A box of facial tissues sat on the dasher boards. That's not unusual at a figure skating practice, where the cold air in the rink and the effects of exertion combine to make noses run.
The difference was how often Bradie Tennell had to run to the Kleenex during this pre-Christmas practice at her home rink in Chicago's north suburbs. Tennell had a cold but no fever, which meant she and her coach of 10 years, Denise Myers, saw no reason to do anything more than cut back on the length of the training session and practice some of the elements in the programs instead of doing more run-throughs.
"We try to practice as if it's a competition, under all kinds of circumstances: delays in the schedule, first or last in the skating order, not feeling perfectly," Myers said. "You never know if you will have a cold at a big competition."
It was late morning. The rink lights glinted off sparkles underneath the eyelets of Tennell's skates as she started to warm up jumps. It wasn't long before she started reeling them off. Triple loop. Double axel. Triple lutz-double toe-double loop combination. Another double axel. Triple salchow. Double axel-triple toe. Triple lutz-triple toe.
"It was a little off," Tennell told Myers after the triple-triple. "I don't like messing up."
The error was almost imperceptible. The landings on every jump were rock solid.
"I'm amazed by her consistency," Myers said.
"Do you ever fall?" Tennell was asked after practice.
"I don't," she said, the answer more matter-of-fact than self-congratulatory. "It's just kind of my normal. It comes from the technique Denise taught me.
"I really love to jump. It's probably one of the favorite things in my life."
For all Tennell's joy and proficiency at that part of skating, the leap she has taken this season to become a contender for the Olympic team seems like a flight of fancy.
She turns 20 in late January but had not competed in a Grand Prix event until a month ago. Her best score last season was topped by 48 other skaters, including seven from the United States. (What's more, Tennell's best was a whopping 14 points lower than that of the next-highest U.S. skater.) She was ninth at the 2017 U.S. Figure Skating Championships.
"This season for me has been kind of showing everybody, 'Hey, I'm still here,''' Tennell said.
Although the outwardly shy Tennell is too modest to put it this way, it has turned out to be more "Hey, look at me" so far.
In a season when the other top contenders for the three U.S. Olympic ladies spots all have struggled, Tennell has bounded to the top.
She has the two highest total scores by a U.S. woman this season, and her top score is almost 10 points more than the second-best mark. She and three-time national champion Ashley Wagner were the only U.S. women to win Grand Prix medals (each a bronze); while Wagner stumbled into hers, Tennell did it with two clean performances.
U.S. Figure Skating's selection criteria mean Tennell almost certainly must make the top two at next week's U.S. championships in order to punch her ticket to the 2018 Olympic Winter Games. The parts of those criteria based on results from last season work against her, but what she has done this season -- combined with the shortcomings of her rivals -- has opened a route to PyeongChang, South Korea, that did not exist for Tennell a few months ago.
"I see the opening, but I don't get ahead of myself," she said. "I let [the Olympic talk] go on in the background. I'm aware it's there, but I don't focus on it."
Bradie Tennell first came up in 2018 Olympic discussions when she won the 2015 U.S. junior title with a near-perfect free skate. Both the 2012 junior champion, Gracie Gold, and the 2013 junior champion, Polina Edmunds, had made the 2014 U.S. Olympic team, so a similar progression for Tennell seemed realistic.
But three months after her triumph in Greensboro, North Carolina, Tennell fractured both wings of a lumbar vertebra and was forced to spend that whole summer in a back brace. In the ensuing season, she managed a sixth-place finish in her senior debut at the U.S. championships and earned a place at the world junior championships, where she fell three times in the free skate and came in 11th overall.
"That was a little hard for me," she said. "I knew I was capable of so much more. I felt like I had let myself down."
It was one of several times Tennell would need to rely on a mindset inculcated by her mother, Jean.
"I don't dwell on things," Tennell said. "You can't change the past."
She is wise enough to realize that philosophy is easy to express and harder to follow. It became ever harder when Tennell began to feel back pain again in June 2016 and learned it was coming from a stress fracture in a different lumbar vertebra. At that point, her mother, a registered nurse, brought up the possibility that Tennell's career might be ending.
"It wasn't like, 'You have to stop,''' Tennell said. "It was, 'If you don't do these exercises to be stronger, you will have to stop in the future before you want to.'"
She did intense physical therapy. Started pilates. Stayed off the ice until early September 2016. Stopped doing a back-bending layback spin when she returned to training. And went to last season's U.S. championships having done just two competitions: a regional qualifier and a Junior Grand Prix.
At that event, Tennell's competitive rustiness was evident. She doubled the required solo triple jump in the short program, getting zero points for that element, and then doubled one jump after another in the free skate.
"I'm not one to pop jumps," she said, still mystified nearly a year later over why it happened.
"She understood she hadn't had a full year of training," Myers said. "And she turned the page."
The injuries did, in fact, help Tennell deal with the disappointing backslide down the standings.
"I knew I had come back from those injuries, so in my mind there wasn't anything I couldn't come back from," she said.
Her first goal for this Olympic season was to stay healthy. So far, so good -- and so far, so much better on the scoresheets.
A victory at the Philadelphia Summer International in early August, when she landed the triple lutz-triple toe in both programs, served as a springboard for what was to come. She had a mini-coming-out party the following month at the Lombardia Trophy, where she got fourth overall and third in the free skate, beating 2014 Olympic bronze medalist Carolina Kostner of Italy and 2015 world champion Elizaveta Tuktamisheva of Russia in the latter.
"It was definitely a confidence booster and a step in the right direction going to the Grand Prix," Tennell said.
At Skate America, her personal-best short program score beat that of both Wagner and reigning U.S. champion Karen Chen. Another personal best in the free skate moved Tennell past reigning world bronze medalist Gabrielle Daleman and onto the podium behind the two women who would go on to make Japan's Olympic team, Satoko Miyahara and Kaori Sakamoto.
Tennell's total score, 204.10, was the best by a U.S. woman in international competition since the 2015-16 season.
"It didn't surprise me," Myers said of Tennell's impressive Grand Prix debut. "People doubted why I felt so good about her going to Skate America. She really does train like that every day."
Until Skate America, Tennell's component marks, mainly 6's and 7's, had been weighing her down, underscoring a sentiment that her programs are too choreographically callow for a nearly 20-year-old skater. But two-thirds of her PCS at Skate America were 8's, with four reaching as high as 8.75.
"I wasn't very surprised," Tennell said. "I was actually very happy I did what I knew I could do."
The stunner for Tennell came from others' surprise and from how much attention her performances garnered. In a few days, she went from having 600 Instagram followers to nearly 3,800.
No matter the result in San Jose, Tennell, who takes online courses at a local community college, is committed to continuing through the next Olympic cycle.
When her chances to compete in the upcoming Olympics still seemed as remote as PyeongChang itself, she and her coaching team picked music from a Korean film, Taegukgi, for this season's short program. Chutzpah? Inspiration? Coincidence?
"A conscious choice," Myers said. "It's a well-known, emotional piece of music in South Korea."
Tennell is trying to keep all that as background noise. But that doesn't prevent her from imagining herself going to Korea.
She said, "I mean, who doesn't dream about it, right?"
(This article originally appeared on icenetwork.)