October 2017 SKATING Magazine: Karen Chen: Talking Herself Up

By Lynn Rutherford

Hans Rosemond Photography

Hans Rosemond Photography

As a competitor, Karen Chen has two sides.

There’s the skater who nails her jumps and flies boldly across the ice, feeling every beat of music along the way.

Then there’s the Chen who hesitates for a millisecond and wonders, “Will I get this done?”

And always, there’s the inner dialogue: C’mon, Karen. Get with it. Stay grounded. You can do it.

Hans Rosemond Photography

Hans Rosemond Photography

“For sure, confidence is something I’ve struggled with every now and then,” Chen said. “I feel that for me to be confident, I have to not only train hard, but really believe in myself and give it my all. You know — don’t doubt myself, just skate.”

Tammy Gambill, who coaches Chen at Ice Sport Center in Riverside, California, put it even more simply.

“Every time Karen competes, she has to attack her program,” Gambill said. “If she does that, she’s golden.”

Chen showed just how golden she could be at the 2017 U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Kansas City, Missouri, in January, where she set a new U.S. record short program score of 72.82 points and went on to win the title with a strong free skate. Then again, she admits arriving in Kansas City as an underdog helped her stay loose.

“People didn’t pick me as their favorite or think I would make the podium,” Chen said. “It was kind of like, ‘Oh, she’ll probably finish top 10.’ And I was thinking it was my last competition (of the season), so I really wanted to skate my best, because I knew that in practice I was able to do it.”

“I didn’t really give myself any expectations,” she added. “And by doing that, I guess I skated my best and achieved the goal and my dreams.”

A few weeks later, the qualms crept back when Chen placed 12th at the 2017 Four Continents Figure Skating Championships in the 2018 Olympic venue in Pyeongchang, South Korea. When she arrived in Helsinki, Finland, for the 2017 World Figure Skating Championships, some wondered: Could she perform well enough at her first senior Worlds to help qualify three U.S. ladies’ spots for the Olympics?

“All over social media it was like, ‘You have to get our three spots!’” Chen said. “It was overwhelming, and I knew that because I didn’t skate well at Four Continents, people doubted me. And again, I’ve always struggled with this self-confidence thing, so I started to doubt myself.”

A question on a media conference call snapped her back into focus and ignited that inner dialogue again, this time with a fiercely positive edge.

Hans Rosemond Photography

Hans Rosemond Photography

“I accidentally said something about a (practice) collision, and I remember people asked, ‘Are you really ready (for Worlds)?” she said. “And I was like, ‘You know what? It doesn’t matter what people think. I will be able to do clean programs because I do them in practice.’ I just had to reiterate that in my mind and tell myself, ‘Be very calm and confident. That’s what you really need to focus on going into Worlds.’”

We know how that chapter ended: Chen performed with flair, hit her big triple Lutz – triple toe loop combinations and placed fourth. A relieved Ashley Wagner, seventh in Helsinki, told reporters, ‘Karen saved the day.’ But what Chen calls the “constant battle in my head” raged up until the end, and she turned to her mom, Hsiu-Hui Tseng, to help her cut through the noise.

“I talk to my mom a lot about all of my thoughts, because she is with me 24/7 and she sees it,” Chen said. “She always tells me, ‘It’s going to be fine. It’s not the end of the world. Just let yourself do your job and don’t get all tense and worked up about it.’ Having her there helped me battle my thoughts and keep everything under control.”

Then Chen catches herself, giving credit where it’s due.

“At the same time, when I’m out there on the ice by myself, I have to be the one who takes charge.”

Read the full cover story in this month’s issue of SKATING magazine.