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 NBCSports.com/figure-skating.

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