PYEONGCHANG, South Korea (AP) – Karen Chen found herself in a room full of athletes, and she froze.
The 18-year-old American figure skater describes herself as a “shy kid,” and her nerves were getting the best of her again. She was there hoping to trade collectable pins, a longstanding Olympic tradition that helps break the ice between people from different sports or countries.
She just couldn’t do it.
“I was nervous,” she said. “Like, ‘What if this person doesn’t want to trade pins with me? What if they already had my pin?’ All these random thoughts raced (through) my head.”
Worries like that have dictated much of Chen’s young career, something she readily acknowledges. She managed to control her nerves while becoming the 2017 national champion, and while finishing fourth at worlds last year – a feat that earned the U.S. three women’s spots in Pyeongchang. But she has also drowned at times in her anxiety, like when she finished 12th at Four Continents at Gangneung Ice Arena last February.
The shy kid from Fremont, California, knows she can’t be fearful Wednesday when the women’s individual competition opens in Gangneung. She’s worked too hard to waste this chance, and so her mental health has become a focused, team effort.
Chen has been working with a sports psychologist “to really open up on my thoughts and talk things out.” She’s mentally catalogued how she’s felt before each major competition, reflecting on her mindset and what might be influencing it.
“Just talking about my feelings and kind of my worries,” she said. “Like, why I would worry about this jump, or why I’m worried about this program, why I get nervous. Just talking about that and working with my sports psychologist really helped me.”
Many athletes try to block out the atmosphere around them, but Chen discovered recently that she needs just the opposite. At nationals this year, her mind raced before taking the ice – about defending her title, about being the hometown favorite in San Jose, about getting so close to the Olympics and possibly missing out.
And then she heard the crowd, and she let that energy sink right in.
“To hear the audience cheer for me and scream actually made me feel so much better,” she said.
Suddenly, Chen was back at ease, and she skated well en route to a bronze medal. It was enough to earn her a spot in her first Olympics, and now she’s ready to test her nerves on skating’s biggest stage.
She’s returning to a rink where she skated poorly last year, and she acknowledged that the anxiety from that performance hit her when she practiced in Gangneung on Sunday.
“Being back on the ice this morning, it was a little overwhelming, I’m not going to lie,” she said. “But I feel like it’s just what I needed. I kind of need to figure out mentally how I’m going to deal with this, how I’m going to compete.”
Chen isn’t all grown up yet, but she is making strides. She has some proof, too.
Back in her room, there’s a whole treasure trove of Olympic pins, a reward for overcoming her bashfulness in the Olympic village.
“I felt like if I don’t man-up and trade some pins, I’m going to regret it in the future,” she said.
“This is the Olympics. I want to really enjoy this experience.”