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Karen Chen is ready to ‘man up’ in her Olympic debut

PYEONGCHANG, South Korea >> Karen Chen’s biggest obstacle at her first Winter Olympics has been overcoming painful shyness to participate in the popular pin-trading game.

The timid Olympian was afraid to initiate a trade, worried the other person wasn’t interested or already had her pin.

Then it hit the Fremont, Calif., figure skater. She spent her life training to make it to the Olympics so it was time to soak up the atmosphere.

“I feel like if I don’t man up and trade some pins I’ll regret it in the future,” Chen said.

Now she would like to trade up for something a little bit shinier than an Olympic pin.

Chen, 18, spent the first week of the Pyeongchang Games training 2 hours north of Gangneung, where she will make her Olympic debut today in the women’s short program.

She is one of three Americans, along with Mirai Nagasu and Bradie Tennell, hoping to end an eight-year Olympic drought.

“I feel like seriously the best I’ve been,” said Chen, who struggled in the Grand Prix season in the fall. “Now that I am here, I am really ready to make this an Olympic moment I’ll never forget.”

If she can overcome her shyness. Chen, who trains under Tammy Gambill in Riverside, is personable but not willing to throw herself to the public the way teammate Nagasu has.

Chen and U.S. champion Tennell have slipped in the large shadow cast by Nagasu, who at 24, has become the face of the U.S. team not expected to win a medal in a stacked field.

Chen doesn’t mind being overlooked.

“I don’t like too much attention,” she said. “I am an introvert. I like to keep things to myself. When the attention is drawn away from me that is when I feel the best physically and mentally.”

Chen returned to the Athletes Village last weekend after spending a week in Chuncheon, the capital of Gangwon Province. U.S. Figure Skating rented a rink there so its athletes could train in seclusion.

Gambill spent the first week of the Pyeongchang Games practically living in buses. She has been juggling the careers of Vincent Zhou of Palo Alto and Chen since the Bay Area skaters were little.

Now in their crowning moments, both needed Gambill’s attention last week.

Gambill rode special Olympic buses to Chuncheon to monitor Chen’s progress while also taking care of Zhou’s needs as he finished sixth in the men’s competition.

If Chen had stayed in the Athletes Village she would have had one 40-minute practice session a day. Instead, she has spent three hours a day on the ice without interruptions.

“It was what I needed to get away,” Chen said. “I don’t want to say distractions, I needed a little time to myself.”

The 5-foot skater wasn’t in the arena for the team event or the men’s competition. Instead, she watched her American teammates on a mobile phone when taking a break from training.

“She has been skating strongly every practice,” Gambill said. “Don’t count Karen Chen out — she’s a fighter.”

Chen’s season began with indecisions about music and choreography. She changed programs three times before returning to last season’s performances. Those were the ones that led to a U.S. title and fourth-place finish at the 2017 World Championships.

Chen wasn’t perfect at the U.S. nationals in San Jose but competed while suffering from the flu that hit California in early January. The illness returned two weeks before she was scheduled to fly to Korea. But Chen feels strong after a week of hard training away from the Olympic chaos.

“I wanted to be in the Village and be around the athletes but I am willing to do whatever it takes to have my best skates at the right time,” she said. “I feel like I am ready for this and ready to experience this Olympics.”

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