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Karen Chen on her break from skating, challenges of balancing classes at Cornell and elite skating

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Karen Chen, the 2017 U.S. national champion and 2018 Olympian, didn’t compete this season. But while she was away from the ice, she polished her college applications and committed to Cornell University in the fall, where she’ll be on a pre-med track.

She spoke with NBCSports.com/figure-skating about how she came to that decisions, her plans to continue skating despite her coach being across the country, and what music she selected for this season.

This conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

What did you learn about yourself during this break from competitive skating?

It was a while. I think a lot of it was coming back from the Olympics and then being on tour for Stars on Ice. My season right off of the bat was already a little later than what I normally would start. So, I was just like, kind of hustling a little bit and trying to get ready as soon as I could. Then I had my stress fracture in my right foot so then I was off for a month. I think two months?

Then, slowly building back up again. By that time, I just realized I want to let myself fully heal before trying to push myself again. The last thing I want is to reinjure it and having to be off for longer, kind of going through that injury cycle.

Was there ever a time during that period where you said, ‘you know what, I’m going to college in the fall. Is it time to hang up the skates?’

I knew that I wanted to keep going. If anything, being injured and away from the ice made me want to get back on. I wanted to compete and feel that thrill of competing again. I knew that that’s what I wanted.

But yes, during my break I was working on college apps. I spent a lot of time polishing that. I knew that college was in the future but I want to stay with skating for as long as I can.

How did you know that you wanted to be at Cornell?

It was definitely one of my top choices as I was going through college applications. After I visited for Cornell Days, I just really loved the campus. It was new and definitely a little terrifying being on campus and seeing all the students. It was definitely scary but it was also very exciting. Going to the rink, it was just a lot of fun. I am excited to step into a new part of my life.

What did you think of the rink?

It was really nice. I got to skate for a little bit. The ice was good. The whole building is red, which I believe red is my lucky color. So I was like, ‘this is the rink!’

What do you plan to study?

I got into the School of Human Ecology and my major is Human Biology, Health and Society. I’m definitely going pre-med. I do know I definitely think my first semester there will be chemistry and biology. I’m planning on doing a summer chemistry course or something to get my mind prepared for what’s to come. I remember in high school chemistry being something I absolutely hated. [laughter]

I talked to Nathan Chen and he said that you spoke a little bit about how to balance school and skating.

Yeah. We’re really good friends and we are doing a seminar together in Portland, Oregon [in a few weeks]. I can really rack his brains and try to see what his experiences are and what he found was helpful and any tips he had to give me.

Is it still your plan to compete on the Grand Prix series in your first semester at Cornell?

Yes, that’s my plan.

Have you looked at your semester schedule or where your fall break might be?

I’m not quite sure yet. I only recently said, ‘OK, I’m committing.’ Then going to housing and dining. I’m only just starting into that whole phase. For sure. The problem with Grand Prixes is I don’t get to pick which one I get. So in a way, it’s kind of random. I’m hoping that maybe I’ll get the one that falls during Thanksgiving break because that would be ideal. Then I don’t have to worry about missing classes that week, or something.

Your coach, Tammy Gambill, will be on the other side of the country. What conversations have you had about that?

We did briefly talk about it and definitely during my breaks I will come back to Colorado Springs and train. She offered that she could fly out there and coach me for a little bit. In the meantime, I think there’s just gonna be a lot of FaceTime and me putting my phone on the boards recording my jump and whatever feedback she has to give me.

Will you put in a lot of work on your programs this summer, then?

Yeah. My plan is to get everything done and be pretty prepared early on so that by the time I go to Cornell it’s more maintaining and picking on the details and stuff.

I have my short done already. And my long is not done yet but, music decided and started. I think the long should be done by the end of next week.

What are you skating to?

My short is to “You Say” by Lauren Daigle. And my long is “Illumination” from The Secret Garden.

MORE: Top takeaways for the figure skating season

As a reminder, you can watch the events from the 2018-19 figure skating season live and on-demand with the ‘Figure Skating Pass’ on NBC Sports Gold. Go to NBCsports.com/gold/figure-skating to sign up for access to every ISU Grand Prix and championship event, as well as domestic U.S. Figure Skating events throughout the season. NBC Sports Gold gives subscribers an unprecedented level of access on more platforms and devices than ever before.

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Noah Lyles’ unbelievable time comes with an oops at Inspiration Games

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Noah Lyles may one day break Usain Bolt‘s world record, but Thursday wasn’t going to be that day. Even if, for about five minutes, Lyles was the first man to break 19 seconds over 200m.

