At the age of 19, Karen Chen ’23 has already won the 2017 U.S. Figure Skating Championships, competed at the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics and published a book. Now, she’s joining Cornell’s Class of 2023.
Like most incoming freshmen, Chen is nervous about adjusting to college life. But compared with most of her peers, Chen’s struggle is somewhat unique. Scoring the 11th place in PyeongChang, her eyes are now set on the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics, and being a full-time professional skater and full-time student at the same time won’t be easy.
Originally from California, Chen moved to Colorado in August of 2018 to train with her coach, Tammy Gambill. On Thursday, she visited Cornell for the first time to see the campus and attend events at the College of Human Ecology, where she’ll be majoring in Human Biology, Health, and Society.
Cornell was among her top college choices, Chen said in an interview with The Sun at the Cornell Athletic Hall of Fame — after she tried the ice of Lynah Rink. She has paid her enrollment deposit, added “Cornell ’23” to her Instagram bio, and has even followed The Cornell Daily Sun and Cornell Sports on social media.
“The campus is beautiful, [but I’m] not sure how I’m going to be able to deal with the weather in the winter,” Chen told The Sun. “I know that’s going to be challenging for me since I’m from Cali and it’s all sunny there, all the time, all year round.”
Chen has been homeschooled since 6th grade so that she can work her schedule around training. In college, it is going to be the other way around. The fact that Chen wants to pursue a pre-med path might make things even harder.
“In my head it’s doable. I’m gonna make this work. I’m not willing to give up skating and it’s still a priority for me. I dedicated so much of my life to it,” she said. “So I’m gonna see if I can try and maintain and do both very well.”
“You give her a task and she’ll get it done. She can read my mind,” Gambill told The Sun. “I’ve known her [for] so long, I’m not worried about her getting what she needs to do to get it done. She’ll figure out a schedule that works.”
Still, Chen’s training will have to go through some significant changes, according to Gambill. Chen’s current training includes up to three hours of skating per day and off-ice workouts such as ballet, pilates and working with physical trainers and nutritionists.
At Cornell, Chen is unlikely to have the same access to the ice rink. Gambill anticipates more off-ice workouts to compensate for less ice time. Even so, the coach isn’t worried about this shift. Chen tends to overtrain, she said, so this shift might prevent the skater from doing just that.
“I think it will come to a point where if she’s overwhelmed, I’ll know pretty quick and maybe I’ll cut back on a little training time or give her a break during some of her more stressful study times,” Gambill said.
Chen isn’t the first person to balance an Ivy League education and competitive figure skating.
Fellow Olympian Nathan Chen, two-time world champion and three-time U.S. national champion, is currently a freshman at Yale. Karen Chen hopes to learn from Nathan Chen’s experience, who she says is “doing really well” at Yale. The two will be doing a seminar together in Oregon in May, and Karen Chen plans to seek his advice then.
“I’m planning on just interviewing him, literally,” Chen said. “If there’s anyone I want to get answers from it’s definitely him.”
As much as Chen plans to live a full college life, she knows that she will have to make some sacrifices to complete her degree while continuing skating. Chen doesn’t plan to participate in a lot of extracurricular activities, since “skating eats up all [her] time.”
Nevertheless, Chen is excited to go to college and “try something new”. She doesn’t plan to give up either her education or skating. If balancing school and training becomes an issue, Chen is determined to be flexible and work things out.
“We’ll see,” she said.