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Karen Chen wants to make the most of her ‘comeback year’

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LAS VEGAS — A few weeks before Skate America, Karen Chen texted her longtime coach, Tammy Gambill, that she wasn’t getting too much sleep.

“Welcome to college,” Gambill texted back.

It’s not that Gambill was unsympathetic.  She’s just seen it all before.

“That’s just part of the process I think they all have to go through,” Gambill said.

By the time Chen arrived in Las Vegas, she was battling not just sleep deprivation, but a cold. Again, Gambill wasn’t surprised.

“I think this is the first time Karen has been sick since going to college,” she said. “It was going to be inevitable at some point.”

Chen, 20, has a lot going on this fall. She’s immersed in her classes at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, where she’s majoring in human development. She’s training every morning, on her own, at a rink that’s a 10- to 15-minute drive from campus. And she’s making an admittedly stressful return to competition, after missing last season due to a stress fracture in her right foot.

So much so, that when she took the ice at the Orleans Arena on Friday, her legs felt shaky.

“It was a little scary, not going to lie,” she told reporters after her short program. “It was definitely something new to me. But regardless, I know this is what I want to do. I love competing. I just want to feel comfortable out there again.”

Chen performed a solid program, earning 66.03 points for sixth place. She didn’t hit a triple Lutz, triple toe, the combination that helped her win the U.S. title in 2017, substituting a triple-double. But she felt her competitive juices flow. (In Saturday’s free skate, she appeared fatigued and fell three times to finish eighth overall.)

“It was definitely a step in the right direction,” she said after the short.

That’s how Chen is constructing her school-and-skating balancing act: step by step.

“At first, it was just getting used to the new environment,” she said. “After that, I kind of got into a routine. Although I’m definitely busy all the time and it’s a lot of work, I love it. I’m making great new friends. I’m getting through my classes.”

Chen left for Ithaca straight from U.S. Figure Skating’s Champs Camp, held in Irvine, California in late August. The departure was bittersweet.

“It was hard for me to leave,” she said. “Not necessarily to leave the whole skating world, but to leave Tammy and my training mates and go off by myself.”

It was also challenging logistically. Officials at Champs Camp recommended some changes to her free skate, choreographed by Ilona Melnichenko to “Illumination” by Secret Garden. Chen made the tweaks, but with her first competition, a Challenger Series’ event in Canada, scheduled for Sept. 12-14, she didn’t have much time to, in her words, let the changes “marinate in my body.”

Back at Cornell, organizing her class schedule took precedence.

“I definitely had to figure it out,” Chen said. “At first, I was thinking, ‘I can definitely do five classes, it’s no big deal.’ Then I was talking to my friends taking five classes, and they’re like, ‘It’s really hard.’ And I thought, ‘Yeah, it’s really hard, and I also have to skate.’”

So Chen pared down to four, still a full-time course load. Three – Infancy and Childhood, Adulthood and Aging, and Psychology of Gender – are in her major. She’s also taking the required freshman writing seminar.

“Definitely the professors that I have, have been very, very helpful,” Chen said. “I’ve told them ahead of time, ‘This is my competition schedule, this is when I’m going to be out.’ Thankfully, it doesn’t conflict with any of my prelims or any exams.”

Communication lines are also open to U.S. Figure Skating, for help with things like locating physical therapists in the Ithaca area. And Gambill is just a text, or a video, away.

“I get some little blurbs of video,” Gambill said. “It’s hard for her to send me full tapes of things, because there is really no one at the rink to help her. She’ll set (the recorder) it on the wall.”

Chen is making it work. Cornell’s academic schedule allowed her to return to Colorado Springs to train in high altitude with Gambill for five days, which helped. The coach has said she may visit Ithaca for occasional tune-ups with her student.

“This is my comeback year and I want to make it count,” Chen said. “At the same time, I know that I’m throwing a lot of things out there. It’s been tough balancing, but I do really enjoy everything and I think I made the right decision.”

MORE ON: Bradie Tennell | Nathan Chen | Jason Brown

As a reminder, you can watch the events from the 2019-20 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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French Open: Karolina Pliskova, top player sans Slam, again exits early

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No. 2 seed Karolina Pliskova exited yet another Grand Slam in the early stages, falling to 2017 French Open champion Jelena Ostapenko of Latvia in the second round at Roland Garros on Thursday.

Ostapenko, whose only match wins at the French Open before this week came in her title run three years ago, bounced the big-serving Czech 6-4, 6-2.

