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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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Who is Italy’s greatest Olympian?

Alberto Tomba
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Italy ranks sixth on the total Olympic medal list, thanks in large part to its fencers. Italian fencers have won a leading 125 medals, more than double the nation’s total in any other sport. The Italians are known for their personalities, from La Bomba to the Cannibal, with six of their best detailed here …

Deborah Compagnoni
Alpine Skiing
Three Olympic Gold Medals

The only Alpine skier to earn gold at three straight Olympics. Compagnoni overcame a broken knee as a junior racer and life-saving surgery to remove 27 inches of her intestine in 1990 to win the Albertville 1992 super-G by 1.8 seconds. It remains the largest margin of victory in the discipline for either gender since 1968. The following day, Compagnoni tore knee ligaments in the giant slalom. She returned to win the GS at the 1994 Lillehammer Games. Compagnoni ended her Olympic career with the biggest rout in a GS at a Winter Games, prevailing by 1.41 seconds in Nagano.

Klaus Dibiasi
Diving
Three Olympic Gold Medals

The only diver to win the same individual event three times. The Austrian-born Dibiasi took platform silver in 1964 at age 17, then three straight golds through 1976. Dibiasi was coached by his father, who was 10th on platform at the 1936 Berlin Games. In his final Olympics, Dibiasi held off a 16-year-old Greg Louganis, who would go on to challenge, if not overtake, Dibiasi as the greatest male diver in history.

Eugenio Monti
Bobsled
Six Olympic Medals

Regarded by many as the greatest bobsled driver in history. Monti captured two silver medals in 1956, missed the 1960 Winter Games that didn’t include bobsled, then two bronzes in 1964 and a pair of golds at age 40 in 1968. On top of that, the nine-time world champion is remembered for an act of sportsmanship in 1964. In between runs, Monti lent a bolt off his own two-man sled to a British team whose sled was damaged. The Brits took gold, ahead of both Italian sleds.

Alberto Tomba
Alpine Skiing
Three Olympic Gold Medals

“La Bomba” dazzled by sweeping the giant slalom and slalom at the 1988 Calgary Winter Games, after dubbing himself the “Messiah of Skiing“ beforehand. Known for his man-about-town ways, Tomba offered one of his gold medals to East German figure skater Katarina Witt should she fall short in her event. After Witt repeated as gold medalist, the story goes that Tomba showed up with a bouquet of roses and an autographed picture of himself, made out out to “Katerina.” “I used to have a wild time with three women until 5 a.m.,” Tomba once said. “Now I live it up with five women until 3 a.m,”

Valentina Vezzali
Fencing
Six Olympic Gold Medals

An 18-year-old Vezzali was an alternate for the 1992 Olympics, forced to watch on TV as the Italian women took team foil gold. Vezzali made the next five Olympics, winning medals in all nine of her events, including three straight individual titles, the last as a mom. Vezzali finished her career with nine total Olympic medals, 25 world championships medals, a flag bearer honor at the 2012 Opening Ceremony and as a member of Italy’s parliament.

Armin Zoeggeler
Luge
Six Olympic Medals

“The Cannibal” retired in 2014 as the first athlete to earn a medal in the same individual event at six straight Olympics. Zoeggeler earned silver and bronze medals in 1994 and 1998, then overtook German legend Georg Hackl for gold in 2002, followed by winning at home in Torino in 2006. He held on for bronze medals in 2010 and 2014, behind the new German luge star, Felix Loch, who would be coached by Hackl. Growing up on top of a steep hill, Zoeggeler began sledding at age 7 to catch the school bus at the bottom.

GREATEST OLYMPIANS: Germany | Liechtenstein | Japan

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Kurt Angle recalls devastation, exultation of Olympic wrestling gold medal

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Kurt Angle doesn’t remember much from the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, but he won’t forget that moment of deep emotional pain.

