Karen Chen could not help herself. Even while trying to narrow her focus only to the free skate she was about to do at the 2017 World Figure Skating Championships, the bigger picture distracted her 17-year-old mind.
As she came out for her warm-up with the leading six skaters after the short program, Chen, in her first senior worlds, glanced at the overall standings on the video board in Helsinki’s Hartwall Arena. The numbers showed that her veteran teammate, Ashley Wagner, then 25, competing in her seventh worlds after winning silver the year before, had a free skate result that left her in danger of losing ground from her seventh place after the short program.
That meant the United States was in danger of not having a third women’s spot at the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics, which had happened at two other Olympics when countries earned entries, in 1994 and 2010.
It meant Chen, fifth after the short program, not only realized but also admitted knowing that in this individual sport, this performance wouldn’t be only about her.
That will also be true at the 2021 World Championships beginning Wednesday in Stockholm, where Chen and reigning U.S. women’s champion Bradie Tennell are trying to earn a third women’s entry for their country at the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing. Whether the denouement is as dramatic as in 2017 is yet to be seen.
“2017 seems so long ago, but at the same time, when I close my eyes, I can remember my exact feelings,” Chen said via telephone a day before leaving for Sweden Friday.
“I understood what the stakes were: three spots for the Olympic team. So I did feel pressure. At the end of the day, when I stepped onto the ice and then got into my opening pose, all that started to melt away because my focus had to be just on skating my absolute best.”
Then as now, this is the math, for both the next year’s worlds and, every fourth year, for an upcoming Olympics: the top two U.S. women in the standings needed final places that added up to 13 or fewer to get the third spot.
The third U.S. skater in 2017, Mariah Bell, was not a factor after a 12th in the short program and a 13th-place free skate that would leave her 12th. Wagner’s error-filled (and 10th-place) free skate meant that as Chen took the ice, she felt there was little room for error.
“I definitely did not make her job any easier,” Wagner said then.
Chen reeled off her first eight jumps with ease before struggling on the final two, one a fall. She recovered to finish with a characteristically brilliant layback spin.
That turned out to be more than good enough, especially after reigning bronze medalist Anna Pogorilaya of Russia imploded in the free skate. Chen finished fourth and Wagner seventh. Wagner later tweeted her thanks to Chen for “saving America.”
It also turned out, fittingly, that the spot Chen saved was the one she eventually earned for the 2018 Olympics, joining Tennell and Mirai Nagasu in South Korea.
“I have my ups and downs for sure,” Chen said. “But after that performance, I was genuinely surprised about how I handled that [pressure]. Looking back at it now, it gives me confidence that if I could do it then, it is definitely in me to do it again.”
Chen has not been back to worlds since 2017. After a disappointing 11th at the 2018 Olympics, she withdrew from the 2018 worlds with a foot injury and boot issues. She missed the entire 2019 season with a stress fracture, then enrolled at Cornell University in the fall of 2019 but left after the pandemic hit, finishing her first year remotely while moving to Colorado Springs to rejoin her longtime coach Tammy Gambill. Chen is on leave this academic year and next.
“Coming off the year with the stress fracture, I wasn’t sure where I was going with my career or my life,” Chen said. “Then I decided to tack on school, which made my post-Olympic challenges even more challenging.
“I realized last year how much skating meant to me. I can’t be skating forever, so I wanted to go for another two years to try to make the Olympic team again, then refocus on school.”
Chen, third at this year’s U.S. Championships, got the second spot for Sweden over runner-up Amber Glenn based on criteria that take into account results at events over two seasons. The U.S. women did not have a third worlds/Olympic spot from 2009 through 2013, regained it from 2014 through 2018, lost it for 2019 and 2020 and had no chance for 2021 because the pandemic cancelled the 2020 worlds.
Coincidentally, Tennell also relocated to Colorado Springs last spring to work with a different coach, Tom Zakrajsek. Chen said although she and Tennell are often asked separately about regaining the third spot, they have discussed it only briefly with each other.
“There is pressure but there is nothing we can do about it,” Chen says, “What we can control is how we perform and train leading up to worlds.”
Can they reclaim the third spot? Based on the hypothetical (and highly unlikely) case that the three Russian and three Japanese women all skate cleanly, even clean performances by Tennell and Chen may leave them seventh and eighth, although a flawless Tennell would presumably have a shot at fifth even in a flawless field.
Without quads or triple axels, the programs Tennell and Chen did at 2021 nationals have substantially lower potential technical base values in the free skate than the 2021 nationals programs of the top two Russians, senior worlds rookies Anna Shcherbakova and Alexandra Trusova, and the leading Japanese woman, Rika Kihira. The two U.S. women’s base values also are slightly below the potential numbers for the third Russian, Elizaveta Tuktamysheva, who struggled with a watered-down program at her nationals because she had been sidelined by COVID-19 a couple weeks earlier.
Tennell, who has been working on a triple axel, declined to say last week if it had become consistent enough to try it at worlds. She gave a sidelong answer to the question of whether she needed higher-value jumps to ever contend for a world or Olympic medal.
“I can only go out there and skate to the best of my ability, what I’m training every day,” Tennell said last week. “As long as I do that, I think I will be happy. What more can I ask of myself than my very best?
“If I’m so worried about what everybody else is doing, it’s not a good mental strategy for me. Of course, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t want a spot on that podium.”
A third Olympic spot, no matter how it comes about, would also be a worthy accomplishment.
Philip Hersh, who has covered figure skating at the last 11 Olympic Winter Games, is a special contributor to NBCSports.com/figure-skating.
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