“I’m coming back with a vengeance”: Camden Pulkinen talks ’23 season, Columbia University, and the upcoming US Nationals

“I’m coming back with a vengeance”: Camden Pulkinen talks ’23 season, Columbia University, and the upcoming US Nationals

Camden Pulkinen in practice at the 2023 Lombardia Trophy

Since his Senior Grand Prix debut in 2019, Camden Pulkinen has continued to captivate audiences with the elegance and dynamism of his skating, as well as the thoughtful eloquence with which he discusses the sport and his career. I sat down with the American skater after his performances at the 2023 NHK Trophy, where he reflected upon the competition and the season so far. He also spoke about the interplay of school and skating within his life, and the ways in which we can subvert the narrative that has long been built around the compatibility of the two.

After a strong performance, three clean jumps, and a score of 86.40, Camden Pulkinen was hot on the heels of European bronze medallist Lukas Britschgi following the short program at the 2023 NHK Trophy. With just 0.02 points lying between him and the third-place position, he headed into the free skate with a shot at being on the podium. However, he was met with a frustrating performance which was peppered with errors on jumps, sharing that he was “more upset than I thought I’d be, to be honest. Not just because I feel like I lost a medal, but also because I feel like it wasn’t really a good representation of what I’ve trained and how fit I am. I feel like between being really nervous and also just feeling really tired, I’m upset that I didn’t push through it. But it’s a lesson, so I learned from it.” Later that night, he would tweet about his track record of four consecutive fifth place finishes at his past four Grand Prix events. Asked the following morning about whether the consistency helped in any way, he replied with a groan and a laugh in the negative: “I think it doesn’t help because it’s… I think that’s why I’m upset, too- because I’m always fifth, I’ve been fifth so many times now. And there’s no reason why I couldn’t be fourth or third. It’s just because I didn’t skate as well as I could have, and I think in the past, maybe when I first started Seniors, I’d be happy to be fifth. But now that I’m at a place where I’ve competed in Seniors for so many years now, I think I have more capabilities inside me to be fourth, third. Maybe here not second, obviously, because Shoma [Uno] and Yuma [Kagiyama] were amazing, but at least third, or at least fourth. But it’s okay, we’ll change that script.”

You said you've been doing this for a while, and you've been a Senior skater for a few years now. If you could meet the Camden who is just starting the Senior circuit, is there any advice that you'd give him?

Yeah, if I met the Camden four years ago, I think would honestly just tell him that – it sounds so cliche, but trust. The biggest thing from Juniors to Seniors is trusting in yourself: you move up to this new level and it’s unlike everything else, where now you’re competing against Olympians, World medallists, you’re at the upper echelon of skating. So with that, you don’t need to change anything. If you look at the Juniors to Seniors, the top Juniors are doing similar elements to what the top five Seniors are doing. So you don’t really need to change anything, you just have to trust in what you’re doing. And don’t try to be anyone else, just try to stick to yourself, and skate how you want to skate, really bring yourself out on the ice. Don’t try to be like Yuzu[ru Hanyu], don’t try to be like Nathan [Chen] or Shoma. Just try to be yourself.

This season, Pulkinen is skating to ‘A Different Kind of Love’ by Son Lux in his short program choreographed by Marie-France Dubreuil. Opening with strong percussive beats, it’s a piece that demands a darker intensity to his skating: a challenge that Pulkinen rises to with skill, and one which showcases his range as a performer. His free program to Puccini’s music sets up an effective contrast, underscoring the strengths of his interpretation of more lyrical, classical music and the passion with which he delivers it; it comprises La Bohème’s ‘Quando me’n vo’ framed by the iconic ‘E lucevan le stelle’ from ToscaRather than explicitly portraying the narrative arc of Puccini’s works or moving to embody the protagonist, Pulkinen approaches the big-scale operatic program by foregrounding the music in his expression. “Although I really like the story, the story is so complex that it’s really hard to portray every little scene, whether it’s him in prison or him being betrayed. But something you can easily fall back on is how the music makes you feel. Because every time I listen to this music it makes me feel a certain type of way. So that’s something that I can always rely on and always bring forth whenever I skate it.”