In the 100kg final, Angle and Iranian Abbas Jadidi were tied 1-1 after regulation and an overtime period.. Eight total minutes of wrestling. They also had the same number of passivity calls, forcing a judges’ decision to determine the gold medalist.

After deliberation, the referee stood between each wrestler in the middle of the mat. He held each’s wrist, ready to reveal the champion to the Georgia World Congress Center crowd — and to the athletes. Angle, now 51, has rarely watched video of the match. But he distinctly remembers, in his peripheral vision, Jadidi’s left arm rising.

“I thought I lost,” Angle said by phone this week. “So right away, I was like, s—, four more years.”

Turns out, the Iranian was raising his own arm. An instant later, the referee suppressed Jadidi. He lifted Angle’s right arm. The wrestler sobbed.

“I had so much emotion because I was devastated and then I was told that I won,” Angle said. “It was a very odd experience. I didn’t know how to handle it. It felt like my father died all over again. That’s how much grief I had. Then, all of a sudden, you won.”

Angle thought of two people immediately after he won, falling to his knees in prayer. First, his father, David, who died in a construction accident when Angle was 16. Second, the 1984 Olympic wrestling champion Dave Schultz, his coach who was murdered by John du Pont six months before the Games.

Angle went on to become one of the most famous U.S. gold medalists of the Atlanta Games, due largely to a two-decade career as a professional wrestler, including as a world heavyweight champion with the WWE.

It would have been different if the referee kept Jadidi’s arm in the air. Angle went into the Olympics knowing it would be his last competition, but only if he took gold. Anything less, and he would continue on, perhaps into his 30s and the 2000 Sydney Games. Despite everything Angle went through just to get to Atlanta.

In the year leading up to the Olympics, Angle lost Schultz, broke his neck at the U.S. Open and, five minutes before each match at the Olympic Trials, received 12 shots of novocaine to numb the pain long enough to advance to the next round. Angle later developed a painkiller addiction.

Angle, a Pennsylvania native, was part of the Foxcatcher club when du Pont shot and killed Schultz. Angle said he wasn’t consulted for the 2014 film “Foxcatcher,” but he thought it was well done save a few instances of dramatic license.

“Unfortunately, I hate to admit this, but if it weren’t for Team Foxcatcher, I probably wouldn’t have won my gold medal,” Angle said. “I probably wouldn’t have known Dave Schultz, and I probably wouldn’t have been able to achieve what I did. It sucks because, to have to thank John du Pont for the ability of allowing me to pay me to wrestle full time and win a world championship [in 1995] and Olympic gold medal, that was huge, but he killed Dave Schultz. The club would have thrived to this day. It just sucks it turned out the way it did, because it made me the best wrestler in the world. Dave Schultz had a lot to do with that, but a lot of wrestlers that followed could have not had to worry about money and could have trained and competed.”

Angle shared his gold medal with, he estimated, thousands of people before housing it in a safe.

“The gold was wearing off,” Angle said. “One kid, I remember, I was at an elementary school, and he grabbed my medal by the ribbon and started twirling it around real fast. He let go of it, and it hit the wall. There’s a big dent in my gold medal. That was the last time I brought it to an elementary school.”

Angle announced in 2011, at age 42, that he was training to come back for the 2012 Olympic Trials. He never made it, calling it off with a knee injury.

“But I trained hard for it,” Angle said, noting he still kept up appearances with Total Nonstop Action Wrestling. “I will tell you this, I wouldn’t have made the team. My goal was to place in the top three. I just missed the [thrill of] competition.”

It meant that Angle’s last match remained that Olympic final. His last moment as a freestyle wrestler having his arm raised.

“All I wanted to do was win a world championship and an Olympic gold medal, and I did them both,” Angle said, sobbing, just off the mat that night in Atlanta. “If I died tonight, I’d be the happiest man in the world.”

MORE: Most decorated U.S. female Olympian on front line of coronavirus fight

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