FREMONT — Seventeen years after Kristi Yamaguchi captured gold at the Winter Olympics and helped put Fremont on the map, another figure skater from the same East Bay community hopes to put her own stamp on the sport.
Ten-year-old Karen Chen, a fifth-grader at Chadbourne Elementary, will make her debut at this week's U.S. Figure Skating Junior Championships in Ohio, where skaters 12 and younger will compete. Karen earned a spot at nationals after placing first among skaters from Northern California, Hawaii and Utah at a regional competition earlier this year.
Karen leaves today for the Midwest and will compete in the qualifying round Thursday. If she advances to the finals, she will go for the championship title Saturday.
The thought of competing at nationals might intimidate some skaters, but Karen appears unfazed. Her strategy is not to concern herself with the placement but simply to do her best.
She's most looking forward to showcasing her spiral sequence during her 21/2-minute program. At the end of a recent practice session at Sharks Ice in Fremont, Karen demonstrated her skills by gliding across the ice with one leg at a nearly 90-degree angle.
While her performance looked effortless, her abilities are the result of years of hard work.
Karen wakes at 5 each weekday to get to the rink before school and trains one to two hours daily, six days a week, in addition to taking dance classes. Her family moved from Hayward to Fremont three years ago to be closer to the skating rink.
Through it all, the one constant has been her mother, Hsiu-Hui Tseng, who has been present at every competition.
"My husband and I tell her, `You need to enjoy your skating. ... Have fun.' ... It's not a competition. She's a performer. If she's having fun, the audience will feel her joy," said Tseng, who enjoys seeing her soft-spoken daughter come to life on the ice.
"She is shy, but she's not afraid on the ice at all," she said.
Karen laced up her first pair of skates at age 4 and began skating competitively two years later.
She said she would like to compete in the Olympics one day, but for now, Coach Sherri Krahne-Thomas won't even broach that topic with her student.
Although Karen unofficially is ranked third in terms of points she's accumulated this season, her coach said, Krahne-Thomas is careful not to cloud her pupil with thoughts of winning or to put unnecessary pressure on her. Instead, she works with Karen to focus on her strengths and self-improvement.
Part of Karen's success, her coach said, is her ability to take criticism, and her resiliency.
"If the morning session isn't going well, she breaks for school and comes back for the afternoon training ready to work," Krahne-Thomas said. "She has a positive attitude."
She also has positive role models. Karen met Olympians Yamaguchi and Michelle Kwan, and her favorite skater is current world champion Yu-Na Kim. If figure skating is a high-pressure sport, Karen seems too preoccupied with having fun to notice just yet.
"It's fun to skate around, and it's fun to jump,"she said.