Pliskova put fewer than half of her first serves in play, while Ostapenko fired 27 winners to 19 unforced errors. Pliskova was on the ropes in her first round, too, needing three sets to get past an Egyptian qualifier.

“Maybe same level as the match before, but of course [Ostapenko] is much better player,” Pliskova said. “Not much to say about this match.”

FRENCH OPEN DRAWS: Men | Women | TV Schedule

Later Thursday, top-ranked Novak Djokovic had a second straight win ceding just five games, 6-1, 6-2, 6-2 over Lithuanian Ricardas Berankis. Djokovic undefeated in 2020 save his U.S. Open default for smacking a ball that inadvertently struck a linesperson, next gets Colombian lucky loser Daniel Elahi Galán.

Nobody else in Djokovic’s half of the draw at the start of the tournament made a French Open semifinal before.

Pliskova is the highest-ranked player of either gender (No. 4) without a Grand Slam title, yet hasn’t made it past the fourth round at a major since the 2019 Australian Open.

She’s played six Slams as a No. 1 or No. 2 seed, one shy of Caroline Wozniacki‘s total before she broke through at the 2018 Australian Open and two shy of Simona Halep‘s total before she won the 2018 French Open.

Ostapenko, meanwhile, is having a very different career.

She won the 2017 Roland Garros title, two days after turning 20, while ranked 47th. She hasn’t gotten past the third round of a major since 2018 Wimbledon, including first-round French Open exits the last two years, and is back down to No. 43 in the WTA rankings.

“It’s hard to compare with 2017. As I said, it was like three years ago, and I was much younger, and also I was fearless. Nobody knew me,” Ostapenko said. “The world doesn’t stop with winning only one Grand Slam. Of course I want to achieve more, and I want to be back in top five, top 10.”

She dropped just nine games in four sets this week.

Ostapenko gets 87th-ranked Spaniard Paula Badosa in third round. Badosa dispatched 2018 French Open runner-up Sloane Stephens 6-4, 4-6, 6-2.

MORE: Serena Williams ‘struggling to walk’

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Figure skating’s Grand Prix fields look very different this season

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Before Nathan Chen is expected to go for a historic fifth straight U.S. figure skating title in January, he will, in a first, compete against most of his top countrymen later this month.

Fields for the Grand Prix Series, figure skating’s autumn international circuit, were published Thursday. As expected, every top skater entered will compete in his or her home country, or nearest to where he or she trains, and in one of the six events.

Traditionally, skaters compete in two of the six events and are scattered among competitions in the U.S., Canada, France, Russia, China and Japan based on world rankings.

But the International Skating Union restricted travel this season due to the coronavirus pandemic. Skaters are limited to compete locally. And the Grand Prix Final at the conclusion of the Grand Prix Series has been postponed from its scheduled December setting in Beijing.

That means that Chen vies for a record-tying fourth straight Skate America crown in Las Vegas in three weeks against a field mostly made up of countrymen, including Olympic teammate Vincent Zhou and U.S. bronze medalist Tomoki Hiwatashi.

In all, there are eight U.S. men entered in Skate America, 11 women (including past national champions Bradie Tennell and Gracie Gold), six pairs and nine ice dance couples (including U.S. champions Madison Chock and Evan Bates and Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue), plus some skaters from other nations who train in the U.S.

Traditionally, a country has no more than three entries per discipline at a Grand Prix event.

GRAND PRIX FIELDS: Men | Women | Pairs | Ice Dance

Sochi Olympian Jason Brown, who trains in Toronto, is entered in Skate Canada the week after Skate America.

Two-time U.S. women’s champion Alysa Liu will not be old enough for the Grand Prix Series until the 2021-22 Olympic season.

All of the reigning Olympic champions are absent from the series.

Yuzuru Hanyu of Japan previously announced he wouldn’t compete due to virus-related travel risks. Russian Alina Zagitova extended her indefinite break from competition dating to last autumn, rather choosing to participate in a skating-themed TV series.

Ice dancers Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir of Canada retired. The German pairs’ team of Aljona Savchenko and Bruno Massot last competed in the 2018 Olympic season.

Instead, the headliners include Chen, the two-time world champion undefeated since placing fifth in PyeongChang. And a deep crop of Russian teenage women, all of course entered in the Rostelecom Cup in Moscow in November.

MORE: Brian Orser reacts to Yevgenia Medvedeva’s coaching switch

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