The U.S. Olympic figure skaters are selected based on their overall accomplishments, consistency as well as their performances at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships and international scores.
Of the 200 U.S. athletes participating in the Beijing Olympics, the 16-member figure skating team includes five Chinese Americans and two additional “alternate” members!
Following are a brief introduction to the Chinese American skaters competing in Beijing:
Karen Chen (b. 1999) placed 11th at the 2018 Winter Olympics. Feeling she could have done better, she took a break from Cornell University to focus on training for a second go at the 2022 Winter Olympics. She is known for her speed and lovely spins.
Chen started skating at 4 and began competing at 6. Naturally shy, she said she felt like a different person on the ice. “Being able to fly across the ice and being able to spin until my fingertips tingle is one of my favorite feelings in the world. It is one of the many reasons why I love skating,” she said.
Chen was home-schooled from sixth grade on so she had flexibility in scheduling her practice on ice. She sat out the 2018-19 season because of a stress fracture in her right foot. She also sat out her sophomore year at Cornell in 2020-21 because all classes were virtual and she did not want to miss out on the “whole college experience.” Instead, she trained full-time in Colorado Springs.
Chen was born in Fremont, Calif., home of another Olympic champion, Kristi Yamaguchi. Her engineer parents are immigrants from Taiwan and her younger brother Jeffrey (b. 2002) also competes in ice dancing and is the third alternate in the ice dance team. He began skating in 2010 and switched over to ice dance in 2015. He trains in Michigan. (See the young brother-sister duo on p. 1.)
Nathan Chen (b. 1999), three-time world champion and no relation to Karen and Jeffrey above, was a 2018 Olympic bronze medalist (team). He finished a disappointing fifth in the men’s event in PyeongChang, South Korea. Chen is the most decorated U.S. men’s skater since the ‘40s and ‘50s. He is also the first man in the world to be credited with landing five different types of quadruple jumps in international competitions, thereby earning him the nickname of the “quad king.”
Born in Salt Lake City, Utah, he began skating at 3 after watching his four older siblings play hockey and figure skate. He competed in gymnastics for seven years and had trained in ballet. He entered his first skating competition in 2003 and at the 2010 U.S. Championships, became the youngest novice champion in U.S. Figure Skating history!
When not practicing his jumps and preparing for the Olympics, Chen is pursuing a degree in statistics and data science at Yale. He also enjoys playing the guitar and biking along the beach.
Chen, the top contender for a gold in Beijing, credits his mother’s support from day one and both parents for being great role models in life. His parents are immigrants from China – father is a medical research scientist from rural China and mother is a medical translator from Beijing
"My parents migrated to the U.S. in their 20s, when they had nothing and lived a difficult life. So they had to make their way through hard work," said Chen. "They always want us to know that there is lots of hard work behind each success. Therefore, my older brothers and sisters as well as me have had some success in our careers."
Madison Chock (b. 1992) is of Chinese Hawaiian descent on her father’s side. She and her (on- and off-ice) partner Evan Bates took the ice dancing title at U.S. Championships in 2015, 2020 and 2022. The couple is known for their stunning lifts and inventive choreography. They train at the renowned Ice Academy of Montreal. It will be their third appearance on Olympic ice in Beijing.
California-born Chock began skating at age 5 having watched it on TV with her parents. At age 12, it was suggested to her to try ice dancing. She tried it and enjoyed it. She and another partner won gold at the 2007 Junior Grand Prix debut. She started partnering with Bates in the 2011-12 season.
In Beijing, Chock and Bates will perform their “Lovers from Outer Space” free dance, the story of an astronaut who falls in love with an inhabitant of another planet. Said Chock, “Our program at its roots is about love and acceptance, and finding love and acceptance in someone who's different than you are … we just want to remind everyone that you can find love with someone that is different than you, and from a different place.”
Chock designs skating costumes for herself and partner, and also for other skaters. Other hobbies include drawing, painting and reading.
Alysa Liu (b. 2005) is the youngest member of the team. Her father, an attorney who immigrated to the U.S. from a small mountain village in Szechuan in the 1990s, used to take her to watch Michelle Kwan skate at the Oakland Ice Center.
California-born Liu began group skating lessons at age 5 and quicky moved on to individual lessons. She participated in her first competition in 2015, coming in at seventh place at the Central Pacific Regionals. At just 12, she became the youngest skater in history and third American woman ever to land a triple axel in an international competition.
