Column: Karen Chen struggles as the U.S. loses lead in figure skating team competition

Karen Chen, of the United States, falls in the women's short program team figure skating competition.
U.S. figure skater Karen Chen falls in her short program during the team competition at the Beijing Olympics on Sunday.
(Natacha Pisarenko / Associated Press)

The triple loop has long been one of Karen Chen’s most reliable jumps, a trusted friend during her figure skating career. Her nerves have long been her enemy, holding her back from consistently skating with the lightness and precision that illuminate her best performances.

Her enemy overpowered her friend on Sunday while she performed her short program in the Olympic team final at Capital Indoor Stadium, leaving the Northern California native with another disappointing result in Olympic competition.

Chen finished 11th in the women’s singles event at the 2018 Pyeongchang Games, a result that led her to consider retiring from the sport before she decided she missed it too much to leave. She finished second at the U.S. championships before the Beijing Games but her performance on Sunday highlighted the weakness of the U.S. women against their fearless and remarkably skilled Russian counterparts.


Recapping the news, results and highlights from The Times’ team of reporters who covered the 2022 Beijing Olympic Games.

Chen fell on her triple loop and under-rotated her triple lutz-triple toe loop combination in her performance to “Requiem for a Tower, Requiem for a Dream,” losing valuable points in a close race for the team medals. Her subpar performance was ranked fifth. Her missteps, and a stellar effort by 15-year-old Kamila Valieva of the Russian Olympic Committee that included the fourth triple axel landed by a female skater in Olympic competition, combined to help drop the U.S. out of first place two days into the three-day team competition.

“I’m definitely disappointed about the loop because I should have hit it. And I know I can hit it, and if I had a chance to go out there and do it again I know I can hit it,” Chen said. “But I think I’m honestly just proud of the fight that I had in my performance. Also, now I know how the competition nerves is going to feel like. Now I know how the Olympic ice feels with competition nerves, I guess, so I can better prepare for my next event.”

Vincent Zhou, who was substituted into the men’s free skate for Nathan Chen — likely so Nathan Chen can rest for the men’s individual competition next week — also made several mistakes. Zhou turned a planned quadruple flip into a single jump and fell back into his habit of under-rotating jumps, getting marked down on two other quads in a performance that was ranked third. Yuma Kagiyama, Japan’s third-best male skater, turned in a dynamic, four-quad display that deservedly was ranked first and elevated his country’s medal chances.

U.S. figure skater Vincent Zhou competes in the men's free skate during the team competition Sunday.
(Natacha Pisarenko / Associated Press)

With points based on placement — 10 for the best, nine for second, and so on — the U.S. stood second after the second day of the three-day event. Medals will be awarded on Monday, following the pairs free skate, ice dance free dance, and women’s free skate.

The field was narrowed from 10 teams to five after the women’s short program. The Russian Olympic Committee leads with 45 points, to 42 for the U.S., 39 for Japan, 30 for Canada and 29 for China.

Karen Chen wasn’t chosen to compete in the team event at the Pyeongchang Games in 2018 and finished 11th in the women’s singles. She said she was told soon after last month’s U.S. championships that she’d be performing in the team event here, which might have contributed to her anxiety.

She said the triple loop hadn’t been bothering her here, at least until Sunday. “Practices here in general have been very solid for me, like the best I’ve ever felt on practices,” she said. “But I will be honest. This morning when I did my warmup practice I just felt a little, like, tense. I think the idea of competing started to sink in. so I was just feeling a little tense, like my whole body and whatnot.

“But I’m really proud of just how I fought through that program and really attacked. Yes, I did fall, but I went for it. I didn’t just chicken out of it, so I am definitely proud of that.”

It’s unclear whether Karen Chen will also compete on Monday. Each skating federation is allowed to make two substitutions after the first phase of the team event, and the U.S. made one by substituting Zhou for Nathan Chen. U.S. ice dance champions Madison Chock and Evan Bates merit consideration to perform the free dance, after watching Madison Hubbell and Evan Bates come up with an outstanding rhythm dance. The U.S. might not be able to replace Karen Chen with U.S. champion Mariah Bell or with Alysa Liu.

It might not matter in the end because the Russian women — whether Valieva or reigning world champion Anna Shcherbakova or 2021 world championships bronze medalist Alexandra Trusova — are miles ahead of the Americans. The U.S. won bronze medals each time the team event has been held, at Sochi in 2014 and at Pyeongchang four years ago.

“Obviously the Russian women are doing absolutely amazing things that I can only dream of doing. I’m not capable of doing what they are doing. So there’s no question how amazing the team is,” Karen Chen said. “I haven’t really been thinking too much about that. Because in a way I’m just here to focus on my skating, and if I skate well I’m happy. If I’m happy my coach is happy, my team is happy, my team leaders are happy and my family is happy as well. So I’m just focusing on what I can control, and that’s the skating aspect.”