When Team USA took the silver medal in the figure skating team event at the Beijing Winter Olympics last week, Karen Chen ’23 won the 64th Olympic medal earned by a Cornellian.
News of the human development major’s Olympic success was received with excitement in Ithaca. The University, the College of Human Ecology and Rachel Dunifron, the dean of the College of Human Ecology, all congratulated Chen on her accomplishment.
“I’ve been seeing a lot of support from everyone at Cornell, and it’s been so amazing, and I feel so special and honored,” Chen told the Sun.
Chen secured silver for the United States with a 131.52 point performance in the free program, one day after struggling in the short program.
After placing 11th in the women’s singles competition at the 2018 Winter Olympics, Chen said that her performance in the team event in Beijing was a product of her growth and maturity between the two games.
“I feel like age and the experience of going through so many obstacles and overcoming different things has really helped me be where I am today,” Chen said.
Chen spent one of the four years between the two Olympics at Cornell. She credited that time with much of her growth.
“That year at Cornell gave me so much perspective in my life, both academically and athletically,” Chen said. “I think I grew the most in that one year at Cornell. Just being in that unfamiliar situation helped me grow as a person, and therefore as an athlete and a skater.”
Chen was homeschooled through high school, which allowed her to prioritize skating while she worked on school during her free time. When she got to Cornell, she found that schedule flipped.
“That shift, doing something I wasn’t familiar with, made me realize how much I love skating,” Chen said. “Gaining perspective from all the other students on campus, seeing that they had completely different passions – that was such an eye opening experience for me.”
It was a difficult adjustment for Chen, who said she struggled to balance academics and skating when she arrived at Cornell.
“Fall semester was tough for me,” she said. “I expected myself to succeed in both [skating and school], but I was struggling.”
When Chen arrived at Cornell, she stated that she started off torn between embracing life as a student and continuing to pursue her Olympic aspirations.
“My freshman year at Cornell was amazing,” Chen said. “In all that chaos of balancing my schedule, I realized that I love skating, and it’s only going to get harder as I get older, so now’s the time to chase that dream.”
During her freshman spring, which was abruptly interrupted by the onset of the pandemic, Chen realized she had to fully commit to either her academic or athletic career.
“Skating season had finished and then COVID hit, so I was fully committed to school and my grades were so much better,” Chen said. “I knew that in order to succeed, I needed to prioritize one, even though that perfectionist in me wanted to do both. That helped me make the decision that I really wanted to go for my Olympic dream for these two years with everything I’ve got.”
While Chen’s performance in the team event helped Team USA win silver, she has not received her medal yet. The doping allegations surrounding the Russian Olympic Committee’s Kamila Valieva have delayed the medal ceremony.
“It was definitely disappointing to not have our medal ceremony,” Chen said. “At the same time, that’s something that I have no control over. Whatever happens, happens. I just need to focus on what I can control, and that’s my skating.”
After taking two years off to focus on skating, Chen plans to return to Cornell for fall 2022.
“I’m super excited about [coming back],” she said. “It will be such a change of pace from what I’ve been doing the past two years, but I’m really excited to embark on that journey.”
Chen said that she wants to keep skating when she gets back to Cornell. During her freshman year, Chen performed at Lynah during the intermission of a hockey game.
“I would love to perform at more hockey games once I’m back. If they ever want someone to do a little twirl or two on the ice, I’d love to do it, it’s so much fun,” Chen said. “Skating is a huge part of my identity, so it’s definitely something that I’m going to keep with me for the rest of my life.”
Chen is scheduled to begin competition in the individual event at 8:45 a.m. Eastern time on Tuesday morning. Her Olympic schedule concludes with the women’s free program, which begins at 5 a.m. on Thursday.