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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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Jordan Thompson, U.S. volleyball’s new weapon, took unique route to NCAA history

Jordan Thompson
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It was about this time last year that Jordan Thompson first appeared on the radar of U.S. women’s volleyball coach Karch Kiraly. Since, Thompson emerged as the youngest starter, and arguably a star, for the national team.

She goes into what could be her final weekend of college volleyball as one of the most dominant athletes in any sport. And one of the most unique stories in NCAA history.

Thompson plays not for a Big Ten or Pac-12 powerhouse, but for Cincinnati, a school that, before she arrived, never made it past the second round of the NCAA Tournament.

The unranked Bearcats upset second-ranked Pittsburgh in the second round last Saturday. They play Penn State, winner of six of the last 12 NCAA titles, in the Sweet 16 on Friday.

In 33 games this season, Thompson has registered a Division I-leading 768 kills, which is 143 more than the next most prolific attacker. That margin of 143 is the same number that separates No. 2 from No. 31.

Last season, she had 827 kills, which was 240 more than anybody else and a single-season record (by 112 kills) since NCAA match formats shifted from 30-point to 25-point sets in 2008.

She is a contender, if not a favorite, to be AVCA National Player of the Year. All of the previous winners dating to 1985 came from schools that reached at least one Final Four.

On Oct. 4, a UCF player’s face caught the wrong end of a Thompson attack. Cincinnati teammates watching from the bench dropped to the floor in astonishment.

Thompson tallied 50 kills in one match alone on Nov. 3, becoming the first D-I player to do so in 20 years.

That happened on Senior Day. Before that match, Thompson received a plaqued No. 23 jersey and flowers.

She posed for a photo standing with her husband, former Cincinnati offensive lineman Blake Yager, her mother, Mary, whose bribes helped Thompson develop into an attacker, and her father, 1990s Harlem Globetrotter Tyrone Doleman (and brother of Pro Football Hall of Famer Chris Doleman).

Mary has been most instrumental, raising Thompson as a single mom in Minnesota. Thompson, who is 6 feet, 4 inches now, was always tall for her age.

She played youth basketball against older girls and grew frustrated by the physical contact. Kneepads weren’t comfort enough. She decided to give volleyball a try in middle school.

“She was very timid,” Mary said of her daughter, who has since gotten 10 tattoos, including one of a hummingbird. “She would tell me she didn’t want to hurt anyone on the other side of the net. I told her I would give her a dollar for every time she would whack it. And I would give her $10 if she would actually hit someone on the other end of the court.”

It took a while, but Thompson was motivated by her love of horses. The payouts from her mom went toward a saddle and a bridal. A box with horse equipment remains in the family garage back home.

“She was trying to build up her supplies to be able to one day say to me, look, I’ve got a saddle, I’ve got all of my tack, I’ve got stuff to clean the hooves, can we get a horse now?” Mary said. 

After just two years of club volleyball, Thompson received her first Division-I scholarship offer. It came from Syracuse. Thompson was a high school sophomore.

“In the back of my head, I’m thinking, I’m never going to get another offer, so I better take this one,” she said.

Thompson was intent on Syracuse for a year before a coaching change led her to decommit. She wasn’t sure if many schools knew she had reopened her recruiting. A Minnesota club teammate had committed to Cincinnati and suggested Thompson take a visit.

The Bearcats went 3-29 the season before she committed.

“I said, Jordan, you can play D-I at Texas. You can go to Nebraska,” Mary said. “She was like, no, no, I want to play all four years. I actually want to get playing time, mom. She really struggled believing how good she could be.”

The biggest obstacle came junior year. In a preseason training session, Thompson collided with that Minnesota club teammate, Jade Tingelhoff, and tore the UCL in her dominant, right arm. She was in an armpit-to-wrist brace for two months post-Tommy John surgery, including three weeks with her arm locked in place.

She couldn’t brush her hair, had a hard time brushing her teeth and found it difficult showering and getting dressed.

She still went to every Bearcats game and traveled with the team. Cincinnati went from 22-10 her sophomore season to 13-19 that year without her on the court.

“It ended up being OK,” Tingelhoff said. “She came back that next season — I’m not kidding — 10 times as better than she was even the previous year.”

As a redshirt junior, Thompson and her 827 kills helped Cincinnati to a 26-8 record and its first NCAA Tournament win in seven years. She also caught the eye of Kiraly by the end of that 2018 season.

“She was one of the elite players in all of college volleyball,” he said. “Probably the only one who came from a conference other than the ones known for producing the most NCAA champions, like the Big Ten and the Pac-12.”

By last spring break, Thompson had become a favorite of U.S coaches at a camp to help select teams for summer international tournaments.

She had a one-on-one conversation with Kiraly, the only person to own Olympic indoor and beach gold medals. The legend told her she had potential to play at the Pan American Games. Later, he upped the praise to say she was ready for the top-level Nations League, a precursor to Olympic qualifying.

Thompson made her national team debut in May. By August, she came off the bench to help spur a comeback in a crucial Olympic qualifying match. The next day, she was in the starting lineup for the U.S.’ final Olympic qualifier, where the Americans clinched a Tokyo 2020 berth.

“I think a lot people don’t know she is still in college,” two-time U.S. Olympic outside hitter Jordan Larson said then. “She still has one more year left.”

Agents reached out, but Thompson had no intention of giving up her final year of NCAA eligibility. She wanted to make history at Cincinnati. That was secured with the Sweet 16 berth.

With the new year, she will trade the Cincinnati red and black for Team USA colors. She will keep in mind what the U.S. coaching staff told the team during Olympic qualifying and what she called a dream summer.

“My big goal in life was I just wanted to be in the USA gym,” said Thompson, who is working on her master’s in criminal justice. “To hear that we’re all working towards this goal of trying to make this roster, and we are being looked as potential players to make that roster, my jaw dropped. To know that it’s even a remote possibility is mind-blowing.”

VIDEO: Brazil volleyball star faints during courtside interview

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Tahiti chosen for Olympic surfing competition at 2024 Paris Games

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Paris 2024 Olympic organizers want the surfing competition to be held in Tahiti, an island in French Polynesia that is about 9,800 miles from Paris.

It would break the record for the farthest Olympic medal competition to be held outside the host. In 1956, equestrian events were moved out of Melbourne due to quarantine laws and held five months earlier in Stockholm, some 9,700 miles away.

The Paris 2024 executive board approved the site Thursday — specifically, the village of Teahupo’o — and will propose it to the IOC. It beat out other applicants Biarritz, Lacanau, Les Landes and La Torche, all part of mainland France.

“If, ever, we have two alternatives, and where one alternative gives the athletes of a particular sport more closeness to the heart of the Games and allows them to enjoy the magic and the spirit of the Games better, then in the interest of the athletes, we prefer this solution,” IOC President Thomas Bach said in June when asked about Tahiti’s interest in hosting surfing.

Surfing will debut at the 2020 Tokyo Games but is not on the permanent Olympic program. Surfing was among sports added to the Paris 2024 program in June and could be added for the 2028 Los Angeles Games.

MORE: U.S. athletes qualified for Tokyo Olympics

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