Karen Chen performs during an exhibition event at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships.

Karen Chen ’23 Aims for Beijing

Former national figure skating champ is on leave from Cornell to train for 2022 Olympics

Clad in a diaphanous white dress whose delicate sleeves and sequined accents evoke the wings of a bird, figure skater Karen Chen ’23 concludes her near-flawless performance with a dramatic spin—beginning with her body arched gracefully backward and ending with one leg clasped above her head as she twirls around and around. When she glides to a stop, the crowd goes wild.

“That was gorgeous,” raves a TV commentator. “This was mature. It was elegant, sophisticated. She hit her jumps.”

It was the short program portion of the 2017 U.S. senior ladies’ national championship, and Chen’s score was the highest ever awarded. She’d go on to ace her free skate (the longer second program) and take home the gold medal, making her the nation’s top female figure skater.

Karen Chen on the ice in a black sequined figure skating costume.
Chen competing at the 2017 Four Continents Figure Skating Championships in South Korea. (Photo provided)

For Chen, it was not only a victory, but—at the tender age of seventeen—something of a comeback: she’d won bronze in her senior debut two years earlier but finished eighth in 2016, a disappointing season during which she’d struggled with chronic problems related to the fit of her skates.

“When I’m at a competition, I need to trust myself and know I’ve done all the training I can, and whatever happens, happens,” observes Chen, who’s majoring in human biology, health, and society in the College of Human Ecology. “Sometimes it’s just not your moment—but other times it is, and everything clicks.”

Early promise

Chen first ventured onto the ice at age four and began competing at six. She won the national championships in two divisions (intermediate and novice) before taking the senior title; she skated for Team USA at the 2018 Olympic Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea, finishing eleventh.

She has continued to perform well since matriculating at Cornell, including impressive finishes during the 2020–21 competition season: she took bronze at the U.S. Championships, held in Las Vegas in January, and two months later was fourth at the World Championships in Stockholm, Sweden.

“I’m really proud of how last season went,” says Chen. “Obviously, it was an unconventional year for everybody—not just in skating, but in the whole world.”

I wish I could remember the first time I laced up a pair of skating boots and slid out onto that big, frozen circle,” Chen writes in her memoir, Finding the Edge. “After all, who wouldn’t want to remember the moment they fell in love?

Having completed her freshman year remotely in spring 2020, Chen opted to take time off from Cornell to focus on skating—a decision facilitated by the limitations that COVID-19 pandemic put on student life. She’s now training with her coach in Colorado Springs, Colorado, with an eye toward an Olympic return at the upcoming Games in Beijing.

“I’m really excited,” she says. “I know I’ve set myself in a good position to make the team. It’s just a matter of staying healthy, strong, and physically and mentally fit.”

Like many elite athletes, Chen has coped with injuries over the years, including an ankle fracture she suffered while practicing a triple Lutz jump in 2013 and a stress fracture in her foot that caused her to miss the entire 2018–19 season. She chronicled her career ups and downs in Finding the Edge: My Life on the Ice, her 2017 young-adult memoir.

Karen Chen as a child in a light blue skating dress, practicing a spiral.
Chen practicing a spiral as a child. (Photo provided)

“I wish I could remember the first time I laced up a pair of skating boots and slid out onto that big, frozen circle,” she writes in the book, which features a foreword by Olympic gold medalist Kristi Yamaguchi. “After all, who wouldn’t want to remember the moment they fell in love?”

The elder child of Taiwanese immigrants, Chen was born in the San Francisco Bay Area city of Fremont—also the hometown of Yamaguchi, one of her idols.

To give Chen the flexibility to practice, her mother homeschooled her from sixth grade onward; when she needed a new coach in early 2013, she, her mom, and her younger brother (a competitive ice dancer) relocated six hours away and reunited with her dad on weekends.

Balancing school and skating

When Chen—who plans to return to campus as a sophomore in fall 2022 and is pondering medical school—first matriculated on the Hill, it was a major adjustment: before, she had fit her studies around her training, but now it was the other way around. Another new challenge was overseeing her own training; with ice time at Lynah generally booked up by hockey and phys ed classes, Chen practiced solo at a rink in nearby Lansing and worked out at a 24-hour gym off campus.

But all that effort paid off: after missing the 2019 nationals due to the foot injury, Chen—who’d earned bronze in 2018, the year after her championship win—again landed on the podium in 2020. She took home pewter (fourth place), her fourth career medal at senior nationals—one of several competitions in the U.S. and abroad she entered her freshman year, thanks in part to professors who helped her catch up on any missed material.

“When I decided to go to Cornell, a lot of people advised against it and said, ‘Just focus on skating,’ but I was really committed to my decision,” she recalls. “It was hard that year, trying to train while being a normal college student, but I do feel like I grew and learned a lot about myself. Although I loved being on campus, part of me really missed being a [full-time] figure skater. I think it helped me prioritize my goals.”

Ask Chen to name her career highlights, and she’ll mention not just winning championships and competing on Olympic ice, but something that’s close to Cornellian hearts: skating in Lynah Rink. In late February 2020, she performed one of her exhibition programs between periods of a game against St. Lawrence, to a roaring crowd of hockey Faithful.

“That was one of the most incredible experiences—it was so much fun,” she recalls. “I’ve done a lot of shows, but the energy was incredible. I thought hockey fans and college students might think figure skating is dumb, but as soon as I got on the ice they were cheering so loudly for everything I did. It felt amazing. That was an experience I’ll never forget.”

Top image: Karen Chen performs during an exhibition event at the 2017 U.S. Figure Skating Championships. (Photo by Charlie Riedel/AP)

Published October 5, 2021


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