Keeping promise to herself, figure skater Karen Chen looks for an Olympic redo

ISU Grand Prix of Figure Skating - Internationaux de France
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Karen Chen left the 2018 Winter Olympics so disappointed over the subpar performances that left her in 11th place that she immediately vowed to try again.

“When I got off the ice, I remember telling myself, `You’ve got to go for another four years. This was not your dream,’” Chen said in a recent media conference.

Yet a season later, after battling an injury that kept her out of all but one minor competition, Chen no longer was so sure.

She had been admitted to Cornell University, which would mean both training far from her coaching team in Colorado Springs and chasing around near the college to find ice time. She had struggled with boot-related foot problems for years. She had accomplished the original part of her dream, which was simply making the Olympics.

Before her first semester of college, Chen thought about calling it a competitive career at age 19. She had a family meeting to discuss the issue and wound up deciding both to give it another go and also that she wanted to be a full-time student at the Ithaca, New York, school.

Her season of doing both would, like the rest of her career, be a figure skating roller coaster, with more downs than ups in 2019-20. Yet it led Chen back to her original decision about the 2022 Olympics.

“The jumbling of skating and school and managing that gave me quite a bit of clarity about how much I love the sport and that I wanted to give myself my best shot at making the team again,” Chen said.

“That fire just relit inside me, and I knew that it’s only going to get harder as you get older, so now is the time to chase those dreams.”

So she put Cornell on hold after one year, moved back to Colorado Springs and, after riding the roller coaster again, will be in Nashville at the U.S. Championships this week looking to earn one of the three U.S. women’s singles spots for next month’s Beijing Olympics. No matter what happens, she intends to return to Cornell in the fall 2022 semester.

Chen’s surprising fourth-place finish at the 2021 World Championships was the key to the U.S. earning a third spot, since reigning U.S. champion Bradie Tennell faltered.

Chen had effectively done the same thing with a surprising fourth at the 2017 worlds, after then-reigning world silver medalist Ashley Wagner faltered.

“Let’s take a moment to all thank @Karebearsk8 (Chen) for saving America because let’s be honest, she did.” Wagner had tweeted. “First time at worlds and she saves the day.”

Chen, ever modest, plays down those two high finishes at the high-pressure pre-Olympic worlds, where results determine each nation’s number of spots in the ensuing Winter Games.

“The way I look at worlds is obviously the reason I got fourth was because a lot of the other competitors had some stumbles, and I managed to skate clean,” Chen said. “In a way, I was prepared to be lucky, and I delivered what I could do, and luck just happened to be in my favor.”

Chen, 22, the 2017 U.S. champion and three-time national bronze medalist, is among perhaps five women with a shot at Team USA’s three Beijing spots. Another, Isabeau Levito, 14, is a podium contender at nationals but below the minimum age for Olympic eligibility.

The likely group of Olympic hopefuls thinned when Tennell withdrew Friday because of a lingering foot injury. Tennell not only was defending champion but the most consistent U.S. woman over the past three seasons, having followed her first U.S. title in 2018 with three more podium finishes at nationals.

Her absence leaves Chen, two-time champion Alysa Liu, Mariah Bell, Amber Glenn and possibly Lindsay Thorngren as the primary candidates for the team.

U.S. Figure Skating created a “priority process” system to help select the team, but the top contenders’ results beginning with the 2021 worlds have not clearly separated them according to the applicable criteria. Making the podium at nationals – and even winning – is no guarantee of an Olympic spot.

“When I think about nationals, I am excited, but at the same time, I get very, very nervous because only three of us get to be on the Olympic team,” Chen said.

Liu, 16, the youngest U.S. champion ever when she won her first of two straight titles in 2019, would be the odds-on title favorite but for the uncertainty created by her having changed coaches six weeks before nationals.

Liu comes to nationals with her third different coaching team in the past three seasons.

The most recent change came just before Thanksgiving, when she left Massimo Scali and Jeremy Abbott and a Bay Area training base near her home outside Oakland.

She switched to a coaching team headed by Drew Meekins in Colorado Springs. This will be her first competition under his tutelage. Meekins said they have tweaked several things in her short program.

“It’s going pretty well now,” Liu said in a recent teleconference. “At first, because there was such a sudden change for me, I wasn’t dealing with it well. After a week or two, I was fine again.”

Liu, who insisted she also had a voice in the decision, said her discomfort came from leaving Scali and Abbott behind.

“I was really sad,” she said. “They helped me a lot. They were just really nice people.”

