Lynn Rutherford

Freelance sportswriter covering Olympic sports.
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Karen Chen wants to make the most of her ‘comeback year’

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LAS VEGAS — A few weeks before Skate America, Karen Chen texted her longtime coach, Tammy Gambill, that she wasn’t getting too much sleep.

“Welcome to college,” Gambill texted back.

It’s not that Gambill was unsympathetic.  She’s just seen it all before.

“That’s just part of the process I think they all have to go through,” Gambill said.

By the time Chen arrived in Las Vegas, she was battling not just sleep deprivation, but a cold. Again, Gambill wasn’t surprised.

“I think this is the first time Karen has been sick since going to college,” she said. “It was going to be inevitable at some point.”

Chen, 20, has a lot going on this fall. She’s immersed in her classes at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, where she’s majoring in human development. She’s training every morning, on her own, at a rink that’s a 10- to 15-minute drive from campus. And she’s making an admittedly stressful return to competition, after missing last season due to a stress fracture in her right foot.

So much so, that when she took the ice at the Orleans Arena on Friday, her legs felt shaky.

“It was a little scary, not going to lie,” she told reporters after her short program. “It was definitely something new to me. But regardless, I know this is what I want to do. I love competing. I just want to feel comfortable out there again.”

Chen performed a solid program, earning 66.03 points for sixth place. She didn’t hit a triple Lutz, triple toe, the combination that helped her win the U.S. title in 2017, substituting a triple-double. But she felt her competitive juices flow. (In Saturday’s free skate, she appeared fatigued and fell three times to finish eighth overall.)

“It was definitely a step in the right direction,” she said after the short.

That’s how Chen is constructing her school-and-skating balancing act: step by step.

“At first, it was just getting used to the new environment,” she said. “After that, I kind of got into a routine. Although I’m definitely busy all the time and it’s a lot of work, I love it. I’m making great new friends. I’m getting through my classes.”

Chen left for Ithaca straight from U.S. Figure Skating’s Champs Camp, held in Irvine, California in late August. The departure was bittersweet.

“It was hard for me to leave,” she said. “Not necessarily to leave the whole skating world, but to leave Tammy and my training mates and go off by myself.”

It was also challenging logistically. Officials at Champs Camp recommended some changes to her free skate, choreographed by Ilona Melnichenko to “Illumination” by Secret Garden. Chen made the tweaks, but with her first competition, a Challenger Series’ event in Canada, scheduled for Sept. 12-14, she didn’t have much time to, in her words, let the changes “marinate in my body.”

Back at Cornell, organizing her class schedule took precedence.

“I definitely had to figure it out,” Chen said. “At first, I was thinking, ‘I can definitely do five classes, it’s no big deal.’ Then I was talking to my friends taking five classes, and they’re like, ‘It’s really hard.’ And I thought, ‘Yeah, it’s really hard, and I also have to skate.’”

So Chen pared down to four, still a full-time course load. Three – Infancy and Childhood, Adulthood and Aging, and Psychology of Gender – are in her major. She’s also taking the required freshman writing seminar.

“Definitely the professors that I have, have been very, very helpful,” Chen said. “I’ve told them ahead of time, ‘This is my competition schedule, this is when I’m going to be out.’ Thankfully, it doesn’t conflict with any of my prelims or any exams.”

Communication lines are also open to U.S. Figure Skating, for help with things like locating physical therapists in the Ithaca area. And Gambill is just a text, or a video, away.

“I get some little blurbs of video,” Gambill said. “It’s hard for her to send me full tapes of things, because there is really no one at the rink to help her. She’ll set (the recorder) it on the wall.”

Chen is making it work. Cornell’s academic schedule allowed her to return to Colorado Springs to train in high altitude with Gambill for five days, which helped. The coach has said she may visit Ithaca for occasional tune-ups with her student.

“This is my comeback year and I want to make it count,” Chen said. “At the same time, I know that I’m throwing a lot of things out there. It’s been tough balancing, but I do really enjoy everything and I think I made the right decision.”

MORE ON: Bradie Tennell | Nathan Chen | Jason Brown

As a reminder, you can watch the events from the 2019-20 figure skating season live and on-demand with the ‘Figure Skating Pass’ on NBC Sports Gold. Go to NBCsports.com/gold/figure-skating to sign up for access to every ISU Grand Prix and championship event, as well as domestic U.S. Figure Skating events throughout the season. NBC Sports Gold gives subscribers an unprecedented level of access on more platforms and devices than ever before.

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Jason Brown makes special season debut at Skate America after concussion setback

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LAS VEGAS — When Jason Brown and his coach, Tracy Wilson, talk about the concussion that kept the skater out of Nebelhorn Trophy in Obertsdorf, Germany last month, they say the same thing: “It could have been much, much worse.”

