Ice Network

Tar Heel tales: Chen has a big fan in Yamaguchi

Josephs return to U.S. championships; Hamilton remembers Cranston
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Karen Chen surprised many when she won the U.S. senior ladies bronze medal, but Kristi Yamaguchi knew the young skater was capable of the performance. -Jay Adeff

For many skating fans, the 4-foot-10 Karen Chen seemingly came out of nowhere to win the bronze medal at the 2015 U.S. Figure Skating Championships. She was so tiny on the big stage that when she went to receive her medal, champion Ashley Wagner helped her up onto the podium.

The medal-winning performance wasn't so surprising to one viewer: Kristi Yamaguchi.

The Olympic champion has been one of Chen's backers for the past few years. Both hail from Fremont, California, and Yamaguchi has served as a mentor of sorts to the 15-year-old ever since the two were introduced at a local rink.

Yamaguchi was at home Saturday night watching the NBC broadcast with her family in Alamo, California, and cheered when Tara Lipinski and Johnny Weir mentioned Chen's hometown in the telecast.

"I was nervous for her," Yamaguchi said. "But I know what a hard worker she is and how dedicated she is to her training.

"I would say this: It was not unexpected but this was a huge jump for her."

Yamaguchi reached out to Chen after watching the icenetwork broadcast of the short program, in which Chen placed sixth.

"After the long program, I texted her and told her, 'Wow. You killed it out there.'"

Chen opened her free skate with a triple Lutz-triple toe combination, which was under-rotated, and reeled off four other triples, including a second triple Lutz in the second half of the program. She earned 135.13 points in the free skate for a final total of 199.79. She finished third behind Sochi Olympians Wagner and Gracie Gold and was 7.17 points ahead of another 2014 Olympian, Polina Edmunds.

Chen was thrilled with her performance on the ice, but she also reveled in the aftermath, especially taking selfies with the medalists on the podium.

Chen no longer lives in the Bay Area. She trains in the southern part of the state, in Riverside, with coaches Tammy Gambill and Justin Dillon, but she has remained in close contact with Yamaguchi. Chen was a guest performer in the Golden Moment show, which Yamaguchi and Brian Boitano put on in November, and Chen has been a recipient of Yamaguchi's Always Striving scholarship, a program to help with training funds. (Chen also has been a recipient of funding from the Michael Weiss Foundation.)

Chen leaned on Yamaguchi while she coped with serious injury issues. Chen was rising through the ranks last season, when she won her first Junior Grand Prix (JGP) event and qualified for the JGP Final, but she broke her ankle and withdrew from the event. She tried to compete at the the U.S. championships last year in Boston, at the junior level, but the injury proved to be too great and she withdrew after the short. This season, she finished second and third in her two JGP events.

"Sometimes, when you are dealing with injuries, you just need a little advice and support," Yamaguchi said. "I've tried to connect with her in ways here and there."

Yamaguchi made a point of saying she was also cheering for several other women in the field, among them Edmunds, who also hails from the Bay Area, and Gold -- but was was particularly excited to see Chen make her mark in her senior-level debut.

"I remember watching her skate when she was about 11," Yamaguchi said of Chen. "Her coaches at the time had gotten a hold of me, and I had been wanting to see her skate, too. I could just see it right away that she had that talent, that this little girl was doing double Axels.

"My initial thought was that this girl is for real, and I could see the way she interacted with her coaches and could see that she was a great student. At a young age, you could see the work ethic was already there."

To compete at the world championships, a skater must turn 15 by July 1 of the previous year. Chen just missed the cut-off date by about six weeks, as her birthday is Aug. 16, 1999. But Chen is eligible to compete in the senior Grand Prix events this fall. She was named to the team that will compete at the 2015 World Junior Championships, from March 2-8 in Estonia. Chen, who was still recovering from the ankle injury last year, was fourth at junior worlds in 2014.

"I think it's good that she got to feel a part of it [at the U.S. championships] and she can do the senior Grand Prix," Yamaguchi said. "She had a rough year last year. I'm just so excited for her to go out there and skate well and skate to her potential."

Josephs return to U.S. championships

Fifty years after winning their U.S. title, Vivian Joseph and Ron Joseph returned to the U.S. Championships to present awards to the newly crowned senior pairs medalists.

When they won that title back in 1965, in Lake Placid, New York, they never envisioned they would be honored in the way they were Saturday.

U.S. Figure Skating invited the sister-brother team to come to Greensboro because the International Olympic Committee (IOC) recently updated its official records to reflect that the Josephs were the 1964 Olympic bronze medalists.

