KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Don’t count out Karen Chen.
It is a lesson figure skating fans have learned time and time again at the U.S. championships.
The 17-year-old claimed gold in the women’s competition Saturday night at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships, outperforming several Olympians.
Her surprising win comes two years after a 15-year-old Chen earned bronze in her senior debut, edging out 2014 Olympian Polina Edmunds.
In Kansas City, Chen ended – or at least interrupted – the Gold-Wagner dynasty, marking the first time since 2011 that neither Gracie Gold nor Ashley Wagner won the U.S. title.
“I’m just in complete shock,” Chen said of her win. “All of this just came together for me. It was a rough season. I spent the first couple months working out my boot problems and working with a new boot company trying to work out all the kinks. I’m happy with the progress and hope to keep getting better.”
Chen won the short program on Thursday, setting a new U.S. record of 72.82.
Having all eyes on her heading into the long was a new experience.
“There was definitely a lot of pressure, knowing that I skated the short of my dreams,” Chen said. “I wanted to follow it up with a close-to-perfect long, and I put some pressure on myself knowing that winning this thing or even just getting on the podium was definitely a huge possibility. And I just wanted to chase after that thought and just kept pushing through.”
She scored a 141.40 in the free skate for a 214.22 total and was followed on the podium by silver medalist Wagner and bronze medalist Mariah Bell.
Chen’s coach Tammy Gambill attributed her pupil’s success in Kansas City to a newfound confidence.
“Confidence has bene one of those things I’ve struggled with a lot,” Chen said. “I’ve always had a lot of self doubt and going into nationals I focused on the things I can control and stopped worrying about all the distractions. I was able to stay really focused and do what I came here to do.”
Also helping with that confidence was the enthusiastic crowd that filled the Sprint Center.
“For sure, the audience was wonderful,” she said. “They cheered for everything and they were just so supportive and I really appreciate and I love it.”
The Fremont, California native is now pegged as a contender for the 2018 U.S. Olympic Figure Skating Team, which will be chosen at the conclusion of next year’s U.S. championships.
But first, she hopes to be selected to the world championships team, which will be announced Sunday.
Chen did not compete at the world championships in 2015, even though she was top three in the U.S. and likely would have been selected for the team, because she was too young, so this year’s would be her first.
“I think it’s very exciting,” said Chen at the thought of going to worlds. “It was definitely one of my goals and this is what I wanted to do when I came here. I’m just so thrilled with how everything went.”
Wagner, a 2014 Olympian, improved one spot from the short program with a 140.84 free skate and 211.78 total. The silver medal was her first of that color at the U.S. championships.
At 25, it is believed that Wagner is the oldest U.S. women’s medalist since World War II. With seven medals in 10 senior U.S. championships, she has found a way to continually keep herself relevant and competitive for a decade in a sport that traditionally favors teens.
Though she insisted earlier this week that she is sick of receiving questions about her age, Wagner nearly broke down in tears when asked about her latest feat.
“I’m getting emotional because this is so hard what I do, and I am so proud that I am still here today because I was 15 or 16 at my first world championships and I’m here at 25, almost 10 years later,” Wagner explained. “It’s something that you just don’t see in this sport and I’m here because I love it and I am so stubborn. …
“My passion is what fuels me and I’m really proud of myself. I think people see that I’m always here and they don’t think twice about it. But I’m always here because I’ve worked to be here and that’s something that I’m always proud of.”
Wagner could very well be the only U.S. woman at worlds this year who has been there before, if the top three nationals finishers are all selected.
Bell’s bronze is her first senior U.S. championships medal and a significant improvement over her previous best – sixth.
She bolted up from sixth in the short program with a 134.59 free skate score for a 197.92 total.
Also like Chen, Bell was new to being in the spotlight, a position she found herself in after winning a surprise silver at Skate America, her only grand prix assignment this season.
“Obviously there was a little more talk after Skate America, and that was kind of a buzz here and something that I’ve never had in my career yet,” Bell said. “Just being able to come in and skate performances that I’m really proud of under more pressure than I’ve felt is something I’m really, really proud of.”
Like Wagner, also competing in her 10th year as a senior was pewter medalist Mirai Nagasu, who with a 122.95 free skate and total of 194.90 repeated her placement from last year. The 2008 U.S. champion at age 14, Nagasu has since been inconsistent at the U.S. championships, finishing on the podium a handful of times but also placing as low as 10th.
Defending U.S. champion Gracie Gold finished sixth, reflective of the rough season she has had so far that included the worst grand prix finish of her career. After skating to fifth in the short program, she was eighth in the free skate with a 114.77 for a 179.62 total.
The 2014 Olympian is still hopeful she will be named to the world team, having competed at each of the past four worlds and finished fourth last year.
“There’s not a doubt in my mind that I’m still one of the best skaters in the United States and in the world,” Gold said. “Sometimes we have bad times and it’s just, when you compare it to other skaters across the world, they’ll have dark seasons. … It just happens sometimes in the sport and I’ve had a couple of very public unfortunate months.”