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.”
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