Ice Network

Chen's clutch effort saves the day for U.S. ladies

17-year-old's fourth-place finish helps U.S. secure three Olympic spots
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By locking up fourth place at the 2017 World Figure Skating Championships, Karen Chen made sure the United States would have three spots in the ladies division at the 2018 Winter Olympics. -Getty Images

HELSINKI, Finland -- As much as Karen Chen tried not to think of anything but her free skate at the 2017 World Figure Skating Championships, she could not avoid getting distracted as Friday approached.

While waiting to take the ice for the warmup in the final group of skaters at Hartwall Arena, Chen looked up at the video board and saw the overall standings of the 18 previous competitors. They showed her teammate, Ashley Wagner, significantly lower than expected.

At that moment, Chen realized there was extra pressure on her if the United States was to keep three women's spots for the 2018 Olympics.

"I admit it," Chen said with a smile, almost abashed to confess having let her mind settle on the three-spot issue for a few seconds.

"I did know I needed to skate really well," Chen continued. "I knew if I kept thinking about it, obsessing over the thoughts, I would not skate very well.

"I just had to play some mind games, block out the other thoughts and focus on myself."

Chen, 17, was not flawless, botching her final two jumps, but with an unexpectedly poor performance by the Russian who skated immediately ahead of her, the reigning U.S. champion would know as soon as her scores went up that she had bailed out an utterly underwhelming Wagner.

"I definitely did not make her job any easier," Wagner said.

Chen had been fifth in the short program, Wagner seventh. The finishes of the top two U.S. women needed to add up to 13 or fewer for the team to get three Olympic spots. The third U.S. competitor, Mariah Bell, would not be a factor in the equation as she wound up 12th.

How Chen and Wagner pulled it out would be more gritty than pretty. They wound up with a cushion after a fourth by Chen, a world meet debutante, and a seventh by Wagner, appearing in her seventh worlds. That was deceptive, since part of it owed to a stunning implosion (three falls, one pop) by Russia's Anna Pogorilaya, who won bronze last year.

"Let's take a moment to all thank @Karebearsk8 (Chen) for saving America because let's be honest, she did." Wagner tweeted. "First time at worlds and she saves the day."

Wagner, a three-time U.S. champion, also fell hard from the level that earned her a silver medal at last year's event. She started by making a hash of her first combination, got negative Grades of Execution on three ensuing jumping passes, and looked labored and listless throughout the four-minute skate.

"I know at the end of the day people will say I choked, and I did," Wagner said. "This is something I'm not proud of."

She was 10th in the free skate, nearly 30 points behind the new record score (154.40) posted by Russia's Evgenia Medvedeva, who became the first to win consecutive ladies titles since Michelle Kwan in 2001.

With a record total score of 233.41, Medvedeva wound up 15-plus points ahead of silver medalist Kaetlyn Osmond of Canada (218.13) and some 20 ahead of Osmond's teammate, bronze medalist Gabrielle Daleman (213.52). This is the first time two Canadian ladies have been medalists in the same world meet.

Chen had 199.29 points, Wagner 193.54.

Truth be told, Medvedeva, 17, belongs in a different competition after winning her 10th straight event over two seasons, including the two world titles and two European titles. She should be judged against the sport's historic greats, whom she already has joined.

Wagner is the only U.S. skater to win a world medal since 2006.

"I know the athlete I am, and I wasn't that athlete today," Wagner said. "I think everything I say after this point will sound like an excuse. I'm really disappointed in myself."

It could have been worse, had Wagner not recovered from turning a planned triple flip-triple toe combination into a triple-single about 30 seconds into the program.

"Experience is the only reason that whole program did not completely fall apart after that," she said.

Chen was flying along, having neatly landed six triples, until she fell on her penultimate jump, a triple lutz, and clunked the landing of the next, a double axel. But she managed an excellent spin after each jump error to save the end of the program and assure the U.S. of the third spot.

Her overall performance was a huge improvement over the 12th at last month's Four Continents Championships. Chen's skating was so poor in Gangneung that it raised questions about whether she belonged on the world team despite having won the U.S. championships in January.

"I feel I accomplished what I came here to do," Chen said.

Her goal had been doing two clean skates.

One and three-fourths turned out to be enough of an accomplishment.