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Karen Chen, a 14-year-old Fremont figure skater, hopes to follow in the footsteps of Kristi Yamaguchi.
The Bay Area’s roster when it comes to Olympians is a long one: Kristi Yamaguchi, Brian Boitano, Rudy Galindo, and now Polina Edmunds of San Jose.
So is there something special here that has helped send these rising stars to the illustrious games?
Karen Chen, 14 of Fremont, thinks so. It’s the number of role models who come from her backyard, like her number one role model: Kristi.
“She’s from Fremont and able to become such a great skater, and person in general,” said Chen. “I just feel like I want to be just like her and that I can do it as well.”
Chen practices at the Sharks Ice rink in Fremont, perfecting the craft she began when she was just 6 years old. Her coaches, Gilley Nicholson and Sherri Krahne-Thomas, are usually on the side of the rink with watchful eyes and no shortage of comments.
“Kristi’s actually interacted with her quite a lot and helped her along the way encouraging her,” said Nicholson. “She has been supportive from the very beginning from a local standpoint which is very helpful.”
Both he and Krahne-Thomas agree it’s the abundance of ice facilities and the support of the San Jose Sharks that have really allowed young skaters the opportunity to grow and maximize their potential.
“We have a lot of ice to work with. Just the Sharks alone have seven sheets of ice, so the kids can get ice time and that’s a very big part of it,” Nicholson said. “The young ones get encouraged by seeing the success of the older ones and from there we just see more and more of the kids succeed.”
“We have a lot of great ice rinks out here in the Bay Area and great coaches,” Krahne-Thomas added. “And we all have really good relationships with each other and working together a lot for the benefit of these kids and creating this great talent.”
Over at Sharks Ice in San Jose where Polina Edmunds practices, you’ll spot many more up-and-comers including Joey and Michael Cassetti of San Ramon. The brothers play competitive ice hockey for the Junior Sharks, dedicating countless hours at the rink.
“I love playing here and hope to keep playing here,” said Joey, 14. “It’s such an inspiration to think where some people might end up some day, how skilled they are makes me want to keep getting better.”
His younger brother, Michael, 12, agreed.
“To see someone local was great enough. To make it to professional or Olympic level is really inspirational and you believe you can do it, too,” Michael said.
Their mother, Kim, is usually the one driving the boys to the rink in the South Bay in heavy traffic on 680 from the East Bay. But, she said, it’s well worth it.
“It says a lot to the kids that it is possible,” Kim said. “That the boys see the support the Sharks give them and see Polina and to see her practice here – if she can do it, why can’t they do it.”
Mike Janda, an assistant coach with the Junior Sharks and Director of Player Advancement, said the Sharks organization is determined to give those interested in being on the ice plenty of time to practice.
“I think kids in the Bay Area are extremely gifted with what they have here. They’re lucky to have such a nice facility in Sharks Ice. We’ve got four ice sheets pretty much nonstop 5 a.m. to 1 in the morning,” Janda said.
He said it’s also the experience young skaters and players have a lot to draw from “a plethora of coaches here that have experience from the NHL.”
And if that’s not enough, there’s a lot of inspiration coming straight from within the family
Michael said watching his big brother on the ice was enough to make him grab skates for himself.
“To see him on the ice playing and scoring goals, it’s really inspirational and makes me want to do the same thing.”
It’s the same for the Chens. Karen’s younger brother Jeffrey is now a competitive figure skater, himself.
“When she was in intermediate, I realized that I wanted to try skating out,” said the 11-year-old Jeffrey. “It makes me feel like I want to be just like her, and also be very successful.”