At the 1964 Winter Games in Innsbruck, Austria, the Josephs finished fourth. They were elevated to the bronze medal after a team from West Germany was found to have signed a professional contract prior to competing at the Games. Although they were given bronze medals, the records never reflected the change until the November after an inquiry was made. So, in a bizarre case, they had bronze medals in their possession but the record books showed they were the fourth-place finishers.

After a further review by the IOC, the 1964 Olympic pairs medalists are now listed as follows:

Gold: Ludmila Belousova and Oleg Protopopov (Soviet Union)

Silver: Marika Kilius and Hans-Jurgen Baumler (East Germany)/Debbi Wilkes and Guy Revell (Canada)

Bronze: Vivian Joseph and Ronald Joseph (United States)

Now, with the addition of the Josephs' bronze medal, the United States has 48 Olympic figure skating medals, the most of any nation.

"It's really hard to believe it's been 50 years," said Vivian, who was making her first trip to the U.S. championships since winning the title. "I look at my brother, and he still looks so young!"

"Watching the pairs today and what they did was terrific," Vivian added. "They really were spectacular. I really enjoyed the pairs and the dance."

The Josephs' coach back in 1964, Peter Dunfield, died in May, but his wife, 1951 U.S. champion Sonya Klopfer Dunfield, traveled from her home in Sun Valley, Idaho, to celebrate. Ron Joseph was joined by his wife, Krista, and their daughter, Alianna.

One of the most special moments for Ron was being introduced as an Olympic bronze medalist

"It's really come full circle," Ron said. "It's just too bad our parents and Peter could not be here to see this."

The Josephs said they have been reunited with some skating friends that they had not seen in a while. At the U.S. Figure Skating Hall of Fame dinner, they sat with Olympic champions Carol Heiss Jenkins and Hayes Jenkins.

"I grew up watching Carol and Hayes' brother, David," Ron said. "They were my heroes. It was nice to see everyone again."

As far as skating goes, Ron said he has not laced up skates since 2007.

"I think this might encourage me to get back out there," Ron said.

Hamilton recalls good friend Cranston

In the middle of the NBC broadcast of the ladies free skate, Olympic gold medalist Scott Hamilton got word that Canadian champion and Olympic bronze medalist Toller Cranston had died. At first, Hamilton couldn't help but be sad, and said tears quickly welled in his eyes. (According to reports, Cranston died at the age of 65 in Mexico from a heart attack.)

But the more Hamilton spoke with others who knew the eccentric skater well, the more he began to find himself laughing.

"One of his favorite lines was this: 'How can I upstage you? Let me count the ways,'" Hamilton said. "That still makes me laugh."

Hamilton was a young novice skater when he first started watching Cranston skate.

"I remember seeing him skate and saying, 'There's my man.'" Hamilton said. "He just had these gigantic split jumps and was just so phenomenal. He was so different and so athletic, and I thought that was really cool."

Hamilton later followed Cranston by going into broadcasting, as well as the touring business.

"He had his own tour, and I always looked at him and said I'd love to have my own tour someday," said Hamilton, who created Stars on Ice after winning his gold medal in 1984.

In his later years, Cranston became an accomplished artist. Hamilton recalled being part of a retirement show for Cranston, and instead of paying the skaters, he gave everyone a framed painting. The one Hamilton received, of a dragon, is hanging in the bedroom of his sons, Aidan and Jean Paul.

"I think it's important that someone like Toller should be exalted," Hamilton said. "He just had such an amazing impact on skating."

Youth triumphs over age

Greensboro was a comeback of sorts for Colorado Springs' Alexander Johnson, who hit six clean triples in his free skate to selections from Stephen Sondheim's Sweeney Todd. 

The 25-year-old skater landed his signature combination: a triple Lutz-loop-triple flip combination, something he had vowed to do again at a U.S. championships.

"I did it in Omaha," he said. "I knew I could do it again."

At the 2013 U.S. Championships in Omaha, it looked like Johnson would climb the U.S. ranks, after a fifth-place free skate. But an ankle injury in June 2013, followed by complicated surgery and an even more complicated recovery, forced him to sit out the 2013-14 season.

"I just put the triple loop back in my program in November or so," Johnson said. "The big thing is, I'm here and I'm competing."

And he's doing it with youthful looks intact. Johnson and his coach, Tom Dickson, went back and forth for much of the season on whether the skater should portray Sweeney Todd as an older man, complete with gray hair, or a younger version of Todd, who reprises the pining love ballad "Johanna" in the musical. The coach thought it might be effective, but the skater hesitated.

Johnson eventually won out, but he didn't really play fair.

"I didn't bring the gray hair dye to Greensboro," he said. "Tom asked about it, and I just said, 'Oh, I don't know where it is.'"

Lynn Rutherford