Mirai Nagasu, Bradie Tennell and Karen Chen

There is something about an Olympic season that brings out the best in athletes. Tonight in San Jose, Calif., at the 2018 U.S. Figure Skating Championships, the ladies began their quest to claim one of three berths on the U.S. Olympic team, and the competition was fierce.

In an event where 12 ladies in the competition attempted triple-triple combinations, it was Bradie Tennell, ninth in this event one year ago, who came away with the lead. The 19 year-old was cool as a cucumber from start to finish in her “Taegukgi” program, and performed with the confidence of a much more seasoned athlete. “I felt like I was very prepared and I did the program that I had been practicing so I’m very happy,” she said after the competition.

Tennell has been consistent all season, and tonight was no exception. The Carpentersville, Illinois, resident nailed her opening triple Lutz-triple toe loop combination, and skated with such command that the judges rewarded Tennell positive grades of execution on every element. She also earned Level 4s on each of her non-jumping elements. “The biggest feeling (I have) right now is pride,” she said. “I’m very proud of how far I’ve come this year — overcoming injuries, and just the technical aspect of things.”

Tennell finished with 73.79 points, a new U.S. Championships record for a ladies short program.

Mirai Nagasu, the 2008 champion, landed in second place with her strongest performance perhaps since she won her lone U.S. title a decade earlier. “Ten years ago when I was here, I didn’t even score this high so I’m super happy,” she said.

The 2010 Olympian made good on her pre-event promise to attempt the triple Axel, and stayed upright on a credible attempt. Nagasu also seemed to have worked out the under-rotation issues that have plagued her recently, and received full credit for the other three triples in her short program. “This is what I’ve been training for. This is my dream,” Nagasu said. “When you work for something for so long it just means so much, and I’m sure you all know that when the moment matters and when you’re expected to deliver, it’s hard to.”

Nagasu earned 73.09 points and, like Tennell, will take a mental break from the glare of competition to recover before Friday’s free skate. “I’m super excited to watch the men and pairs tomorrow,” she said. “Then I will take time to recover before I have to compete the free program. I am really excited not to be skating last. It’s a big honor to be in the position to skate late in the competition, and I am fully prepared to skate at any time. But I’m really happy with the draw for the free skate.” She will skate fourth in the final warm up.

Last year’s champion, Karen Chen, finished in third place with easily her best short program performance of the season. After playing musical chairs with her programs in 2016, Chen settled on repeating last year’s routines, a decision that, so far, has paid off. “I remember starting off the season thinking that last season was pretty crazy, but this season so far has been even crazier. It’s literally a stock market. There’s ups, downs and it’s like, unpredictable,” she said. “I know I started the season with different programs, with new programs and new hopes, but I ended up coming back to this short program and this long program because I felt like they are something I’m very comfortable with, something that I really love and I know works for me.”

Chen opened her recycled “On Golden Pond” routine with a triple Lutz-triple toe loop attempt that fell short of rotation on the back half. She recovered well, and was able to pull together the rest of routine to stay in the hunt for the title. “Overall I am pretty pleased,” she said. “I pulled in all my jumps and was able to stand up on them. I know what I need to fix for the long program and will work to make sure that everything is comfortable.” Chen earned 69.48 points for her efforts.

The surprise of the evening was perhaps Angela Wang, a 21-year-old who is making her seventh appearance at the Championships. Tonight, however, she was solid in her “Over the Rainbow program,” and finished in fourth place. Wang skated a clean program, which included a triple flip-triple toe loop, and earned positive grades of execution across the board. She earned a career best 67.00 points.

“As I was skating, I can honestly say I was really enjoying every moment,” said Wang. “It almost felt like everything was going in slow motion, and I had so much fun out there. I’m very excited to be where I am in the standings. This is my highest finish after the short program at the U.S. Championships, and my first time to skate in that final warm up group for the free skate. I’m really stoked to be in that position.” Wang will skate third last in Friday night’s final.

Another surprise was the fifth-place finish of three-time U.S. champion Ashley Wagner whose combination jump woes continued here tonight. The 2014 Olympian again failed to fully rotate the back half of her triple flip-triple toe loop combination, but she remained positive about the program after the competition.

Wagner finished with 65.94 points, and knows she will have to earn a spot on the team rather than depend on her body of work. She acknowledged she has not had luck with her signature short program, “Hip Hip Chin Chin,” of late. “If I am fortunate enough to make the Olympic team, we will go back to the drawing board for the short program,” the 26-year-old said.

“In years past I’ve been a clear frontrunner internationally, and I’ve had a really difficult season. I’m in no way, shape or form expecting to rely on my past experience to say whether or not I deserve to be on this team.

“I know my strengths, I know my weaknesses, and that was a solid showing. I am a long program skater, and I know what I have to do on Friday.”

SEE ALSO: 2018 U.S. Championships, Live From San JoseBradie Tennell Up For the Challenge