Karen Chen calls herself a “quiet assassin” on the ice, but it has nothing to do with the figure skating champion exacting revenge on anyone.
“I feel like it fits me just because I am a quiet person,” Chen told NBC News of the nickname she gave herself ahead of the U.S. National Championships in January. “For me, when I said ‘quiet assassin,’ that just meant, yeah, sure, I’m quiet. But when I’m out there on the ice by myself, I’m fearless, and I’m not scared to attack whatever I’m going to do.”
It’s a fitting description. After what Chen called a lackluster performance at Grand Prix contests leading up to nationals, she said she didn’t think anyone had very high expectations of her.
But her flawless short and long programs rocketed the 17-year-old to first place, winning her her first national title and securing her a spot on the U.S. women’s world team.
“It was definitely a moment I will never forget. Even now thinking back to it, I’ll sometimes feel like, ‘Was it a dream? Did it really happen?’ But then I’ll go back to my room, and I’ll see the medal and the trophy. And I’ll be like, ‘Yes, it actually did happen,’” she said.
The win capped off two seasons of ups and downs for Chen. In 2015, she placed third at nationals but followed that up with a disappointing 8th place finish in 2016.
Then there were her boots — the shoe-like portion of an ice skate that is attached to the blade. Due to a foot injury years ago, Chen has struggled to find a pair that could fit her properly and not exacerbate her injuries further.
She went through 14 pairs in just four months prior to the start of the 2015-2016 season.
“It was crazy. It was such a struggle [and made it] hard for me to train because I didn’t have the right equipment,” she said.
Chen’s coach, Tammy Gambill, witnessed the toll it took on her young athlete.
“I think I told her she probably doesn’t know what normal feels like anymore, she went through so many [boots]. It was a challenge just trying to get through that self-doubt of what she’s wearing and what she’s doing,” Gambill told NBC News.
Born in Fremont, California, to immigrant parents from Taiwan, Chen first hit the ice at age 4 and started competing at age 6.
She now lives and trains in Riverside, California, outside of Los Angeles, but makes weekend trips to northern California to be with her family, to whom she is very close. It’s her earliest memories of hitting the ice with her mom, dad and younger brother, Jeffrey — a competitive ice dancer — which have helped her weather the ups and downs of her young competitive figure skating career.
“I remember just kind of goofing on the ice with my family, and we’re just having a blast. It helps me remember, this is why I keep skating, ‘cause I love it so much,” she said.
Also helping her is her mentor, 1992 Olympic figure skating gold medalist Kristi Yamaguchi, a fellow Fremont native. The two met at their local rink in 2012 and have bonded in a way only elite athletes — one former, one current — can.
Yamaguchi noticed Chen’s talent and maturity, even at an early age.
“I think I first had contact with her [when she was] 12. She really just listened and paid attention to direction. Just observing her work with her coach at the time, not all kids have that ability to take direction and apply it, and she does,” Yamaguchi told NBC News.
Yamaguchi, herself a single’s U.S. champion and two-time world champion, serves as both sounding board and sage for Chen, especially as Chen preps for her first world championships, to be held in Helsinki March 29 through April 2.
“She told me I’ve worked so hard to be here, now that I’m here, I have to enjoy it because all the pain and the hard work and the misery is all over. You got here,” she said of Yamaguchi’s advice to her. “You really want to have fun, and when you do and you let yourself be free, that’s when you’re able to achieve your goals.”
Goals like making the U.S. Olympic team for the 2018 Winter Olympic Games in PyeongChang, South Korea, of which Chen is cautiously optimistic.
“I think it’s a possibility, as long as I’m able to stay healthy and am able to train hard and able to overcome whatever’s thrown at me,” she said.
The Olympic buzz is sure to be a constant presence whenever Chen hits the ice now, almost as constant as the jade rabbit necklace — her zodiac animal — that she wears both in and out of the rink. Her mother gave it to her for “protection” after she suffered a foot injury at age 9; it’s been her talisman of choice ever since.
In the meantime, Chen — a self-described introvert who enjoys drawing and arts and crafts in her spare time — said she will be working on building her confidence as the “quiet assassin” who slays every program she skates. “I don’t want to focus on the placement or the score I want to get, because that’s something I can’t control," she said. "But I can control my skating.”