In late August, Brown traveled from his training home in Toronto to Irvine, California for U.S. Figure Skating’s Champs Camp. During his ride from the airport, Brown and Wilson say, the vehicle transporting him was involved in a T-bone collision.

“The airbags went off, and he was wearing a seat belt, God bless him,” Wilson said.

“If there’s a bright side, it’s that it happened at Champs Camp,” Brown said. “I had the U.S. team doctors. I followed concussion and whiplash protocol.”

Still, the accident cost the 2015 U.S. champion and 2014 Olympic team bronze medalist the chance to gain feedback on his programs, something he calls “more than a little disappointing.” It also cost him the opportunity of a critique from U.S. Figure Skating officials at Champs Camp.

“I was able to stay on the ice, but I could not spin, and jumps were hit and miss,” Brown said. “I couldn’t really run programs. It’s been only the last 10 days I could do run-throughs.”

“The issue became adding things in the program, without him having a setback,” Wilson said. “The last hurdle was being able to get the spins into the program. Right before Germany, the week before he was to leave, we put spins in the program. He did them, but felt sick the rest of the day. He was up and down, but now everything is good.”

Considering the circumstances, Brown cannot be too disappointed about in the 83.45 points he earned at Skate America on Friday for his “I Can’t Go On Without You” short program, choreographed by Rohene Ward.

The U.S. bronze medalist popped his triple Axel into a single, but the rest of the program was superb. He placed fourth.

“I would say he’s 100% physically, but he’s missed a lot of training,” Wilson, who trains Brown with Brian Orser, said. “It’s still early in the season. Quads are going really well in practice, the Axel is beautiful. It’s now getting him out there in competition. We always love to have a competition before Grand Prix season but we don’t, so work with it.”

And so in Las Vegas on Saturday, Brown will do what he had hoped to do in Germany: debut his free skate to music from Schindler’s List, choreographed by David Wilson.

It’s a program that’s been many years in the making.

“My background, obviously, is Jewish, and the story is so touching,” Brown said. “I grew up learning about the Holocaust and about Oskar Schindler and the stories. I always wanted to skate to it, but it has to be when I’m at the level, maturity-wise, that I’m really ready to skate to it.”

Other skaters – Julia Lipnitskaia and Joshua Farris come to mind – did justice to the theme as teenagers. But Brown, now 24, wanted to wait.

“People’s performances to it are unbelievable; I remember when Josh Farris skated to it and I was in awe,” he said. “He was outstanding, and he was younger, so I think it depends on the person.

“There is a sense of simplistic maturity that needs to be developed before you skate to something and really grasp what you are skating to, and for me, it took until now to say, ‘I am ready.’”

MORE: How to watch Skate America

There was another hurdle. Brown is known for interpreting little-used music, and Schindler’s List doesn’t fit that bill. But when he approached David Wilson with the idea, the choreographer was immediately on board.

“We were brainstorming a bunch of pieces and listening to soundtracks, and I said, ‘I don’t know if you want to run with this,’” Brown recalled. “I told him, ‘I want to put my own take on it and see what I can bring to life.’ And he didn’t hesitate.”

While Brown doesn’t intend for his program to be a history lesson, he hopes it will inspire fans to reflect on the events depicted in the 1993 film, which won the Academy Award for best picture.

“I think as performers a part of our job is to teach and to get people engaged in the story you’re trying to tell on the ice,” he said. “The point is to have the passion and intensity with I skate to it and get the story across.”

A quadruple jump will likely not figure into Brown’s free skate here at Skate America, although Tracy Wilson says he is consistently landing the quad Salchow in practices in Toronto.

“What happened is, our training got severely set back,” Wilson explained. “The salchow is beautiful. It’s an easy jump when he’s connecting, so it’s right there. The (quad) toe is coming.”

Brown is the first to admit that a quad has been in the works for many seasons. He has never landed a fully clean four-revolution jump in competition; his superior skating skills, spins and showmanship have kept him competitive during skating’s technical revolution. But he believes the breakthrough will come.

“It’s one of those things where I know I’m capable,” he said. “It’s a mix of its frustrating, yet it continues to drive me forward.

“When I first moved to Toronto [in May 2018], we kind of focused in on the Salchow, rather than the toe. Because I had not worked on it that much, [my coaches] had an easier time adapting me to it. It’s in the free in the future, but here, I’m trying to get a handle on the program.”

Tracy Wilson, too, thinks it will come in time – hopefully, this season.

“You have to be true to your skater,” she said. “What Brian and I always try to do, is work to the individual. If you look back to the Yuzu (Hanyu) and Javi (Fernandez) days, what they wanted and needed to do was totally different. Jason is equally special in what he has to offer the sport. He wants the quads in there in order to control his destiny.”