Camden Pulkinen performs his short program at the 2023 Lombardia Trophy

He described the experience of working with renowned choreographer and former ice dancer Shae-Lynn Bourne for the program as “amazing- she’s the best”, and a collaboration which he said had changed his very idea of what choreography was, opening up the potential for motion to go beyond the music. “I think that in the past I’ve thought of it just to be a movement, but I think what she does really well is she always ties into emotions. She always asks, ‘What story do you want to portray? What emotions do you want to bring out for viewers?’ And that’s a really cool question to be asked.”

In the mixed zone following his free skate at the NHK Trophy, he had stated that he was looking to add a second quadruple jump back into his planned layout, considering the consistency he’d had that week with the element. Many skaters in the competition had reflected upon what is often viewed as the complex dichotomy between the artistic and technical within figure skating, weighing up the balance between the two. For Pulkinen, however, the relationship between them has never been one of tension: “I think I’ve had phases in my life where coaches have told me it needs to be so technical, you have to get those jumps, those quads. But then sometimes I’ve heard, like now my coach Alex [Johnson], he’s a fantastic skater and choreographer… there’s been times where I’ve been told that it’s one or the other, but really in my skating I’m starting to realize it’s not one or the other. I think both should be treated with equal value. And not just because that’s what the sport offers, but because that’s what I want to offer the sport.”

I think there are skaters who can give more components, or can give more technical. Like Ilia [Malinin] is a fantastic example. His technical is through the roof, amazing jumper, right? And that’s what he wants to do. That’s great, he’s allowed to do that. But for me, I don’t feel like I want to – I wouldn’t want to be the skater that focuses on just one or the other. I really want to be the skater that focuses on both, and maybe one won’t be the best technical or the best components, but I really want to be a well-rounded skater. And I think back to some of my idols, like Patrick Chan, he was such a well-rounded skater. And I really miss times like that when I would watch him skate and say ‘Wow.’ You know, he did one quad or two quads, but really he also made me feel something. And I feel like that’s what I would like to bring to the sport, something along those lines.

Since last summer, Pulkinen has been enrolled in Columbia University, where he is studying psychology and economics. “It’s tough, but I love it,” he said of the juggling act between studying and skating at the highest level, going on to add that “finding myself outside of skating has really made me love the sport more, because there’s such an eclectic and small group here that you won’t find anywhere else. So I feel really honored to be able to be in a position to still compete at Grand Prix but also be in a great school and learn a lot, and make a lot of friends. So it’s tough, but the rewards are just so prevalent.”

Grand Prix competitions, then straight back to university: such is the duality that he appears to thrive on. Of the contrast between them, he explained that “I think that there’s some fundamental skill sets, like determination, hard work, work ethic, those things that are just ingrained in the person. But I will say it’s a very different mental challenge to be taking a test than to be doing a long program. I think it’s very different types of work […] but the fundamental qualities that I think I have, they show to both.”

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© Camden Pulkinen | Instagram

Previously, Pulkinen had spoken to AnythingGOEs about a 16th-century play that he had read for a class, Christopher Marlowe’s ‘Tamburlaine the Great’. This time, his recommendation takes us even further back in time as he described the interest of examining Greek poet Sappho, whose works were written during antiquity, and who is widely known for the eroticism of her poems and her romanticization of women. The majority of Sappho’s texts have been lost over the course of history, with scholars suggesting that they were burned because of their content; as such, all that remains of her creation are the extant fragments. The result? A slightly atypical reading experience, and one which is “really cool, because you’ll read one word and then a big ‘blank-blank-blank’ and then another word. And you have to fill in the blanks […] it’s like a coloring book. You may have the outline but you can fill in whatever colors you want. So I’d recommend fragments from Sappho. It definitely makes you think, [they’re] very interactive poems.”

