Tennell was a rising figure skating star when she became U.S. junior champion in 2015, but was sidelined a few months after that victory by stress fractures in her back. She spent the summer of that year in a back brace only to develop another stress fracture after she began skating again, leading to another summer spent in another brace. Unable to skate at all for months at a time was “not very pleasant or fun for me,” Tennell says now, with the injuries far in her past but not her mind. When she was finally able to return to the ice in the 2016 season, it was a hard climb back to her previous status. She finished 11th in the world junior championships.
Looking back, Tennell says there was one benefit to the forced time away from the rink: It reinforced her love of figure skating. “When I came back to skating, I found why I love the sport,” she told TIME recently. “I had a renewed sense of motivation and was able to get down to business.”
That determination brought Tennell, 20, to the 2018 Olympics in PyeongChang, where she went from long-shot to dark horse medal contender after her stellar showing contributed to Team USA’s bronze medal in the group figure skating event last week. Next, she’s taking the ice for the figure skating short program on Tuesday evening (Wednesday morning local time in South Korea) to see if she can bring in an individual medal as well.
Tennell’s figure skating journey to the Olympics required her to perfect her jumping technique, something she has been working on with her longtime coach, Denise Myers, since she was 9. “We really worked on her technique a lot,” says Myers. “There were quite a few things that needed to be fixed, like her air position so she could get the full rotation.”
Myers worked on breaking down Tennell’s jumps so the take offs, rotations and landings became as reliable as they are today. “I don’t like to make mistakes; I’m very OCD in that way, it makes me very mad,” Tennell says by way of explaining the motivation that has led her to skate so consistently this year.
Getting there wasn’t easy—at one point Myers wouldn’t let Tennell do a double lutz for a full summer until she could shed her bad habits and rebuild her form from scratch. It was worth it — the harder version of that jump, the triple lutz, is now Tennell’s favorite jump.
That strong technique propelled Tennell to a surprise third-place finish at her first Grand Prix event in 2017, and immediately sparked talk about her Olympic potential. Tennell then out-skated three-time national champion Ashley Wagner to earn her first U.S. title and a trip to the Games.
In her own way, Tennell may have been training for the unusual skating competition schedule in PyeongChang all along. While most major figure skating competitions are held at night, the skating events at the 2018 Winter Olympics are morning affairs, timed to maximize their exposure for primetime television audiences back in the U.S. Tennell, it happens, is accustomed to starting her days early.
At home in Carpentersville, Ill., a suburb of Chicago, Tennell is up by 4:30 a.m., grabs a quick breakfast and hops in the car for the 45-minute drive to her rink. Then she spends about an hour giving lessons to a group of students. Only after that does she warm up and get on the ice to start her own three to four hours of training.
Tennell credits her mother, Jean, who worked the night shift as a hospital nurse in order to drive Tennell to practice. “The sacrifices my family have made are just incredible,” she says, referring to her mom and two younger brothers. “Now to be able to share this experience with them means everything to me.” Since they’ve arrived in Korea, her brothers, who play hockey, have visited the Olympic Village and already fantasized about all three of the siblings making the Olympic team in four years. “I was like, let’s not get ahead of ourselves, guys!” says Tennell.
It’s certainly a Cinderella story, so it’s no surprise that the fairy tale is Tennell’s favorite from Disney — and also happens to be the theme for her long program this season. But even if everyone else might have seen her as a surprise member of the 2018 Olympic team, Tennell was far more confident of how her season might end. For her short program, she chose a patriotic song by a South Korean composer. “Being that the Olympics are in Korea this year I just thought it was kind of neat to have that little connection,” she says. Indeed it will be.