MORE: Nathan Chen hopes to hip hop his way to Skate America crown

As a reminder, you can watch the events from the 2019-20 figure skating season live and on-demand with the ‘Figure Skating Pass’ on NBC Sports Gold. Check out a free trial of the Figure Skating Pass during Skate America from Oct. 18-20. Go to NBCsports.com/gold/figure-skating to sign up for access to every ISU Grand Prix and championship event, as well as domestic U.S. Figure Skating events throughout the season. NBC Sports Gold gives subscribers an unprecedented level of access on more platforms and devices than ever before.

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!

Bradie Tennell’s personality shines through at Skate America

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LAS VEGAS — At Skate America on Friday night, fans got a glimpse of the “real” Bradie Tennell — strong, smart, funny; a little salty, but a little sweet.

Performing a short program set to a fast-paced medley of Kirrill Richter’s staccato piano compositions, Tennell practically gave off sparks while unleashing a solid triple Lutz, triple toe loop combination, liquid spins and her best steps ever.

The Las Vegas crowd gave her a standing ovation and so did the judges, who awarded the 2019 U.S. national silver medalist a personal best 75.10 points.

For the first time ever, Tennell leads a Grand Prix event, taking a 1.85-point advantage into Saturday’s free skate.

“I went out with the mindset to do it like I do every day in practice, no better but certainly no worse,” she said.

The 21-year-old skater, who grabbed attention with a surprising bronze medal at 2017 Skate America and went on to win the 2018 U.S. title, hasn’t always revealed as much of herself in interviews as some of her peers. She’s mostly been content with doing her job on the ice, and last season placed a solid seventh at the world championships.

“I think (this program) just allows me to show the side of myself that I am off the ice with my family, a little bit more sarcastic, a little bit funny,” Tennell said. “It’s almost like an onion when you peel back the layers. To show this program is a challenge for me but it’s a challenge I welcome.”

Longtime coach Denise Myers, who trains Tennell in the Chicago area, likes the new lens the program creates.

“Brady is a fun-loving personality that maybe now the world is getting to see a little better,” Myers said. “No surprise to me.”

The electricity Tennell ignited on Friday proves that when a skater loves her material, magic can happen. This isn’t the program Tennell and choreographer Benoit Richaud intended to use. An earlier routine, choreographed in May, failed to inspire the skater. When she saw Richaud at a training camp in Courchevel, France in June, she asked him to try again.

“So then he puts up this music and I’m like, ‘What is this, this is so cool, this is my music, let’s start now,’” Tennell recalled. “I was so excited to find this piece of music and use it…. Yeah, I love this program.”

Skate America is Tennell’s first competition of the season; a fractured bone in her right foot forced her to withdraw from a Challenger Series’ event in Canada last month. The injury kept her off of the ice for much of the summer, and when she attended U.S. Figure Skating’s Champ Camp in late August, she was wearing a protective boot.

“Before my injury, I can’t remember the last time I didn’t have pain on the ice with my feet,” Tennell said. “It felt really bad at the beginning of July, and then it started to get progressively worse really quickly. So I went to the doctor and got some scans done, and they said, ‘Yeah, you’ve got a break in the bone there.’”

About a month ago, Tennell returned to full training, resolving to make up for lost time.

“That’s just her determination,” Myers said. “You have to listen to what your body is saying. She’s just very determined to have a successful season.”

MORE: How to watch Skate America

Tennell’s free skate, also choreographed by Richaud, is set to music from the romantic 1988 film Cinema Paradiso.

“It’s a totally different feel, that’s what’s so exciting about this year,” Myers said. “The short is a little sassier, a little more mature, and the other program is so soft and feminine.”

It will take every ounce of Tennell’s mettle to stay on the Skate America podium. Japanese skaters Kaori Sakamoto and Wakaba Higuchi, both powerhouse jumpers, are close behind in second and third place. Russian teen Anna Shcherbakova sits fourth with 67.60 points and can make up the deficit if she lands the quadruple Lutz she showed at a Challenger event in Italy last month. In practices in Las Vegas, Shcherbakova has included two quad lutzes in her run-throughs. More on the results of the ladies’ short program from Friday evening in Las Vegas here.

MORE: Nathan Chen hopes to hip hop his way to Skate America crown

As a reminder, you can watch the events from the 2019-20 figure skating season live and on-demand with the ‘Figure Skating Pass’ on NBC Sports Gold. Check out a free trial of the Figure Skating Pass during Skate America from Oct. 18-20. Go to NBCsports.com/gold/figure-skating to sign up for access to every ISU Grand Prix and championship event, as well as domestic U.S. Figure Skating events throughout the season. NBC Sports Gold gives subscribers an unprecedented level of access on more platforms and devices than ever before.

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!