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Karen Chen's most impressive moment of the day was nailing her triple-jump combination in her figure skating routine. But her favorite moment?
Chen's face couldn't hide her pleasure as she bowed down for her gold medal, holding her trophy and hearing the announcer say: "Ladies and gentlemen, your intermediate ladies champion of the United States!"
Earning a gold medal in the U.S. Junior Figure Skating Championships is an incredible achievement. Winning any national title is a tribute to skaters' skill and a promise of their potential.
But anyone who ever has tied on a set of skates has dreamed of the sport's biggest stage: the Olympics. It's an intoxicating fantasy standing atop the podium, the gold medal draped around the neck, the sound of the "Star-Spangled Banner" playing that every serious skater someday hopes to make a reality.
"I've always dreamed about winning the Olympics and the World Championships," say Vincent Zhou, who won the intermediate men's title. "I know no matter what anyone else does, it's all up to me."
But anyone who wants to go to the Games faces intimidating odds. The intermediate winners from this weekend's championships are likely to move up to compete in next year's U.S. Figure Skating Championships at the novice level. There already are a number of skaters their age at the novice level such as last year's men's novice champion, 10-year-old Nathan Chen from Salt Lake City.
After novice, skaters would move up into juniors, then into seniors to compete for Olympic spots. The senior level has the most competitors in any given U.S. Figure Skating competition, and typically one great skater can dominate for years.
Even coaches who think highly of their skaters are guarded about talking about their Olympic potential.
"[Chen] is extremely hard-working, dedicated and focused, and she has all the things you need," said Sherri Krahne-Thomas, Chen's coach. "But it's a long road ahead. This is a stepping stone, but it's a long path."
But there are success stories from the junior championships. Gold medalist Evan Lysacek won the juvenile boys title in 1996 before winning the novice, junior and senior titles and eventually elevating himself to an Olympic icon. Other past winners include ice dancing silver medalists Meryl Davis and Charlie White, and U.S. singles champs Rachael Flatt and Jeremy Abbott.
It's hard to say at the youth level who could be an Olympian someday. But winning or even just performing well at the junior championships can't be a bad sign. Watching Madison Vinci win third place in intermediate ladies competition made Washington Figure Skating Club coach Rashid Kadyrkaev gush.
1. Karen Chen, Peninsula SC (119.92)
• Intermediate Men: Vincent Zhou, Peninsula SC (104.12)
• Juvenile Girls: Dalia Rivkin, North Jersey FSC (52.46)
• Juvenile Boys: Tomoki Hiwatashi, Du Page FSC (56.22)
• Intermediate Dance: Meara Lorello and William Dean, University of Delaware FSC (94.78)
• Juvenile Dance: Julia Biechler and Alexander Petrov, Hershey FSC (86.92)
O For more photos of Day 4 of the U.S. Junior Figure Skating Championships in Salt Lake City, visit http://www.sltrib.com/sports