GREENSBORO, N.C. – Karen Chen’s competitive juices are flowing again.
After missing last season with a right foot stress fracture, the 20-year-old skater had up-and-down performances at her Grand Prix events this season, putting out solid short programs only to falter a bit in free skates.
But on Friday night at the 2020 U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Greensboro, North Carolina, the Cornell freshman recaptured some of the form that won her the 2017 U.S. title. She covered the ice with speed and assurance, and her opening triple Lutz was one of the finest in the event. Earning 123.24 points, she rose from fifth after the short program to place fourth overall.
A fine job, but not entirely satisfying.
“It was pretty disappointing, I felt like I definitely trained harder and I’ve done better,” Chen said, citing a missed triple flip.
A few minutes later, she gave longtime coach Tammy Gambill a jolt.
“Coming here and competing and being able to accomplish quite a bit here at nationals, although I feel like I could’ve done better, I know that school was definitely a factor into my training,” Chen said.
“I think I’m going to have to take some time to kind of re-evaluate while I’m on spring semester and just kind of see. Obviously, juggling two (priorities) is quite challenging. I think I would have to maybe take a gap year or something.”
If that’s Chen’s decision, Gambill certainly won’t try to talk her out of it.
“We haven’t discussed it, so I was kind of happy for her to just say that,” Gambill said. “I know what I’m thinking, but I wanted to get through this competition and then discuss what our plans were for next year.”
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Maintaining top competitive form while attending Cornell, an Ivy League college in Ithaca, New York, is challenging for Chen. She cannot get much ice time at the campus arena, and travels to a rink 10-15 minutes away to train on her own.
“Thankfully (the rink) has a lot of ice time that they were able to give me,” Chen said. “I had private ice, which was good and bad at the same time.”
There is much Chen loves about college: making friends outside of the skating world, living in her own dorm room, her classes in human development. Still, her most effective on-ice training has happened during academic breaks, when she returns to Colorado Springs to work with Gambill.
“I had to kind of put school as a priority, since classes are not negotiable,” Chen said. “Whatever the time is, you have to show up and do it. Then, having to figure out the times where I could fit skating in, and time for off-ice training was… it look a while to kind of figure out what was working and what made sense. I was lucky enough to have a solid two or three week winter break where I was able to train in Colorado before coming here.”
Chen did make time to scrap her free skate, a recurring theme in her career. Following her ninth-place finish at NHK Trophy in late November, she worked with Ilona Melnichenko to revivify a prior routine set to music from Slow Dancing in the Big City.
“She wasn’t feeling her free, it wasn’t working for her,” Gambill said. “It’s like, we’re not doing this program again after two disaster long programs (at Grand Prixes).”
“Things were much better here,” she added. “Karen had a few mistakes in there, but I think she’s back on the right track. She’s going in the right direction.”
While Chen’s plan is to return to Cornell for the second semester of her freshman year – which began on January 21st – something else might appear on her calendar: the 2020 Four Continents Figure Skating Championships, held in Seoul, South Korea February 4-9. If offered the assignment, Gambill hopes Chen will accept.
“We have not discussed that and that’s something that if it comes to it, we will sit down and try and talk about what our options are,” Gambill said. “I would hope that she would be able to do it. I think the more she can get out and compete right now, the better she’s going to be.”
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