Lyles registered 18.90 seconds, racing alone against competitors simultaneously sprinting on tracks in Europe. The time was unbelievable, given Bolt’s world record was 19.19 seconds. Turns out, it was too good to be true.

Minutes later on the broadcast, commentator Steve Cram said that Lyles only ran 185 meters, starting from an incorrect place on his Florida track.

“You can’t be playing with my emotions like this,” tweeted Lyles, who raced in Sonic the Hedgehog socks. “Got me in the wrong lane smh.”

Lyles, 22, has run 66 official 200m races dating to 2013, according to Tilastopaja.org. He is the reigning world champion and the fourth-fastest man in history with a personal best of 19.50 seconds.

But he had never experienced what came Thursday, with few spectators and nobody else in adjacent lanes for the Inspiration Games, a socially distanced meet with Olympians competing against each other on different continents.

Perhaps the setting played a role in the mistake.

“It actually felt pretty good besides getting that full gust of wind,” Lyles, who ran into a registered 3.7 meter/second headwind, said before he knew his time or that he was 15 meters short.

Christophe Lemaitre, the Olympic bronze medalist from France, got the win in 20.65 seconds.

Earlier Thursday, Allyson Felix had a succinct reaction to the strangest victory of her sterling career.

“That’s weird,” she said after running 150 meters alone, in front of few spectators on a track in Walnut, California.

Officially, Felix ran 16.81 seconds — impressive, especially if the reported 2.6 meter/second headwind reading was accurate — to defeat Olympic 400m champion Shaunae Miller-Uibo and world 200m bronze medalist Mujinga Kambundji.

Miller-Uibo raced alone in Florida. Kambundji was on her own in Zurich, the base of the Inspiration Games, a repurposed version of an annual Diamond League stop. The coronavirus pandemic is forcing meet organizers to get creative this summer.

Full meet results are here.

Felix, a 34-year-old mom with nine Olympic medals, called her event “very strange.”

“It feels sort of like practice, but not even because there’s really no teammates or anything,” she told 1996 Olympic decathlon champion Dan O’Brien at Mt. San Antonio College. “It’s hard to challenge yourself. I think that’s the big thing with running solo.”

Canadian Olympic medalist Andre De Grasse won a 100-yard race in 9.68 seconds, defeating French veteran Jimmy Vicaut (9.72) and Olympic 110m hurdles champion Omar McLeod of Jamaica (9.87). De Grasse, Vicaut and McLeod raced together, in every other lane at a Florida track.

The 100 yards is scantly contested in top-level meets. Nobody has broken nine seconds in a 100-yard (91.44-meter) race, according to World Athletics. But Usain Bolt‘s estimated 100-yard time en route to his 2009 world record in the 100m was 8.87 seconds.

The regular Diamond League calendar is scheduled to resume in August.

“This was fun,” Felix said. “I can’t wait until we can do it in person.”

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Jeff Gadley, Willie Davenport changed bobsled as Winter Olympic pioneers

Jeff Gadley
Photos courtesy Jeff Jordan
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Jeff Gadley‘s life changed when a stranger in a car tailed him on a decathlon training run in Plattsburgh, N.Y., in 1978.

The driver was Al Hachigian, a veteran U.S. bobsledder on the lookout for new talent.

Hachigian found the right man. Gadley had just won the first Empire State Games decathlon and set sights on the 1980 U.S. Summer Olympic Trials. Once Hachigian got his attention, he asked the 23-year-old Gadley if he ever considered pushing a bobsled.

“Of course,” Gadley said. “I grew up in Buffalo.”

Hachigian looked at Gadley — undersized for a bobsledder at 5 feet, 8 inches, and no more than 180 pounds — and decided he was worth extending an invitation to a trials event for the 1978-79 season.

“I think you could do well,” Hachigian told Gadley. “But there are no Black bobsledders, so you kind of have to be a little bit prepared for some things.”

No problem, Gadley said.

A year and a half later, Gadley and a later bobsled convert — Willie Davenport, the 1968 Olympic 110m hurdles champion — became the first Black men to compete on a U.S. Winter Olympic team in any sport.