Scali, an Italian Olympic ice dancer who officially became Liu’s primary coach in July 2020, and Abbott, a four-time U.S. singles champion who came onboard a few months later, helped Liu through a transition year in which physical changes and a hip injury curtailed her ability to do the big jumps (triple axel, quads) that had propelled her to the two U.S. titles. She still managed to finish fourth at last year’s nationals.

Liu opened this season, her first as a senior internationally, with three straight victories – two at “B”-level Challenger Series events in which she earned her two highest total scores of the season. At the two Grand Prix events that followed, half her free skate jumping passes were flawed, and she finished fifth and fourth.

She has received negative grades on all six triple axel attempts – none fully rotated – and no longer is trying quads.

This is the first nationals in which Liu has a major prize – beyond the title – at stake. She said seeking to make the Olympic team is not a burden.

“I don’t feel that much pressure anymore because I have blocked out everyone’s expectations of me,” Liu said. “I stopped caring (about) and hearing what other people were saying. I realized how silly they sounded.”

Tennell’s recently expressed determination to skate at nationals was not enough to overcome the injury that had kept her out of competition all season.

“I don’t like to give up when things get hard, but time has not been my friend this year and now it’s run out,” she wrote on Instagram.

The 23-year-old, also the top U.S. finisher in women’s singles (ninth) at the 2018 Olympics, said last week that no matter what happened at nationals, she planned to compete next season and beyond.

“There’s no end in sight for me,” Tennell said.

Bell, 25, and Glenn, 22, have been on different trajectories since the 2021 championships.

After her best national championship finish ever in 2020, a second place, Bell staggered into fifth last season and was decidedly unimpressive in her first two competitions this season. Two solid performances (including her second-highest free skate score internationally) for fourth place at the late November Rostelecom Cup in Sochi, Russia, the final Grand Prix event, were a confidence boost.

“I am really happy,” Bell said in Russia. “I had a lot of improvement since my last competition in France.

Glenn’s dazzling free skate at the 2021 national championships gave her second place and put her squarely into the Olympic team discussion. Injured to begin this season and forced to withdraw from her first competition after the short program, she has struggled at every event but Skate America, where she was sixth with easily the best international free skate score of her career.

“I still have that confidence (from 2021 nationals),” Glenn said at Skate America.

Thorngren, 16, who competed internationally as a junior this season after a sixth at senior nationals last January, is a long shot Olympic team contender.

“I know what I want to do this year…I want to make the Olympic team,” Thorngren told U.S. Figure Skating Fan Zone.

And then there is a sentimental favorite, 2014 Olympian and two-time U.S. champion Gracie Gold, 26, who has earned a spot in the now 17-skater field after having missed the 2018 and 2019 nationals while working her way through depression, anxiety and eating disorder issues.

Based on her results the past two seasons, Gold is far from figuring among the Olympic team contenders, but the resolve that has gotten her this far is impressive. She has needed to gain her place at nationals in qualifying events for three straight years.

“I want to enjoy, despite everything, how much progress I ultimately have made,” Gold said while finishing 13th at last year’s nationals, an outlook that also should carry her this week.

Philip Hersh, who has covered figure skating at the last 11 Winter Olympics, is a special contributor to

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World figure skating championships the latest chapter of Deanna Stellato-Dudek’s comeback


There are so many improbabilities in the story of how Canadian pair team Deanna Stellato-Dudek and Maxime Deschamps got to this week’s world figure skating championships that the whole thing reads like a flight of fancy.

You start with a talented junior singles skater from suburban Chicago named Deanna Stellato, whose skates had sat in a closet at her mother’s home for 16 years after injuries pushed her from the sport.

You bring her back to the skating world in 2016 as a married woman of 33 with a different name, Deanna Stellato-Dudek, and in a different event, pairs, making the switch on the recommendation of U.S. Figure Skating high performance director Mitch Moyer.

You have Moyer able to make that suggestion because he coincidentally was visiting a Florida rink the day Stellato-Dudek went there to sound out her old singles coach, Cindy Caprel, about the idea of a comeback.

You end her 12-year career as an aesthetician in a plastic surgery practice and have her go back to the ice, keeping her apart for long stretches from her husband of nine years, Michael Dudek, a Chicago-based turnover management specialist.

You have her begin a pairs’ career in summer 2016 as the partner of a 2014 Olympian, Nathan Bartholomay, with whom she would win bronze medals at the 2018 and 2019 U.S. Championships before the partnership ended when a bum knee made Bartholomay’s competitive future uncertain.