He shared that a recent highlight from his studies at Columbia was the class where his “professor is actually Secretary Clinton […] so that’s been really interesting, because I don’t really know much about international relations, so being able to hear her anecdotes about being secretary and the decisions she’s made […] I think something I’ve learned from that class is that there’s stress in every part of the world, whatever job you’re in, whatever niche area you’re in.” And extrapolating from that, “with that knowledge, we need to respect everyone, because really you don’t know what someone else is going through, you don’t know the tough decisions they have to make; you don’t know what’s going on in their life beyond just what you see at face value. And with that, we have to be respectful for each other and lead with kindness and lead with love. That’s not really a direct thing I’ve learned from school, but I think even with my friends that are majoring in Art History, or Philosophy, or whatever it is, they’re all so stressed […] So I don’t want to project and be rude to someone because they have a lot of things in their life. I think that’s more on the social end, but that’s really something I’ve learned through school.”

Camden Pulkinen in practice at the 2023 Lombardia Trophy

Too often, figure skating has been viewed with the preconception that all must be given to the sport, and that higher education and academia cannot be integrated with the life of a top-level athlete. Yet skaters such as Pulkinen are a testament to the very fact that there are other options available, and that those beliefs can be chipped away at. “I think the skating world really tries to push you in a direction,” he said. “I’ve faced a lot of backlash for doing the whole ‘school and skating’ thing. So many times I’ve heard or seen people say, ‘Oh, well, he’s just gonna retire.’ But this is how things change in the sport. I don’t want people to have to choose between school and skating. Now, I’m not saying you have to do, like full-time, or do seven classes like I am right now. But I do think there is merit in doing two or three classes or one class a semester. And I don’t think anyone should ever have to sacrifice academia for sport. Long-term I would love to change the sport and change the narrative that’s been written around us that you have to sacrifice every single bit of your life for skating. I think there’s always going to be sacrifice, no matter what: I’m sacrificing my Thanksgiving being here, I sacrificed school for a week to be in France two weeks ago. And there always will be that sacrifice, but I think academia is something that should really be integral to a lot of people, not just for the direct learning but also for the people you meet, for the friends, how to socialize. So I think I’ve been pushed to make a decision, but I refuse to make a choice between skating and school, because they both are really core qualities of mine, and core things that make up who I am as a person.”

© Camden Pulkinen | Instagram

In January, Pulkinen will compete at the US Figure Skating Championships in Columbus, Ohio. “I think we have a lot of really great US men, and I’m excited to see who is on the podium and who makes the World team, and more than just for me, it’s really a cool thing to see US men skating growing so much,” he said. With the pressure, however, he remains grounded and places the event in context by observing that “there’s a little bit of a difference when you’ve skated against Yuzu and Nathan, and Shoma and Yuma here. And not to say the US depth is not deep, but it’s the difference when you’re competing against Olympic champions versus skaters who are just really good.”

“So I think when I skate against people at the US Championships, it almost feels more relaxing to me, because it’s against my teammates, it’s against my friends, it’s against people that … we’re representing the same country, we’re fighting for the same cause. But when I go to events like this [NHK Trophy], I’m competing against these people that are from other countries, that are just so at the top of their game and have Olympic medals. So honestly, I feel like at US Championships I actually […] feel more relaxed going into those events, no matter what the caliber is.” Having worked with the same sports psychologist since he was seventeen, he stated that it’s about returning to fundamentals in order to place himself in the competition mindset at such moments. “It’s always down to breathing and staying in the present, and just enjoying the time we have. Like I’m enjoying Japan, I really got to go sightsee a lot here. When I go to US Champs, I’m just going to focus on the now, focus on the present, and I’m sure it will go great.”

In our conversation, he was clear about what he has set his eyes on for the remaining half of the season, and simply put, it is “to be back on that World team”: a team which saw him finish fifth at the 2022 World Championships with the third highest-scoring free skate. It’s a goal which hinges on how US Nationals will play out, and he acknowledged that it will need him to be on the American podium. “I said this last year, but I think not making Worlds last year was really … it showed me a lot. And it got me really angry [laughs]. So I’m coming back with a vengeance, and I want to make that World team.”

Pulkinen can next be seen competing at US Nationals in Columbus, Ohio from January 22-28, and has been named to the 4 Continents Championship team which takes place in Shanghai, China from January 29-February 4, a quick turnaround for all of the US athletes who will be flying straight from Nationals to 4CC. 

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