“It was a huge story,” leading up to the 1980 Lake Placid Winter Games, Gadley said in a recent interview. “Since we were the first, people wanted to know how we felt. What you thought about the sport being traditionally white. My answer was always, look, I can’t attribute a particular color to playing out in the cold. To be the first African American ever to compete in the Winter Olympics, I think it’s nice. I think it broadens the thought process of people and maybe will bring, one day, stronger and faster athletes to the sport.”

Gadley and Davenport, push athletes in driver Bob Hickey‘s 12th-place sled at those Olympics, accelerated a line of accomplished athletes converting from track to bobsled. They were followed by, most famously, Edwin Moses, Renaldo NehemiahLauryn Williams and Lolo Jones. NFL players Willie Gault and Herschel Walker also pushed sleds.

“There is a myth in this country that says Blacks can’t make the American Winter Olympic team,” Davenport said, according to Jet magazine in 1980. “Jeff and I proved this to be wrong that you don’t have to be rich and white to make it.”

Back when Gadley joined the national team, it was all white and mostly men from around Lake Placid, home of the only Olympic-level bobsled track in the country.

“I’m sure a lot of these people had not been around African Americans before,” said Jeff Jordan, Gadley’s best friend from SUNY Plattsburgh who rounded out the four-man Olympic sled with Hickey, Gadley and Davenport.

Gadley excelled from the start, earning a spot at the 1979 World Championships. Not everyone on the team was excited about his quick rise. Gadley estimated that out of about 20 national team members, seven or eight didn’t like him because of his skin color. He knew about two definitively, witnessing a conversation at the worlds in Germany.

“The worst thing I heard is that someone didn’t want a Black guy on the back of their sled,” Gadley said. “The saddest part is knowing that, at the world championships, your own teammates don’t like you because of your color.

“I said, I’m not going to say anything. I’m not going to ride on the back of his sled anyway, even if I’m told to. I said, I don’t want to be on the back of your sled, either, and I just left it at that.”

Gadley competed in another sled at worlds, finishing 10th.

“It wasn’t all about skin color,” Gadley said. “Part of it was about you’re breaking up a culture.”

The next season, Hickey, a veteran driver from Upstate New York, was looking to fill his sled with push athletes. He chose the new group of Gadley, Jordan and Davenport. They won the Olympic Trials, despite Jordan and Davenport being rookies (Davenport reportedly pushed a bobsled for the first time a month or two before trials).

“They were the first real world-class athletes to hit bobsledding,” Jordan said of Gadley and Davenport. “We pretty much crushed them [the local bobsledders at Trials], and they did not like it. I don’t know if they would have liked it, period. It didn’t matter what nationality or color.

“The only thing they knew was they were getting their butts kicked. I can’t say we were mistreated other than they would rather have their buddies on the Olympic team.”

Davenport, at 36, was 12 years removed from his Summer Olympic title and the oldest U.S. bobsledder in Lake Placid. While his speed was an asset, his lack of experience was evident, his teammates said.

“Willie was on the other side of his career,” Jordan said. “He brought a lot of notoriety. We were in People magazine, on Good Morning America. None of that would have happened without Willie’s presence. He wasn’t there for the same reason Jeff [Gadley] was there.

“If Willie had just been another Jeff Gadley, would we have gotten that attention? Maybe, eventually, but there was quite a bit of attention early on.”

Gadley, Hickey and Jordan, in recent interviews, remembered the buzz at the Lake Placid Games. Curt Gowdy, the Hall of Fame sportscaster, called bobsled for ABC. President Jimmy Carter‘s 12-year-old daughter, Amy, showed up one day.

The Americans finished more than six seconds behind the winning East German quartet, but were slowed to an unknown degree by inferior equipment. Hickey said that the East German driver, 39-year-old Meinhard Nehmer, told Gowdy that the Americans would have won if they had his sled.

“They came and went quick,” Hickey said of the Olympics. “We weren’t prepared.”

It marked the end of the Olympic careers for Davenport and Gadley. Davenport died in 2002.

Gadley gave up the decathlon after the U.S. boycott of the Moscow Games was announced. He now lives in Texas with his wife.

Most of his Olympic mementos and photos were discarded or lost over the last 40 years. But Gadley was glad for the experience and feels fortunate for the opportunity, back when bobsled was a regional, if not local, sport.

“I would say pioneers would be a good word to use,” for Davenport and I, he said. “It was just a matter of exposure where I was and what I was doing [at the time]. It made an example to others that, hey, as a Black guy, if he’s doing it, I can do it, too.”

MORE: Elana Meyers Taylor’s claims of racism in bobsled being investigated

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Jeff Gadley