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The next big thing? Precocious Chen turns heads

Gambill pupil to make junior international debut at JGP Latvia

Karen Chen is surrounded by a lot of talent at her Riverside, Calif., rink.
Karen Chen is surrounded by a lot of talent at her Riverside, Calif., rink. (Jay Adeff)

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By Amy Rosewater, special to icenetwork.com
(08/12/2013) - Karen Chen has a lot to celebrate already this month, and she hasn't even gotten to her birthday yet.

Chen, who turns 14 on Aug. 16, recently learned that she will be competing in her first Junior Grand Prix event, set for Aug. 27-30 in Riga, Latvia.

Chen joked that her bags are not packed yet -- "Not quite," she said with a laugh -- but she and her coach, Tammy Gambill, are making sure they are packing quite an arsenal of jumps for her junior-level international debut.

Chen, the 2012 U.S. novice champion and junior pewter medalist at the 2013 U.S. Figure Skating Championships, is coming off a victory earlier this month at the Glacier Falls Summer Classic. Her free skate there included a triple Lutz-triple toe and garnered her 119.29 points. Her lone jumping mistake was on the back end of a triple Salchow-double toe.

The rest of the routine, skated to music from Miss Saigon and choreographed by Mark Pillay, featured movement with a maturity beyond her years. (Chen's short program, choreographed by Cindy Stuart, is to "Esperanza" by Maxime Rodriguez.)

"I am trying to get my triple-triple more consistent," said Chen, who stands 4-foot-8 but is already making a big impression. "I'm working on holding my spins, and my footwork needs more expression, but I'm pretty happy."

Gambill, meanwhile, is pretty happy, too. She began working with Chen in February and already has high hopes for the young teen. Gambill said her big goal for Chen this season is to compete at the world junior championships.

Chen and her younger brother, Jeffrey, an 11-year-old juvenile skater, relocated along with their mother from Fremont, Calif., to Riverside to train with Gambill. Their father, an engineer, continues to live in Fremont and makes frequent trips to visit his wife and children. (Fremont is about a seven-hour drive from Riverside.)

Chen's parents immigrated to the United States from Taiwan in 1995. They took their children to the rink at a very early age; Chen said she was 4 the first time she stepped on the ice.

"I was about 6 when my old coach helped me realize I really loved skating, and gradually I just started skating more and more," Chen said.

These days she is training quite a bit more and with an elite crowd. Among the skaters she is surrounded by in Riverside are 2011 U.S. silver medalist Ricky Dornbush, 2013 world junior bronze medalist Shotaro Omori and 2013 U.S. junior champion Vincent Zhou.

"She has benefited greatly from the training atmosphere," Gambill said. "She has a great work ethic and fits right in with the group."

Chen also has caught the eye of some folks who know a thing or two about good skating. Chen has been a recipient of scholarships from the Michael Weiss Foundation, and Kristi Yamaguchi has been a strong supporter of Chen's through her Always Dream Foundation. Recently, Sarah Hughes tweeted about Chen's performance at Glacier Falls: "Looking forward to watching more of 13 year old junior skater Karen Chen."

Chen has had to make several sacrifices for her skating, among them moving and enrolling in home schooling (she is taking classes through Connections Academy and is in ninth grade), and having to leave her beloved art studio back home in Fremont.

"I love that place," said Chen, who enjoys working with clay, sculpting and painting. "Every time I go home, I always try to pay a visit over there."

Mostly these days, she is putting her artistry and creativity into her skating, and it is there, on the ice, where she is making the greatest impression.