At the 2019 Junior Grand Prix in Lake Placid, NY, she is the first woman ever to land a triple axel and quadruple jump in the same program. She was the youngest U.S. champion ever, at age 13, and in 2020, she became the youngest ever two-time champion.
A former Olympic medalist compared Liu to gymnast Simone Biles. No pressure!
He said Liu was the “Simone Biles of figure-skating. Alysa does things so easily, but if you’re an average viewer, you almost don’t appreciate how difficult and revolutionary the program that she’s putting out is.”
When told of the comparison, the 16-year-old responded, “That’s like a really big honor because I love Simone Biles a lot!”
When she began missing too much school because of competitions, her mother started home-schooling her, using the same online program other skaters have used. She graduated high school last June.
Vincent Zhou (b. 2000) was born in San Jose, but grew up in Palo Alto, Calif., to Chinese immigrant parents, both of whom are computer scientists in Silicon Valley. To accommodate his skating schedule, he attended online high school and enrolled at Brown University in 2019. He is taking a leave of absence from academics to train for the Winter Olympics.
“Due to the high Asian population in California's Bay Area, competition in academics is very fierce,” Zhou said. “Only the highly competitive, hardworking, diligent, committed people make it. That played a huge part in me understanding the standards my family has for academics and whatever I decided to pursue in terms of sport.”
Although Zhou only medaled for the team event in PyeongChang, he was the first person to successfully land a quadruple Lutz jump at the Olympics in the short program.
Zhou said his parents “were willing to make sacrifices for my skating career that no parents in our community, or anyone we had heard of, were willing to … At the same time, they maintained that academics would always be the most important thing, and the values they taught me helped shape my character in and out of sports very much.”
He started skating at 5. When he was 9, he became a member of the All-Year Figure Skating Club in . and won three national titles at different levels in three consecutive years: 2011 U.S. intermediate champion, 2012 novice champion and 2013 U.S. junior champion. 2022 will be his second Olympic games.
Last, but not least, is third alternate Jimmy Ma. Ma is the understudy, the replacement, if you will, should one of the key figure skaters be unable to compete. He will still need to practice daily and be at the top of his game should he be required to step in. The alternate spot is ever important during COVID!
A Long Island, NY, native, Ma’s first experience on the ice was no indication of what was to come. The 8-year-old had a terrible time at the skating rink – friend’s birthday party venue, he said, because he fell on his face. His mother took that opportunity to sign him up for lessons so he could “learn to pick myself up.” Although skating skills had not kicked in then, he did excel at other areas: swimming and piano. At 10, he defeated 17-year-olds at the butterfly stroke. He also performed as a concert pianist at Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center.
Eventually, the passion for skating stuck and he trained with “big sister” Felicia Zhang, a two-time medalist in pairs at the U.S. Nationals. Ma looked up to Zhang as “she set the bar for me.”
His parents stressed the importance of having music in his life, so he was practicing as a concert pianist as well. In the end, he chose skating, but said his music background helps making his music selections for his programs and with his skating. He made headlines skating to a hip-hop/rap song at the 2018 U.S. Figure Skating Championships.
“I am so lucky to have parents who have supported me so much. … I have something to fall back on. I can still go back to school and have parents who support me. This is not readily available for a lot of people. I count that blessing every day. I will never forget what they have done, and are still doing, for me,” Ma reflected.
Ma also speaks fluent Mandarin and Cantonese because, “My mom made this rule that she would not listen to me if I spoke English in the house because she wanted me to be bilingual,” he said.
The underlying theme appears to be these Chinese American athletes all deeply appreciate the fact they are where they’re at because of their parents’ support and sacrifices. The drive and focus on training result from seeing what their immigrant parents went through to provide the environment possible for their athletic careers. Their parents’ struggle in an adopted country afforded them their opportunities lead them to work as hard as they could and forge a winning mind-set. Their coaches acknowledge the discipline exhibited by Chinese skaters, which is quite unlike their American peers’. Chinese skaters set high standards for themselves. One coach described the difference this way, “… American kids are taught, ‘Oh, dear! You have a right to stand up for whatever you think! . . . Are you being abused by a coach who is telling you to do it again?’”
Be sure to tune in to watch the skaters’ performances with thisof the various skating events., beginning Feb. 4.
Alternate Jimmy Ma
Alternate Jeffrey Chen, younger brother of Karen
Keywords: Karen Chen, Nathan Chen, Jeffrey Chen, Madison Chock, Alysa Liu, Jimmy Ma, Vincent Zhou, Beijing Olympics, Chinese American skaters, Olympics figure skaters