victory was later vacated. The second-place finisher in 1994 was 13-year-old Michelle Kwan, who would go on to win a record-tying nine U.S. titles.

Now it’s another 13-year-old making quite an impression, at a time when the U.S. could use a few rising stars. The Americans haven’t won an Olympic medal in women’s figure skating since 2006.

The women’s field in Detroit this week is missing Karen Chen, who is out because of a foot injury, and Mirai Nagasu is taking a break from the sport. Gracie Gold isn’t in the field either.

But Tennell is back. She was ninth at the Olympics last year and sixth at the world championships. She started this season by winning the Autumn Classic and also won Golden Spin in December.

“I was super confident going into tonight. I practiced really hard for this,” Tennell said. “I love these programs that I have, so I’m excited to perform them and share them with everybody.”

Kayne and O’Shea, the U.S. pairs champions in 2016, received a score of 71.83 on Thursday. They lead Ashley Cain and Timothy LeDuc by 1.36 points. Kayne and O’Shea finished second at the Internationaux de France in November.

“So many times throughout my career I didn’t think I would get back to this place because I keep getting injured and it just seemed like I couldn’t catch a break,” said Kayne, who has dealt with knee problems. “So it means the world to me to be sitting here talking about how this went well.”

Alexa and Chris Knierim, who beat Kayne and O’Shea for the U.S. title last year , are in seventh place after mistakes on a triple twist and triple salchow left the 2018 Olympians facing an uphill climb to make the podium this week.

“It was just fluke on the twist,” Chris Knierim said. “We never have those problems. It’s unfortunate that it happened at this event, but we’re all human.”

NOTES: U.S. Figure Skating announced that Las Vegas has been selected as the host of 2019 Skate America in October.

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Bradie Tennell performs during the women's short program at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships, Thursday, Jan. 24, 2019, in Detroit. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)