Olympian Karen Chen Checked in with Mentor Kristi Yamaguchi Weeks Before Her Beijing Debut

The 22-year-old made her first appearance at the Beijing Winter Games on Saturday night, placing fifth in the team event women's short program after falling on her last jump

Karen Chen
Figure skater Karen Chen competes at the Beijing Winter Olympics. Photo: Catherine Ivill/Getty Images

When Karen Chen walked off of the ice in Pyeongchang, South Korea, in 2018 — having just finished her first Winter Olympics — she told herself she would be coming back in four years.

And so she has — though it wasn't always easy.

"These past few years, I've really just begun to take ownership of my skating and I'm doing it for myself, because in a way I could just step away whenever I wanted to," Chen told PEOPLE in a recent interview before leaving for China, where the Beijing Winter Games began earlier this week.

The 22-year-old made her Olympic return on Saturday night (Eastern), placing fifth in the team event women's short program after falling on her last jump, a triple loop. Fifteen-year-old Kamila Valieva, of Russia, came in first.

Chen's results were good enough to ensure the U.S. qualified for the second half of the team event, which will begin later Saturday, but her fifth-place was a disappointment after Nathan Chen, ice dancers Madison Hubbell and Zach Donohue and pairs skaters Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier, each of whom skated season's bests in their programs.

The U.S. is in second place in the team event, two points behind the Russian Olympic Committee and just ahead of Japan.

Karen Chen
Figure skater Karen Chen competes in the Beijing Winter Olympics. Harry How/Getty Images

Chen told PEOPLE before heading to Beijing that she was looking forward to her short program, set to "Requiem for a Tower – Requiem for a Dream." (She'll get one more chance with it during the women's event later this month.)

"There's this fierceness to it," she said. "So I'm really excited to skate to that at the Games."

"I love being on the ice. I love feeling the ice beneath my skates and skating really fast, and obviously working on new elements and working on jumps," she said then, adding: "I think the part that I enjoy the most is actually skating to music. I just love working on choreography and different nuances and whatnot and just exploring my artistry."

Still, she admitted then, "I always feel like one of my biggest struggles is battling competition nerves."

"There's a lot of pressure and stress that come with it, especially when I feel like my identity is based off of my performance and my placement," she said.

But she was also quick to point out how she had been working on that, all these years. How she has grown.

"I just have been really trying to just stay in the moment and stay present," she said, "because that's when I know I'm able to perform my best and do my best skating."

Chen's road from South Korea to China has some of the same successes and swerves familiar to other elite athletes: She dealt with injuries after the 2018 Games and also had to answer that larger, existential question — who was she doing this for?

"I remember getting off of the ice in Pyeongchang and thinking, 'Yeah, I'm definitely going to go for four years,' " she says. "But then after having time to think about it, I was like, 'Skating is hard.' And I truly still love skating, but in that moment I kind of wanted to experience normal college life."

A former U.S. national champion who twice almost made it onto the world championship podium — helping ensure America got the maximum Olympic spots allowed — Chen underperformed in South Korea along with the other U.S. women's skaters. She told PEOPLE, though, that 2022 was a long way from 2018.

"Four years is a huge amount of time and I also feel like I've changed so much as an athlete, as a skater, as a person since then."

Karen Chen
Figure skater Karen Chen competes in the Beijing Winter Olympics. Catherine Ivill/Getty Images

Chen spent a year at Cornell University, studying pre-med. She loved the off-rink life but winced at the endless and "so, so challenging" juggling act. "I remember being really stressed out about where I was going to park my car, because I didn't have a parking permit," she notes.

"But I truly loved my experience being at college, especially since I was homeschooled all through high school, and so being around other students and other people that were my age that shared different interests, like obviously were not figure skaters at all, was a really eye-opening experience," she said.

Whatever else, she plans to finish her degree.

As Chen competes in Beijing, she has another decorated skater in her corner: Olympic legend Kristi Yamaguchi, a longtime mentor.

"She always texts me before a competition. So I'm truly, truly so thankful that we've had this bond ever since I was little," Chen told PEOPLE. "And I just can't think her enough."

"I actually reached out to her and we chatted like a week before [the national championships in January]," Chen recalls. "Mostly it just had — like I thought about reaching out to her and then I think she was also thinking about reaching out to me. So the moment I sent the text, she was like, 'I was literally just about to text you.' So it was really, really funny."

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Of their conversation, Chen says, "I just wanted to hear what she had to say and if she had any advice for me, but mostly for me to just gain perspective, because I feel like … when I hear about other people's experiences, it makes me feel at ease and it makes me feel like I'm not alone."

The Olympic figure skating team event continues Saturday night into Sunday (Eastern) with the men's free skate program. In the team event, each country sends a selection of skaters to compete in short and long segments for all four skating categories. Their scores are cumulative.

To learn more about Team USA, visit TeamUSA.org. Watch the Winter Olympics, now, and the Paralympics, beginning March 4, on NBC.

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