Ice Network

Chen rebounds from previous hardships in style

With past struggles in rearview mirror, confident youngster charges forward
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Karen Chen surprised many with her first-place finish in the short program. -Jay Adeff

Karen Chen had next.

That is how it looked after the 2015 U.S. Championships, as Chen, then 15, stole the show in the free skate and took third overall in her first U.S. championship as a senior, when she was too young to go to senior worlds.

And, if the only performance you'd seen of Chen's since then was during Thursday's short program at the 2017 U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Kansas City, you would have thought to yourself, "Just what everyone expected."

The 4-foot-11-inch Chen was commanding. Her jumps were powerful, her body positions eye-catching, her spins compelling, and her edge work exquisite, all creating the essence of the swan she embodied while skating to music from the film, On Golden Pond, a program she choreographed herself.

She took first place with 72.82 points, the highest short program score ever recorded at the U.S. championships, topping the previous mark of 72.12 Gracie Gold set in 2014. Mirai Nagasu finished second at 71.95, and three-time champion Ashley Wagner rounded out the top three with 70.94 points.

Gold, the reigning champion in the event, finished fifth with 64.85 points after getting no credit for doubling her triple flip. That continued a run of mediocre skating by Gold, who was actually encouraged by the fact that she made only one mistake.

Chen has been in Gold's place most of the past two seasons. Now she's in the utterly improbable position of being asked if she could win.

"It's definitely possible for me to win if I'm able to pull out a perfect free skate," Chen said of Saturday's final.

What she did in the short program was nothing short of unexpected.

"I'm surprised -- and shocked. My body is still trembling," Chen said two hours after her performance.

She was eighth at last year's U.S. championships, and ended fifth, fifth, seventh and sixth in her four Grand Prix competitions the past two seasons, with no short program or free skate earning a standing higher than fourth.

"It was definitely a struggle," Chen said. "I went through a lot of obstacles, particularly with boot problems that resulted in injuries. I'm happy I got most of it resolved, and I'm feeling good again.

"I guess I've just learned from all my past mistakes," she continued. "Hopefully, I'll keep improving."

The boot issues reached epic proportions in recent time. Chen went through more than a dozen pairs in one six-month span but now says she felt that everything was sorted out by the summer.

"I started training really hard again in June," Chen said. "I've been just kind of working my way back up."

The hardest part was not having the struggle strip away all her confidence. Her coach, Tammy Gambill, said that took constant effort.

"We just kept trying to make her believe she can do it," Gambill said.

"There were definitely some doubts," Chen said. "But I kept pushing and telling myself that I was gaining more experience and learning about everything in the process."

Chen knew as soon as she heard the On Golden Pond music that she wanted to try choreographing the program. It is something she had done for some of her exhibition programs.

Gambill was on board.

"I know when she does it on her own, it comes from the heart, and it's going to be better," the coach said.

In 2015, Chen and 2014 Olympian Polina Edmunds, then 16, looked as if they would eventually take over for Wagner, now 25, and Gold, 21, who have been the top women in U.S. figure skating for the past five seasons. Edmunds has been injured for a year, and Chen's career seemed to hit a wall.

Yet Chen, a homeschooled high school senior, is still just 17.

That fact did not escape Wagner, tired of having her age -- relatively advanced for a female skater -- brought up over and over again.

"She (Chen) has youth on her side and so much promise, and I think that's really exciting for U.S. Figure Skating," Wagner said. "And I think that we definitely need a new crop of young girls to come in, because I will die one day, and you guys will need more people. So Karen, keep it up."