Ryan Bradley found himself in no-man’s-land at the end of last season. Should he stay, or should he go? Indecisiveness haunted him.
“It was a difficult time,” the 27-year-old said. “I am getting older, and there are so many young guys in the States that are so good. I was uncertain about whether I wanted to or could continue, whether I would be relevant — many different thoughts went through my head.”
But an unexpected series of events brought Bradley to the realization that he had unfinished business in the competitive world.
Prior to the 2010 World Championships, he broke his foot during a dance class but still competed at the global event, skating into 18th place. Subsequent surgery sidelined him for three months.
When he returned to the ice in mid-August, Bradley needed to find out if he still had what it took to compete. He admitted having major qualms about whether he could still land a quad, or a triple Axel. “I broke my take-off foot, and when you come back from a serious injury like that, being able to do the big tricks is a big question,” he explained.
“I started doing some shows, and that was the catalyst. People reached out and told me how much they appreciated what I had done in the sport and asked me to consider continuing because they liked watching me. That really meant a lot, and it kind of sparked my fire. I decided to come back. As happy as I was with my career, I still felt I had unfinished business. I wanted to do it for me.”
New challenges arose when he resumed training in early November. “It was mid-Grand Prix season and my coach, Tom Zakrajsek, was out of the country for six straight weeks so I was literally training by myself,” Bradley said.
“I was doing long programs just because I had no real reason to do them, but it kept me in shape to make the transition back into competitive skating.”
Heading into nationals his perspective changed. “Initially my expectations were very low,” he admitted. “At first, I wanted to perform and put on a show, but by the time January rolled around I was doing clean short and long programs. I told myself that I could really make a splash at nationals.
“By the time I got off the plane in Greensboro I had gone from wanting to be a performer having fun to literally expecting to leave as the national champion. It was a new feeling, because usually I am just trying to make a World or Olympic team, hoping someone makes a mistake so that I can end up on the podium. It was a completely different mindset. My expectations were so high.”
Training without his coach was a revelation. “I think the biggest reason I found that confidence was because I trained by myself. I was always convinced that if I did not have the supervision of my coach I could not do consistent quads or triple Axels,” he said. “But when I was working on my own, I started doing things more consistently and I realized that things were a little easier than I had let them be in my head in the past.”
Bradley then turned to his sister Becky, a figure skating coach, for guidance. “She kept me trained and motivated. Having her there at the boards was huge,” he said. “She is the reason I started skating. My mom and dad would bring her to the rink for skating lessons and I would be in the lobby breaking things. That is literally why I started skating.”
He won the short program at the U.S. Championships but expected to be in second place behind Jeremy Abbott after a less-than-stellar free skate.
After all, having two four-revolution jumps in his long program makes him technically competitive with anyone in the world. “So what do I do at nationals? I go out and pop my quads,” he said with a laugh. “I just dropped the ball on my two biggest point earners and my two biggest confidence builders. I had six jumping passes left and I had to fight back and get back on my game.
“I can’t tell you how huge it was for me to land both triple Axels after missing both quads. It was a gritty performance, but I got it done. I knew if I played it safe I would not beat Jeremy. That performance taught me a lot about myself.”
Winning the title was unbelievable, Bradley said. “When my marks came up and I had a point and a half lead over Jeremy, I was like, ‘Holy cow, I am really here.’ When they handed me the flowers I had to smell them to make sure it was all real. I can’t tell you how many times I have dreamed about being the national champion.”
In late March, Bradley was focused on his first trip to Russia to compete at the World Championships. “I will likely be doing the hardest long program, which should give me an edge,” he said. “I know I have weaknesses in other parts of my skating. The last thing I want to happen is to lose the title because I landed all my jumps but toe-pushed on my crossovers.”
When asked what he planned to see in Moscow, Bradley laughed. “As superstitious a figure skater as I am, I will likely see my hotel room and the rink.”
Looking ahead, Bradley said he enjoys performing and the attention of the fans too much not to continue skating. “Winning the national title was huge for me,” he said. “It was the exclamation point on everything I have done. I feel like I am in a great place. I could walk away completely fulfilled with how my career has gone.”
Bradley is majoring in business at the University of Colorado. “I have no idea what I will do with it,” he said. “I chose it because it is a very wide field. It was kind of my way of buying time to make a decision about what I wanted to do when I was a grown-up.”
Originally published in June 2011