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Karen Chen, Just 15, Rises To The Top Of U.S. Figure Skating

By Lynn Rutherford | Jan. 29, 2015, 12:59 p.m. (ET)

Karen Chen competes in the ladies free skate program competition during the 2015 Prudential U.S. Figure Skating Championships at Greensboro Coliseum on Jan. 24, 2015 in Greensboro, N.C. 

Sometimes, when Tammy Gambill gives Karen Chen her lessons at the IceTown-Ice Sports Center in Riverside, California, a flash of pale green catches her eye.

It’s a small jade pendant Chen has worn around her neck for as long as she, or anyone else, can remember.

“I tell her to tuck it into her T-shirt,” Gambill said.

Chen, a 15-year-old home-schooled high school sophomore, does as she is told. She nestles the talisman inside her workout gear. But she never takes it off.

“I always wear this when I skate,” Chen said. “It’s a necklace that my grandma gave me when I was born. It’s a bunny, because I was born in 1999.”

That’s the Chinese year of the rabbit. Chen’s grandmother — who goes by the Americanized name of “May” when she visits the United States — lives in Taiwan, as does her grandfather. They both traveled to Greensboro, North Carolina, last week to watch Chen win a surprise bronze medal at the 2015 Prudential U.S. Figure Skating Championships.

“It was wonderful for them to fly over and see her compete as a senior for the first time,” Gambill said. “They brought such an incredible positive energy. I told Karen’s mom, ‘Please bring them to all of the nationals, from now on.’”

It looks like they will have plenty of opportunities, because their granddaughter is determined to make her mark on the sport. When Chen took the ice for her free skate last week, she had one goal in mind: standing on the medal podium.

“She wasn’t just coming for the experience,” Gambill said. “She wanted to go home with a medal.”

Chen stood sixth after the short program, and more experienced skaters were still to skate. But the teenager reeled off six triple jumps in her free skate, including several in combinations, and showed the finest spins of the event. When her score, 135.13 points, was announced, her jaw dropped. She placed third, right behind Olympians and Olympic team bronze medalists Ashley Wagner and Gracie Gold.

“It took a while to sink in, that I actually won the bronze medal,” Chen said. “At first I was completely shocked, I couldn’t believe it was happening. My brain wasn’t working. And now I’m finally like, ‘Wow, I really did it, my dream has come true.’”

Success is nothing new for Chen. The 4-foot-10 dynamo from Fremont, California, has already won U.S. titles at the intermediate (2010) and novice (2012) levels, setting new U.S. scoring records with each win.

The transition from novice to junior ranks is particularly challenging, and Chen placed fourth at the 2013 U.S. championships. That fall, she took home two medals, including gold, on the Junior Grand Prix Series and qualified for the prestigious Junior Grand Prix Final.

But in October 2013, while practicing the difficult triple Lutz jump, Chen sustained a type III tibia fracture in her right ankle, forcing her to withdraw from the final and spend two months off of the ice. Although she tried to compete as a junior at the 2014 U.S. championships, she withdrew after placing fifth in the short program. Two months later, she finished a disappointing ninth at the 2014 World Junior Championships in Sofia, Bulgaria.

“I find I doubt myself every now and then, especially when I was injured,” Chen said. “I was very unsure of myself all the time. I was struggling a little bit to believe in myself. I asked myself: ‘Will my feet feel okay? Will I be healthy?’ Things like that. And now, finally, I think I’ve overcome this fear and I’m on the right track.”

Karen Chen celebrates after winning bronze in the ladies free skate program competition during the 2015 Prudential U.S. Figure Skating Championships at Greensboro Coliseum on Jan. 24, 2015 in Greensboro, N.C.

“The recovery from that ankle (injury) took a while,” said Justin Dillon, who works on Chen’s choreography. “I think she was healthy, before she was confident. At junior worlds last season, she was still recovering, so that showing does not reflect her abilities.”

Chen was back on track early this season, earning two Junior Grand Prix medals and winning her U.S. qualifying event, Pacific Coast Sectionals, by nearly 10 points.

“My biggest problem with Karen is that she tries to do too much,” Gambill said. “I told her mom, ‘If you see Karen doing too many (jump) repetitions, please tell me.’ If I tell her to stop, then that’s the end of it.”

The Chen family arrived in Greensboro the week of Jan. 11, because Karen’s younger brother, Jeffrey, competed in the juvenile boys’ event held the weekend before the senior women’s final.

“We were in Greensboro for 10 days in a row, and Karen really kept her skating at a high level,” Gambill said. “Finding ice and time for her to train was a challenge, but she handled it very well.”

Jeffrey, 12, placed fifth in his event.

“He has really sprouted up; he is much taller than Karen now,” Gambill said. “He’s like his sister: quiet and a hard worker. He even took some ice dance last summer.”

Chen, too, has interests outside of her competitive realm. She is a talented artist; richly colored watercolors with Asian themes are posted on her website. She loves to cook with her mom. And she’s an excellent student, mostly because she organizes her time well.

“I feel like when I’m competing, I don’t want to focus on both things,” Chen said. “So I try to work ahead. Right now, surprisingly, I enjoy history. I used to hate it. But I really like reading about past civilizations, so it’s not so hard for me this year.”

Chen’s next event is the 2015 World Junior Figure Skating Championships, held in Tallinn, Estonia, on March 2-8. Born on Aug. 16, 1999, she is too young — by about six weeks — to compete at the 2015 World Figure Skating Championships.

Once in Tallinn, Chen will have to deal with a trio of tough young Russians, including Evgenia Medvedeva, the 15-year-old from Moscow who dominated the 2014-15 Junior Grand Prix circuit. Japan, too, will field a strong team.

“I have, roughly, six weeks to get even better and improve even more on my jumps, so I feel hopeful I will be very confident and hold my head high for the competition,” Chen said. “The Russians are very consistent, their jumps are no big deal to them. Eventually I want to be like that, too, so it’s ‘No sweat — I can do it in my sleep.’”

Gambill thinks consistency on Chen’s triple Lutz-triple toe loop combination will be her biggest challenge. The second jump of the combination was judged under-rotated in Greensboro, costing Chen points she cannot afford to lose at junior worlds.

“I’ve seen her do that combination many, many, many times in practice,” Gambill said. “She was a little excited in Greensboro and a little bit off in her timing. She can nail that jump.”

At least one educated observer thinks Chen has a chance to break the Russian stronghold.

“Karen Chen could be the answer to the strength of the Russian ladies who are of the same age and are winning international events,” said Johnny Weir, the NBC commentator and two-time Olympian.

Chen’s grandmother won’t be in Tallinn. After a month’s stay in California, she will return to Taiwan. But the little green bunny, the one that sometimes flies up when Karen pulls in tight for a triple jump, will make the trip.

“It’s my lucky charm,” Chen said.

Lynn Rutherford is a sportswriter based out of New York. She is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.