Karen Chen has had no choice but to turn into a problem solver.
In January 2017, Karen Chen became the first U.S. national champion in five years not named Ashley Wagner or Gracie Gold.
Chen won that year’s U.S. national title after just a so-so season. Her next two competitions were polar opposites of each other. First up was the Four Continents Championships in South Korea, which took place in the same venue that will host Olympic competition in PyeongChang. She managed a 12th place finish.
At the time, she revealed boots (the “shoe” part of the figure skate itself) weren’t fitting properly. It was partly due to her growth spurt and partly due to the flat shape of her foot. Additionally, the sole part of the boot had broken down and contributed to her ongoing knee pain. She has a brother – not Nathan Chen, though – and had even borrowed his skates at one point. Now, she has a custom boot company that fit her for skates. She’ll have two pairs with her at the Games. Problem solved.
Her next competition was the world championships. On a media call before she left, Chen said she collided with another skater on the ice. She went to her acupuncturist while her leg was bruised, but otherwise she felt fine, she said. One more problem solved.
At the world championships, she was brilliant. With Olympic quota spots on the line, Chen finished fourth. She was 14.23 points off the podium and is a major reason the U.S. has three ladies’ entries in PyeongChang.
Chen started off her Olympic season by withdrawing from an event in Philadelphia (it turns out, Bradie Tennell – then still a relative unknown – won there). She bruised her knee after the short program and did not compete the free skate.
Then, she changed her free skate music twice, before eventually settling on what she used for the pre-Olympic season. She also went back to her 2016-17 season short program. Another problem solved.
In her book “Finding the Edge: My Life on the Ice,” published in November, Chen revealed she had been suffering from a debilitating back condition. After intense core muscle strengthening, the problem was… maybe not solved, but at least managed.
Chen continued her Olympic season with a bronze medal at the U.S. International Classic in September. She was assigned to Skate Canada and Skate America on the Grand Prix series, where she finished seventh and eighth, respectively. At the national championships in January, she was third after the short program. She held on for a bronze medal after the free skate, reportedly while fighting off flu-like symptoms, and secured a spot on the Olympic team.
On her recent media teleconference, Chen revealed she was dealing with a cold. Despite feeling stuffy and congested, she continued to talk to reporters.
“I know I’ve shown a lot of inconsistency,” she said. “I’m ready to let that all go, and let that all go behind me. I learned a lot from it. Nationals did go relatively well – I made the team. I am proud of the skates that I put out there. There’s so much to work on and so much more improvement to get done. I’ve been staying focused on improving those little things.”
Chen talks through these worries with her mentor, 1992 Olympic gold medalist Kristi Yamaguchi. They share the same hometown, Freemont, Calif., and Chen has been a recipient of Yamaguchi’s scholarship program in the past. They met in the same Freemont café they’ve been chatting in for years before Chen departed for the 2018 Olympics.
“Before nationals, I sat down at a little café with her and we chatted for a little bit which was extremely helpful,” Chen recalled. “All her advice, and just her talking about her experiences helped me with mine. Last week, I also sat down at the same exact café, the same exact table, the same exact chairs, and we had the same exact drinks. We had the same exact conversation but not about nationals, but Olympics. Hearing her talk about her experience and what she enjoyed the most and how she was able to prepare and stay focused, I benefitted from that. I’m thankful for it.”
When Chen gets to PyeongChang, she could be a wildcard. With these inconsistencies behind her, and those problems crossed off the list, she wants audiences to embrace the sport and the athletes’ stories.
“I really do hope that they can be inspired, because I have been inspired by so many people,” Chen said. “Not just Kristi. I’ve been inspired by Mirai Nagasu as well and her amazing story… I’m in a way one of her biggest fans. I’m hoping younger skaters can see me and be inspired to put in the effort and dedication into skating, because skating’s such a wonderful thing. You really learn a lot and grow from it.”