Was this an episode of “The Twilight Zone”?
Or a spinoff using the plot of the movie, “Groundhog Day”?
And it may be said that those who fail to learn from history can be condemned to repeat it, but this was a case where Karen Chen’s redo came with as much to celebrate for U.S. figure skating as the original event at the 2017 World Championships in Helsinki.
This time, the historical record will show an even more unlikely path to the same outcome, which was having Chen’s free skate at the World Championships be the key to getting a third women’s singles spot for her country at the upcoming Olympics after a more decorated teammate had faltered.
You want more uncanny coincidence? Both took place in Nordic countries, first Finland, now Sweden.
And just as in 2017, Chen fought through mistakes on jumping passes late in her four-minute free program to come up with a good enough performance to succeed despite the pressure of a situation that, once again, she could not avoid being aware of.
Chen’s pleasantly surprising fourth place Friday at the World Championships in Stockholm, combined with Bradie Tennell’s disappointing ninth, added up to exactly the number, 13, that their finishes could not exceed for the U.S. to regain the third women’s spot they had lost in 2018.
This time, the process is not complete, however. A very confusingly written International Skating Union rule passed after the 2018 Olympics means the United States must confirm the third spot by having a skater compete at the Nebelhorn Trophy next fall, and it cannot use Chen or Tennell to do it. Mitch Moyer, high performance director for U.S. Figure Skating, said Saturday it was likely a top-nine finish at Nebelhorn would be necessary.
They cut it very close to land on 13. The difference between Chen and fifth-place finisher Loena Hendrickx of Belgium was just .00009 percent of their total scores, each a personal best: 208.63 for Chen and 208.44 for Hendrickx.
And, yes, fourth was the same place Chen finished in 2017, when the U.S. women had more breathing room because faltering rivals allowed Ashley Wagner to move up to seventh.
In a sport where the mantra is to focus only on yourself, Chen admitted in 2017 that seeing the standings before her free skate warmup had distracted her.
Fast-forward four years: she peeked again and saw that Tennell, who had skated in the previous group, stood lower than expected.
“I tried just to not look at anything, but before I got on the ice for my warmup I did happen to see what the placements looked like,” Chen said. “I felt myself tense up.
“I kind of gave myself a little pep talk and said, `Karen, it doesn’t matter. It’s just a distraction, but at the end of the day, you’re here to do your absolute best, and everything else is completely out of your control.’”
Chen, 21, said that during her first trip to the mixed zone after the free skate to speak with media (via Zoom). At that point, with Chen second and three skaters to go, all who began seven points or more ahead of her after the short program, it seemed the two U.S. finishes would total 14.
“It’s not finalized yet,” Chen said with a laugh, “but most likely it will just be two spots for us. Competing at worlds again [for the first time] since 2017 and being able to deliver two solid performances (both personal best scores) is a big win in my book.”
Thirty minutes later, after Rika Kihira of Japan stumbled repeatedly in her free skate and tumbled from second to seventh overall, Chen was back in the mixed zone to discuss the unforeseen reversal of fortune.
“I was in shock, for sure, because the situation wasn’t looking that great,” Chen said. “And really happy.”
Chen, the 2017 U.S. champion, has had a very bumpy path the past three seasons, losing one to a foot injury, beginning the next in college at Cornell before taking a leave, dealing with the pandemic. She finished third at January’s U.S. Championships but earned the second world team spot in a selection procedure that weighs more than one season’s results.
“This season has been really different than any other season for me, where it was constantly good and bad, good and bad, good and bad,” Chen said. “This is the first season where I felt I kept building.”
Meanwhile, there also were medals awarded Friday, all three to Russians, making them the only country other than the United States in 1991 to sweep the women’s singles honors at worlds.
The free skates that got Anna Shcherbakova (233.17), Yelizaveta Tuktamysheva (220.46) and Aleksandra Trusova (217.20) onto the podium were hardly ones for the history books.
Shcherbakova, 16, became the fourth different Russian woman to win in the last six worlds despite trying just one of two expected quadruple jumps and falling on it. She also was dinged by the judges on a spin and a footwork sequence.
Tuktamysheva, the 2015 world champion and a grande dame at 24, fell once, got negative grades of execution on three jumping passes and struggled throughout the program.
Trusova, 16, like the winner a senior worlds rookie, had the chutzpah to attempt her five planned quadruple jumps despite (or maybe because of) a dismal 12th-place in Wednesday’s short program, which left her some 16 points behind leader Shcherbakova.
That Trusova fell on two quads (one also called under-rotated) and had a third downgraded became of little consequence. The base values of the jumps and some very generous component scores gave her enough points to win the free skate and snag the bronze medal when Kihira imploded (one fall, two downgrades), finishing ninth in the free.
(There is a one-point technical score deduction for a fall. That there is no mandatory component score penalty for a tumble is a discussion for another day.)
Hendrickx, 21, whose best previous finish at worlds was ninth, would have the skate of the day. She was the only one of the top seven overall with an errorless free skate, good enough for just fourth because it lacked the jump difficulty of those done by the three Russians.
Tennell, the reigning U.S. champion, was underwhelming in both the short program (seventh) and free skate (eighth). In the free, she had four jumps called under-rotated, leading to negative GOEs on three jumping passes.
“Everything felt very good,” Tennell insisted.
She cited issues with support in her right skating boot as a factor. Her coach, Tom Zakrajsek, said Tennell had brought another pair but they may have needed modifications on short notice.
“This entire competition did not go nearly according to plan,” Tennell said. “I am very disappointed in my skates, especially at such an important competition.”
In 2018, Chen wound up with the third Olympic spot she had saved a year earlier. If that becomes the case again, well…does anyone have an MP4 of the unforgettably eerie Twilight Zone theme?
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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