Karen Chen was talking before the U.S. Figure Skating Championships about filling a blank on her résumé.
“I told myself, `Karen, you don’t have a nationals silver medal yet,’” Chen said.
Coincidentally – and you will see the coincidence a few paragraphs from now – Chen noted that in answer to a question on a different topic.
It was the question of whether she hoped her performance at nationals would be good enough to earn her a spot in the Olympic team event. Chen did not get that opportunity at her first Olympics in 2018.
There was an element of not counting chickens in Chen’s response, of being more concerned about first assuring the place on the 2022 Olympic team she figured to earn.
Yet even when she was named to the U.S. team a month ago, having added that nationals silver to her gold in 2017 and bronzes in 2018 and 2021, Chen did not want to get ahead of herself.
So Chen then sidestepped another question about whether she had thought about the team event and, if so, which part of it she might prefer to skate.
“I have not put much thought into it,” Chen said. “I think I’ll just wait for the pieces to fall into place.”
The pieces officially fell into place Saturday, when U.S. Figure Skating announced Chen would be doing the short program when day two of the team event begins. (Watch Day 2 of the team event Saturday at 8 p.m. ET on NBC or stream live on NBCOlympics.com or Peacock.)
The women’s free skate entrant is to be announced Sunday evening U.S. time.
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Skating in at least one phase of the event gives Chen the chance to fill in another line on her résumé by adding “Olympic medalist.” The United States already is in a commanding position to get a medal - and it might be gold, even if silver behind the Russian Olympic Committee still seems more likely.
That Chen and reigning U.S. champion Mariah Bell were the only U.S. women’s singles skaters in contention for the team event became evident when the third member of the U.S. singles team, Alysa Liu, delayed her departure for Beijing. The individual women’s event does not start until a week from Tuesday.
Chen’s selection over Bell is somewhat unexpected, given that her career record includes consistent inconsistency, and she finished (close) second to Bell in the short program at nationals. But Chen has proved able to get results when the U.S. team needed them most.
In both 2017 and 2021, her surprising fourth places at the world championships were critical to the U.S. earning a third women’s singles place at the ensuing Olympics.
“Sometimes when I am having a bad day, I will think, `Okay, you may be having a bad day, but past Karen did all these incredible things,’” Chen said in late December.
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Chen, 22, understands that her lack of big points jump elements minimizes her chances to win a medal in the individual competition against the three teenaged Russian jumping revolutionaries.
But she beat everyone except three Russians at the 2021 worlds, and only one woman per country gets to take part in each phase of the team event.
In the short program, ROC’s entry is Kamila Valieva, odds-on favorite for the individual gold and the only skater in the team event ahead of Chen in the current world standings.
“There is no question what the Russian women are doing is amazing, hitting all those quads, these triple axels left and right,” Chen said after a practice earlier this week in Beijing. “It’s so great they are pushing the boundaries.
“I wish I was in that position, but I’m going to be honest with myself: I’m not. I’m just accepting that and knowing I’ve still made it to the Olympics, and I’ve done so much, and I’m so proud of the accomplishments, so I’ll just focus on the good things.”
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Team USA leads ROC 28-26 after three of the eight phases in the team event, with the women’s short program and men’s free skate Saturday night U.S. time. The other free skates are the following night.
For the U.S. to hold that lead going into the final three events, it may be critical for Chen to finish no lower than third in the short. That would likely mean she needs to beat Anastasia Gubanova of Georgia, who finished 1.42 points ahead of Chen when each recorded her season-best score at the Finlandia Trophy in early October.
Chen realizes she probably was not ready for such a challenge in 2018, when the Olympic context led her to finish a disappointing 11th after two underwhelming skates and score sheets littered with negative grades of execution.
“I know in 2018 I felt very overwhelmed with everything going on,” she said this week. “I was so used to competitions where it was just figure skating. At the Olympics, there was so much else to think about and deal with. Now that I’ve had that experience, I’m just excited to embrace this whole opportunity.”
Philip Hersh, who has covered figure skating at every Winter Olympics since 1980, is a special contributor to NBCOlympics.com.