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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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2019 USA Track and Field Outdoor Championships TV schedule

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NBC, NBCSN and NBC Sports Gold combine to air live daily coverage of the USA Track and Field Outdoor Championships, starting Thursday in Des Moines, Iowa.

The top three per individual event are in line to qualify for the world championships in Doha in late September and early October, should they have the world standard time or mark.

Sprint trio Christian Coleman (100m and 200m), Noah Lyles (200m) and Michael Norman (400m) headline the event. Each is 23 or younger and fastest in the world this year in his primary event.

Allyson Felix and Justin Gatlin represent the veterans. Felix, a 33-year-old with 17 combined Olympic and world titles, is entered in her first meet since having daughter Camryn via emergency C-section at 32 weeks on Nov. 28.

Gatlin, 37, has a bye into worlds as the defending 100m champion. He could be Coleman’s biggest threat in the 100m after breaking 9.9 seconds for the first time since the Rio Olympics.

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MORE: Olympic champions, world-record holder to miss USATF Outdoors

Day Time (ET) Network Key Events
Thursday 3:45-11 p.m. NBC Sports Gold 100m first round, 10,000m finals
Friday 1:30-9 p.m. NBC Sports Gold 100m finals, 400m semifinals
7-9 p.m. NBCSN
Saturday 2-6 p.m. NBC Sports Gold Finals: 400m, women’s 1500m, 100m hurdles
4-6 p.m. NBC
Sunday 4-9 p.m. NBC Sports Gold Finals: 200m, men’s 1500m, 110m hurdles
7-8 p.m. NBCSN
8-9 p.m. NBC

Beachvolley Vikings, sport’s top team, inspired by Kerri Walsh Jennings

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HAMBURG, Germany — Kerri Walsh Jennings smiled at the decade-old picture of her posing with a young Anders Mol.

Since Walsh Jennings met Mol, the now-22-year-old and his 23-year-old Norwegian partner Christian Sorum have become the top-ranked team in the world.

“Those boys inspire me a lot,” she said. “That’s how I want Brooke [Sweat] and I to play, really.”

Walsh Jennings met Mol in his native country at the 2009 FIVB Beach Volleyball World Championships in Stavanger. Mol attended with his father, Kare, who was coaching the Norwegian teams, as well as his brother Hendrik and cousin Mathias Berntsen.

Walsh Jennings noticed the young Norwegians, who are now nicknamed the “Beachvolley Vikings,” eagerly doing the pepper drill on the sand between matches from 6 a.m. until well after dark.   

“She walked by and told us, ‘Hey, you guys are so good that if you guys keep practicing, you’re going to be playing on this stage one day,’” Mol recalled.

Mol’s passion for the sport only increased as he hit puberty.

As a teenager, he derailed his family’s vacation plans in San Diego by making them battle traffic up to Los Angeles to hear Walsh Jennings give a speech.

Childhood photo of Mol and Walsh Jennings. Courtesy of Anders Mol.

At 13 or 14, Mol and his brother beat their parents for the first time. Impressive, considering Mol’s father was a former national indoor team player and his mother, Merita Mol (née Berntsen), competed in beach volleyball at the 1996 Olympics.

At 16, he enrolled in ToppVolley Norway, a beach and indoor volleyball school that is a two-hour boat ride north from Stavanger. For three years, the boys would attend classes, lift weights and train for a minimum of 20 hours per week. Free time often meant pick-up soccer matches, which occasionally proves useful on the sand.

“It doesn’t look like Hogwarts,” Mol said, “but it sounds like Hogwarts because everybody is like a big family in this school.”

When Mol graduated, he played a year of professional indoor volleyball in Belgium. But he quickly realized that he preferred the freedom of beach volleyball, where players book their own travel, hire their own coaches and schedule their own practices.

In 2017, Mol was named the international tour’s top rookie. By the end of the 2018 season, Mol and Sorum had firmly established themselves as the world’s top team, winning their final three international tournaments including the FIVB World Tour Finals.

They have not slowed down in 2019, winning three tournaments on three different continents over three weeks in May. They have won 36 of their last 38 matches.

“The best blocker right now is Anders, and the best defender is Christian,” said three-time U.S. Olympian Jake Gibb. “It’s not really fair.”

The only two teams who have defeated the Norwegians since April 28 — Germany’s Julius Thole/Clemens Wickler and Brazil’s Bruno Schmidt/Evandro Goncalves — did not offer any clues on how to do it.

Wickler admitted that “in no other stadium would we have won this game” after the Hamburg world championships semifinal played July 6 in front of more than 12,000 hometown fans, the largest crowd either team had ever experienced. Mol and Sorum rebounded to claim the bronze medal the next day over Americans Tri Bourne and Trevor Crabb.

Bruno rebuffed multiple teams who approached him looking for the secret to beating Norway.

“I’ve never seen a player like Anders who is so powerful and so skilled at the same time,” said Bruno, the 2016 Olympic champion with former partner Alison. “Players like that raise the level of this sport.”

Much of their success can be attributed to their defensive scheme. Most teams play a “zone defense,” with each player defending half of the court. The Norwegians play a “read defense” that gives each player the freedom to react and move to where they think the attacking player will hit the ball.

NBC Sports analyst Kevin Wong compared the Norwegians to “free safeties” in football.

“They are the most innovative defensive team we’ve seen in a long time,” he said.

The pair is relatively unknown outside Norway — neither has a Wikipedia page in English — and even in Norway they claim they are nowhere near as famous as the Alpine skiers nicknamed the “Attacking Vikings.”

But that will change.

At worlds, the pair hired a videographer to capture content for their YouTube and Instagram channels. They launched a Beachvolley Vikings clothing line that includes a “Sleeping Christian” shirt. They patiently fulfilled each and every request for pictures and autographs after matches.

“They are like rock stars,” said American Taylor Crabb, talking extra loud to be heard over a crowd of teenage girls hoping to take a selfie with the tall, blonde Norwegians. “Fans can relate to them because they see guys around their age becoming the No. 1 team the world.”

It is not just fans who are lining up to see the Norwegians.

“I love to watch them play,” said 2016 Brazilian Olympian Pedro Solberg, who made his international debut when Mol was just 8. “Every chance I get to watch them I do, because I learn a lot from them.”

Whether Mol and Sorum struggle with anything is up for debate. When asked, Kare boasted about beating them at the card game “President and the bum.”

“They are really smart in beach volleyball,” he said, “but they are really stupid in card playing.”

But both players disputed their coach’s claim.

“It’s not true at all,” Sorum said. “He loses even when he has the best cards.”

The Beachvolley Vikings are just getting started. 2008 Olympic champion Phil Dalhausser pointed out that beach volleyball players typically do not peak until their late 20s or early 30s.

“In my book, they are already among the top teams to ever play,” he said. “There are no holes in their game. I don’t see why they can’t keep this going.”

OlympicTalk editor Nick Zaccardi contributed to this report.

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MORE: Brazil Olympic beach volleyball champs form dangerous teams after split