“I was still gung-ho on continuing until 2022,” Stellato-Dudek said.


You hear her talk of having messaged everyone she ever had met in skating to see if they knew of a possible new partner and have one reply, from 2018 Olympic pairs’ bronze medalist Meagan Duhamel and her husband, Bruno Marcotte, a pairs’ coach, tell Stellato-Dudek they had the perfect guy for her.

You have it be a guy she had never heard of, Maxime Deschamps, a French-Canadian from suburban Montreal who had skated with eight previous partners, finished no higher than fifth at the senior level at the Canadian Championships with any of them and thought of ending his competitive career many times.

“Yes, it’s kind of an unusual pairing,” said their coach, Josée Picard.

You have their tryout in June 2019 be the skating version of love at first sight, leading Stellato-Dudek to cancel scheduled sessions with other potential partners.

You have their getting-to-know-you workouts in Montreal stopped cold by the Covid pandemic, forcing them to train outside whenever there was ice for much of a year.

“We made the best of what we could do,” Deschamps said. “It was a really hard time. We questioned ourselves a lot. The goals we were setting up as markers keep us going and able to pass through those hard times.”

You have them begin this season after the first extensive offseason training of their partnership and watch them win a silver medal at Skate America that makes Stellato-Dudek, 39, the oldest medalist in the 25-season history of the Grand Prix Series.

You have them win their second Grand Prix event before Stellato-Dudek comes down with a respiratory virus (RSV, not Covid) that has her coughing, feverish and listless and eventually paralyzes her left vocal cord, inhibiting her swallowing, breathing and speech to the point she needs ongoing work with a speech pathologist to relearn how to talk.

“It was a big setback,” Picard said of the lingering sickness. “It was three months, and we had to adjust a lot of things and diminish the amount of training and do everything very, very carefully.”

You have doctors tell her there is no risk in continuing to train and compete (other than the risks that come with pairs’ skating, in which the woman is flung across the rink and carried some seven feet above a hard and slippery surface), but it isn’t easy training while constantly out of breath and having difficulty swallowing water. That Stellato-Dudek would keep at it impressed her coach.

“Just to come back at 30-some years old and do a totally different discipline in the first place shows that somebody has a lot of ambitions and a lot of goals and a lot of guts,” Picard said. “This just amplifies it, you know, to show that she’s not giving up, and she has all the willpower, and she wants to succeed.”

You have her fight through the Canadian national championships out of her desire to give Deschamps, 31, a shot at his first national title – and have them win.

“I really had a strong will,” Stellato-Dudek said. “I thought to myself, ‘If this was the Olympic Games, I would be skating.’

“Max really stepped up in our partnership during that time. Often, it’s not both partners who are able to give 100 percent. For those three months, I was able to give 80 percent, and Max was making up for that 20 percent and still giving his 100 percent, so he was giving 120.”

You have her healthy as they go to the world championships beginning Wednesday in Saitama, Japan, with a decent chance for Stellato-Dudek, now 39, to win her second world medal, the other a silver from the world junior championships 23 years ago.

And, finally, you have them looking toward the 2026 Olympics where she could, at the age of 42 years and 229 days, be the oldest woman to compete in Olympic figure skating since 1928 and the third oldest in history, according to (That’s assuming Stellato-Dudek gets Canadian citizenship in time for a chance at the team; it is required for her to represent Canada at the Olympics, but not at other international competitions after U.S. Figure Skating granted her a release.)

“I think I’ve lasted a lot longer than anybody thought I could — even now,” Stellato-Dudek said.

How prophetic it seems that her mother, Ann, told me in an interview for a 2000 Chicago Tribune story, “Deanna is a worker, not a child prodigy.”

Among all the unlikely parts of this tale, Stellato-Dudek’s age has attracted the most attention. The subject has become amusing to her, so much so that when Canadian figure skating press officer Karine Bedard tells Stellato-Dudek about an interview request, she will answer lightheartedly, “What do they want to interview me about? Skating while old?”

The truth is Stellato-Dudek has come to embrace such questions after a family member told her, “I think what you are doing is bigger than you.”

Stellato-Dudek began to gain that perspective in reading the hundreds of messages she said she has received from people who say they have been encouraged by her comeback to return to something they also loved.

