Bradie Tennell in 1st after women's short; Alysa Liu 2nd

GREENSBORO, N.C. -- Bradie Tennell felt it was time to show a new side of her personality on the ice.

Tennell's usual clean and efficient showing was enough to take the women's short program Thursday night at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships. To the 2018 American champion, it was a departure from her normal performances.

"It's fun and tacky," Tennell said after being so solid that she beat 2019 winner Alysa Liu in a bit of a surprise. "It's fun to put that into my skating and explore that side.

"I kind of just lost myself in the performance. In warm-up I felt shaky. I had to remind myself that I do this every day, so there's no need to be nervous."

Despite an elbow infection that required treatment on Wednesday after Tennell couldn't straighten her arm due to the pain, she earned 78.96 points.

"I am proud of how I skated," Tennell said. "I love the program, it really embodies me."

There's nothing wrong with Tennell's style at nationals, but it tends to get overshadowed on the international scene. Of course, that's not a concern this week.

"Luckily, I don't have to compete against them here," Tennell said with a smile when asked about the Russian jumping machines who dominate the sport.

The youngest U.S. winner last year at age 13 -- she's not even eligible for senior international events yet -- Liu is more daring with her jumps than any other American. She landed a triple axel, the only one of the competition, but stepped out on the landing, which was costly.

She was 3.56 points behind Tennell.

"I did make a few mistakes, but that's how you learn," Liu said.

She will skate last in Friday night's free skate, which doesn't affect her at all.

"I don't care where I skate," she added with a smile.

Mariah Bell took third and might have challenged Liu had she not fallen at the end of her footwork. Bell shook her head as if to scold herself for such a bobble.

"Today, it felt really good," Bell said of her program. "Maybe too good, and that's why I had that mistake."

Two-time U.S. champion and 2014 Olympic team bronze medalist Gracie Gold, attempting a comeback after taking time away to address her mental health, was 13th. She drew a heartfelt ovation from the crowd at the end of her error-filled routine.

Gold said that considering where she was when she began her return, the night was a 9 out of 10. As for the performance, after a long pause she rated it "3 out of 10. OK, 4."

Amber Glenn had her best performance at nationals, an energetic and fast-paced routine that had her overcome with emotion when she was done; she's in fourth place heading into Friday.

Earlier, Olympians Alexa and Chris Knierim, coming off a poor season, put that disappointment far behind them in winning the pairs short program.

The husband-wife couple who helped the United States win a bronze medal at the team event of the 2018 Games in South Korea, took a lead of nearly seven points with what they both said was a long-sought clean performance.

"It was nice to be comfortable on the ice and put out a great short program," Chris Knierim said. "Nothing felt easy going through it, but regardless we know we can put out a program like that. For us, it's been a long road to get here."

That road included a dismal 2018-19 campaign during which they changed coaches and locations, basically, Alexa said, living out of suitcases. It came a season after they won their second U.S. crown and was marked by a seventh-place finish at nationals last January.

They didn't have strong fall showings, either, but they were ready Thursday. Their triple twist was huge, as was their throw triple flip. The Knierims cleanly landed their side-by-side triple toe loops, often a major obstacle for them.

"We've been driven to skate like this and it always seemed something would get in the way," Alexa Knierim said. "It's been a while since we skated like that."

Tarah Kayne and Danny O'Shea, the 2016 national champs, were second at 70.35 points. Defending champion Ashley Cain-Gribble and Timothy LeDuc were third at 68.86.

The free skate is Saturday.