Karen Chen is a two-time Olympian, a silver medalist and United States champion. She has twice finished fourth at the World Championships, including last year.
The 22-year-old is, undeniably, one of the best figure skaters in the world.
Yet when she watches what her peers from Russia, most notably 15-year-old sensation Kamila Valieva is doing — namely skating a long program with three separate quad jumps in it — she is not sure she is even in the same sport.
“[They] are doing things that I can only dream of doing,” Chen said. “I am not capable of doing what they are doing.”
This is not a defeatist attitude. It’s simply reality.
Valieva, despite her youth, is considered the greatest figure skater of all time. This is not a title based on accomplishments. Due to her age, she’s never even competed in, let alone won, a World or Olympic championship. Her senior international medal count begins and ends with a European gold she took home handily in January.
No, this is about her ability — a combination of otherworldly leaping ability and the sport’s traditional grace and style.
She already holds nine world records, including a combined world record score of 272.71 from a grand prix event last November. No other woman has ever scored better than 247.59 (Russia’s Alena Kostornaia), which means Valieva has already broken the record by nearly 10 percent.
And that number should only grow in the weeks, months and years to come. Perhaps even next week (Monday and Wednesday in the United States) when she takes the women’s individual competition by storm.
These Winter Olympics are Valieva’s coming out party. Whispers of her genius, eye-popping scores and youth videos from the junior circuit had made her a sensation within the sport. But nowhere in skating does the spotlight shine brighter than the Olympics.
In the team competition, she became the first female skater to ever land a quad in Olympic competition — first sticking a quad salchow and then hitting a quad-toe loop, triple-toe loop combination.
No one else tried anything close.
Valieva’s skill set and degree of difficulty are so off the charts that despite falling on her third quad attempt on Monday, she still won the ladies’ free skate portion of the team competition by 30.26 points, 178.92 to 148.66. It was a complete blowout. Russia, of course, won gold.
“The second toe loop didn’t work out, unfortunately,” Valieva said. “But I will work on it. Believe me.”
Valieva hails from Kazan, about 500 miles west of Moscow. As early as age 3, she said, “I would tell my mother I want to be an Olympic champion.”
By 5 she was hooked on skating. By age 6, her talent was so obvious the family moved to Moscow so she could find elite training. By 13, she became the second woman to ever land a quadruple toe loop.
There is almost no overstating Valieva’s ability. Across generations of brilliant skaters, there is simply nothing like her. She has completely changed the dynamics of what was believed possible for a female skater.
Just four years ago, American Mirai Nagusa was the first woman to land a triple axel at the Olympics. As recently as the 2010 Olympics, American Evan Lysacek won gold in the men’s competition despite not attempting a quad. It was controversial at the time, but even still, no competitor was attempting three of them in a single skate the way Valieva is now.
Men’s and women’s figure skating are not apples-to-apples comparisons, but the idea that just 12 years after a men’s Olympic competition, a 15-year-old girl is attempting a more daring aerial program is almost unfathomable. As great at tennis as, say, Serena Williams is, even at the peak of her greatness, never did anyone think she could have won the men’s draw at Wimbledon a dozen years prior.
“This is a fantastic feeling,” she said Monday of winning gold as part of the team competition. “It’s like you are skating among adults, in a competition for adult skaters for the first time.”
Valieva says her life is dominated mostly by training. “We work a lot,” she said. Reports say she hopes to be a psychologist one day. Her chief non-skating outlet is a Pomeranian named Luva that her fan club gave her as a present in 2019.
Coming up through the junior ranks, she modeled her skating after two Russian greats.
There was 2014 Olympian Yulia Lipnitskaya, a lithe performer known for her mesmerizing spins and flexibility. Then there was 2018 gold medalist Alina Zagitova, who was such a powerful jumper that she purposefully waited to perform all seven of her jumps in the final two minutes of her program in order to receive bonus points.
The combination has made Valieva nearly unbeatable — power and precision. Having surpassed both in their respective strengths, she now focuses on male skaters — American Nathan Chen and Japan’s Yuzuru Hanyu, both of whom deliver five quads in their free skate.
“[They] are amazing performers from whom you can learn a lot,” she said.
She’ll be watching them this week as they compete for gold. It is next week that the stage, and the chance at all-time Olympic greatness, is hers.