“They will say, ‘I’ve always wanted to go back, but I’ve been too busy or too afraid to kind of step foot back in the rink, but I know that you started from somewhere so I can start from somewhere, too,’” Stellato-Dudek said. “And I thought maybe what I’m doing has a bigger meaning than even just what I’m doing for myself. It takes myself out of it a little bit and brings it back to something even bigger than just my personal goals.”

A similar desire to keep doing something he loved – and the dream of getting to the Olympics – is what led Deschamps to continue skating when progress was elusive and push came to shove, forcing him to interrupt his studies for a bachelor’s degree in kinesiology after two years because he couldn’t afford both the sport and school.

When asked to give more than 100 percent this season, which is impossible physically, he found the extra contribution by remaining upbeat as his partner struggled to train.

“It was mostly the mental part, (giving extra) to keep it positive because it was way harder (without) the physical capacity for the things,” Deschamps said. “And that’s how we were able to keep going.”

The interruptions caused by the pandemic mean that their four years together have included just two full competitive seasons. That has dramatically reduced the time each has had to learn the nuances of a new partner – and for Stellato-Dudek to master different techniques she has learned in Canada, like her hand placement on throws, in which she used to place both hands on her right shoulder but now has her left arm wrapped around the front of her body and the right arm around the back.

“There was a lot I had to do control-alt-delete and restart for,” she said.

“(Our skating) has just been evolving and evolving,” Deschamps said. “And we’re just trying to push our limits every single time, trying new elements, trying to even improve the sport by doing new stuff.”

One such element is the forward outside death spiral, hardest of the four types of death spirals (with the highest base value.) According to, only 11 pair teams have done it internationally over the 19 seasons of the current judging system, including two Olympic champions: Chinese pairs Shen Xue and Zhao Hongbo and Sui Wenjing and Han Cong. Only one other team, Alisa Efimova and Ruben Blommaert of Germany, has done it internationally this season.

In the absence of the long-dominant Russian pairs, barred from international competition since their country’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine 13 months ago, Stellato-Dudek and Deschamps have the fourth-best score this season of the 23 teams in the world championships field.

From last season to now, their personal bests in the short program, free skate and total have improved by 28 percent, 12 percent, and 16 percent, respectively. They have won medals at four of their five international events this season, finishing fourth at the Grand Prix Final, when Stellato-Dudek began to feel the effects of the virus.

“We always believed that (the success) was a possibility, but this season has surprised both of us,” she said. “When it began, we were getting a lot of positive feedback from everyone who had seen us, but you know, you don’t really believe that until you go to an event, and you get a new high score you’ve never received before.”

The high international scores and medals would send them to the Canadian Championships in the unexpected and potentially discomfiting position of being heavy favorites. They overcame the psychological and physical burdens to win the national title, a crowning achievement for many elite skaters.

“That was a brand-new place for us to be,” Stellato-Dudek said. “We’ve never been chased. We’ve always been chasing.

“We’re gaining a lot of very valuable experience. Because it’s a very new place to be mentally.”

It’s the place she always wanted to be. And there, truth be told, you have the plot of a neverending story that is no longer a fantasy.

Philip Hersh, who has covered figure skating at the last 12 Winter Olympics, is a special contributor to

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Kanak Jha, U.S.’ top table tennis player, banned for missed drug tests

Kanak Jha

Kanak Jha, the U.S.’ highest-ranked singles table tennis player, was given a backdated one-year ban for missing drug tests.

Jha, No. 23 in the world, was banned for missing three drug tests last year: March 18, June 2 and Sept. 4.

Athletes in Olympic sports face bans if they miss three drug tests in a 12-month span.

Jha, a two-time Olympian who has never tested positive for a banned substance, was given a reduced ban of one year, backdated to last Dec. 1, the date his provisional suspension was imposed.

First-time bans for missed drug tests can be as long as two years, but Jha was deemed by an arbitrator to have a light amount of fault and wasn’t trying to evade testing.

Jha disputed his third missed test, hoping it would be thrown out to avoid a ban.

During his one-hour testing window on Sept. 4, he was not present at the German address he listed on his doping-control forms, though he was at a nearby address.

The drug tester attempted to call Jha before his one-hour testing window was up, but the call did not go through as the tester did not dial the “+1” country code for a U.S. phone. Jha did not include the country code on his contact information and testified that the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency never informed that he had to list a country code.

However, drug testers are not required to call athletes who do not answer their doors for random, out-of-competition tests.

Jha, who in 2016 became the first American born in the 2000s to qualify for an Olympics, lost his opening match in singles at the Rio and Tokyo Games.

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