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Placid pieces: Chen returns to last year's programs

U.S. champion brings back 'Jalousie Tango,' 'On Golden Pond' routines
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Although Karen Chen is doing away with her 'Slow Dancing in the Big City' free skate, her coach, Tammy Gambill, said the skater may go back to the program next year, when she has more time to develop it. -Getty Images

Another competition, another change of programs for Karen Chen.

The U.S. champion announced that she's returning to last season's free skate, set to "Jalousie Tango," and short program to music from the On Golden Pond soundtrack.

"It was a little bit weird at first, but all these memories came to me," Chen said of hearing her music play at practices at the Lake Placid Olympic Center, site of 2017 Bridgestone Skate America. "I was kind of overwhelmed with emotion and thought, 'Wow, these programs mean a lot to me and I want these to be my Olympic programs, and I want to do them at nationals.'"

Chen opened her international season at the U.S. International Figure Skating Classic in September with a free skate to Carmen, choreographed by Mark Pillay. She dropped the program two weeks before Skate Canada, in favor of a self-choreographed free set to the Slow Dancing in the Big City soundtrack. A disappointing seventh-place finish there prompted a return to the programs that helped her place fourth at the 2017 World Figure Skating Championships.     

"I really, really loved [Slow Dancing in the Big City], but I just felt like I didn't have the time to fully develop it, so I just thought maybe I should just go back," Chen said.

"Originally, I wanted to keep my short (to On Golden Pond) because it's something that's really special to me and something I really, really loved," she added. "But I decided, it was the Olympic season, I want to go for something bold, and I wanted to try something different ("Tango de Roxanne"), and hopefully it will work for me. But I guess I realized I wanted to go into something that was more comfortable for me and something I know will work."

Chen brought last season's short program costume to Lake Placid but has "something new" for her free skate. She tweaked the step sequences in both programs as well as the jump layout in her free skate.

"I do know in the beginning I felt like the stupidest person on the planet," she said. "I went through all this trouble, with costumes and choreography and all that, and then to go back to these programs. But it's all about the learning experience, and I did learn a lot from these changes."

Tammy Gambill, who coaches Chen in Riverside, California, supports the move.

"She was on the right track with [Slow Dancing in the Big City], but we just didn't have enough time to make it feel comfortable, so she went back to something she was comfortable with, and then tweaked it to make it look a little fresher and stronger," Gambill said. "We loved [Slow Dancing] maybe she will go back to it next year."

"Jalousie Tango" is the fourth free skate Chen has trained in preparation for the Olympic season; she began a program to Puccini's Tosca this summer.

"Tosca doesn't count; it was only a week or so, we changed it right away," Gambill said. "Carmen we liked right away, but somehow she just couldn't connect with it. She said, 'I just don't feel this music,' and I never want her to skate to something she's not comfortable with."

Chen had hoped to open this Olympic season strong, setting a goal of medaling at both of her Grand Prix events, but mistakes on her triple lutz-triple toe loop combination at Skate Canada left her more than 13 points off the podium. A medal at Skate America would go a long way toward building her confidence.

"She's so strong -- she just needs to let herself do it," Gambill said. "I think she's just a slow starter. She had a bumpy start last year, too, and she just keeps building as she goes throughout the year."

Chen, who admits to struggling with her confidence at times, thinks the added pressure of fighting for one of the three U.S. ladies spots for next February's Olympic Games may be weighing her down.

"I realize there is so much at stake, and I realize how much I want this to come together for me, and, knowing that, I just instantly feel all of the pressure on my shoulders," she said.

"Now, I feel like I just really want to focus on skating well, because this is the first time putting the programs back out again, and I want to be proud of myself. This was a big decision for me, and I just want to validate it with a great performance."

Chen has another tune-up scheduled prior to the 2018 U.S. Figure Skating Championships: the Golden Spin of Zagreb in Croatia (Dec. 6-9).

"She is going to do Zagreb, get the program out one more time and get some (ISU ranking) points up there," Gambill said. "We've done Zagreb quite a few times; it seems to work for her. It's a building process for her, to get that comfortable feeling and confidence again."

Wagner copes with ankle infection

Ashley Wagner also competed at Skate Canada, and although the three-time U.S. champion wasn't satisfied with her programs, she won a bronze medal there. A win at Skate America would qualify her for the Grand Prix Final in Nagoya, Japan, next month (a silver medal could do the trick, too).

A gold medal in Lake Placid would also give Wagner a leg up on gaining one of the three U.S. ladies spots in PyeongChang: The three Tier 1 criteria U.S. Figure Skating will use in its Olympic selection process are performance at the 2017 Grand Prix Final, 2017 World Championships and 2018 U.S. Championships, with all three weighted equally.

On her media teleconference last week, Wagner told reporters she was far better prepared for Skate America than she was for Skate Canada. But she had to overcome a topical infection on her right ankle that prevented her from wearing a skating boot and took her off the ice for about four days. She returned to full training a week and a half ago.

"A lot depends on Skate America," Wagner said after practice Thursday. "I have my ankle all healed up, and I've made the most of my training time."