Camden Bulkinen’s life has become more difficult since last August.
He said, “Ten times harder.”
For the past six years, when he’s lived and trained in Colorado Springs, Polkinen has made the five-minute drive to a rink where elite skaters have spent nearly unlimited ice time. He had finished high school online and then took college courses in person and online at the University of Colorado-Colorado Springs on his own schedule. .
When I spoke to him early last week, that life seemed like a distant memory. Now he’s up at the crack of dawn to commute from Columbia University’s Manhattan campus to the Chelsea Pierce Sky Rink, where he starts his daily training between the hours of 8 and 8:30, and his available ice time ends at 11:20. That trip includes 14 stops on the 7th Avenue subway and then a one-mile walk to the rink, and takes between 50 and 55 minutes.
When his internship ends, Polkinen makes the trek back to start his day as a sophomore at an Ivy League university.
“The mental oscillation between getting through a long program and then rushing into a class and having to learn more about calculus is one thing,” Bulkinen said.
That’s what the 22-year-old from Scottsdale, Arizona signed up for when he decided to continue his snowboarding career during the 2026 Olympic season and become a full-time on-campus student after his admission to Columbia University was deferred. For the year.
He got advice about doing both from some of the others who’ve experienced it, including 2022 Olympic champion Nathan Chen (Yale) and 1992 Olympic silver medalist Paul Wiley (Harvard). They told him that efficiency would be crucial in maximizing the time spent on the ice and the time spent in academics. Bulkinen also joined an advisory club and legal group in Columbia.
“Sometimes I feel like I have one foot for skiing and one foot for school,” Bulkinen said. “I want to try to put both feet in either side and jump back and forth. Now is the right time to do that given we have three years until the next (winter) Games.”
It can get tricky. Bulkinen spent the recess period with Chen’s instructor, Rafael Arutyunyan in Irvine, California, returned to New York on January 14 to begin second-semester classes (cognitive neuroscience, cognition, research methods, statistics, and Spanish), and then returned to New York. California is 11 days away for the US Championships in San Jose, where he should be a strong contender for his first national medal.
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With his arsenal of quadruple jumps, last year’s runner-up Ilya Malinin looks like the favorite to win, and there’s been a lot of buzz around him. Competitive running back two-time Olympian Jason Brown. Meanwhile, Bulkinen’s performances at four international events this season have been largely disappointing. But he still saw himself as a potential contender for the title of Vaz Chen for the past six years before entering a competitive (temporary?) retirement to finish his college studies.
“Ilya is very talented, and of course he has a quadruple axel, which in itself is a marvel,” said Bulkinin. “It’s not impossible that I think I’m going to win the title too. I don’t want to sell myself short. I want to go in and do two clean programs and come away with at least a medal.”
Bulkinen’s fifth place last year was his highest finish at four Grand Nationals. His 34 points included an improvement over his previous best result in the event.
This result earned him an alternate runner-up spot for the World Championships and a spot on the Four Continents Championships team, often seen as a consolation prize for skaters who didn’t make the Olympics.
Bulkinen finished a poor 11th in the 2022 Four Continents and thought little of his chances of winning the world championships in Montpellier, France, one month later, even if it was widely felt that neither Chen nor first-choice Brown were likely. Togo. After all, Bulkinin was the third substitute in the last two years, and nothing came of it.
Five days before the Worlds began, Chen withdrew due to injury, Browne refused his place, and Pulkkinen began packing for his World Senior debut. He ended up in fifth place, less than six points behind fellow bronze medalist Vincent Chu.
“I kept myself fit and well trained, and braced myself by fooling myself into thinking I was going,” said Bulkinen. “I was surprised though when I found out.”
What followed was by far the best skiing of his life.
Although he placed 12th in the short program with a clean skate, Pulkinen’s score, 89.50, was the second-highest score ever recorded for a 12th-place finisher in the short program, topped only by Italy’s Daniel Grassl (90.64) at the 2022 Olympics.
“Everyone skated very well,” Bulkinin said of his low position.
In the free skate, he skated better than all but two others, gold medalist Shoma Ohno and silver medalist Yuma Kageyama, both from Japan. Pulkinen’s performance included a triple-loop quad toe loop combination and single quadruple toe loops, marking the first time he had landed two quadruple free skate jumps in an international competition.
His short program, free skating (182.19) and total (271.69) scores were personal bests, the latter two big increases from his previous best, which dated back to the fall of 2019. Bulkinen felt his apparent slump was due to injuries and was too worried about him. . He repeats his best in figure skating rather than reviving it.
“The worlds have become a good nod to where I can be,” said Bulkinen, who made up his mind to continue competing.
“I took that as a prelude to what was to come, to score even higher in the future to put myself in contention for a medal at the Worlds and the Olympics. I know I’ve had a successful career, but I haven’t reached my limit or become the best skater I can be.
“However, I want to make it to the Olympics. This is something tangible that I think is missing from my athletic (record).”
Bulkinen initially thought when he left for school that he would stay with the Colorado Springs coaching staff, doing remote sessions with them while at Columbia and returning to Colorado during school breaks and in the summer. But given those lofty future goals, he turned to Alex Johnson and Arutyunian instead.
Johnson, a graduate of the University of Minnesota’s Carleton School of Management, retired from competition after appearing ninth nationally in 2019, and was sixth in 2016 and 2017. He coaches Bulkinen in New York in addition to his full-time job as a senior financial analyst at Amazon.
Arutyunyan started working with Pulkinen last May. At the moment, he is the secondary coach.
That is expected to change when Bulkinen graduates from Columbia, either in May or December 2024. He transferred 44 UCCS credits and will overload his Columbia course in hopes of an early appointment. After that, Pulkinen plans to move to California and work with Arutyunyan full time.
“Raphael is a perfectionist,” said Bulkinin. “This is just what I needed. I really would love to get the chance to work with him. He is a master of what he knows.”
Arutyunyan and Pulkinen understand that they will not be able to make huge changes in the year or 18 months that they are together before the 2026 Olympic team is selected.
“I told him to keep his (reasonable) expectations about how much help I can provide,” said Arutyunyan. “I told him if he was really here, it would still be hard, and even then, I could only add maybe 15 to 20 percent of what I could do if we were together every day. It’s very hard to get the right result even when you’re only taking a short break.”
“He understood all of that. It was his decision.”
Pulkinen is delaying work on another type of quad until he is free of the academic demands and can spend more time with Arutyunyan.
“Raphael, Alex and I know that I need technical adjustments in order to consistently perform the second and third type of quartets, so we haven’t started yet,” said Bulkinen.
However, Bulkinen doesn’t think that means he’ll be stepping into frigid waters until he leaves Colombia.
“Pressure makes diamonds,” he said. “Nothing is made easy. Even though it’s about 10 times more difficult for me now, that doesn’t mean I don’t try to make big figure skating leaps in ways other than just another quad. It just made (choreographer) Shae-Lynn (Bourne) Programs me this year, works on my courses more, and develops a consistent style.
“These are things you can’t quantify like a new quad. Even though the improvement right now may not be as great as it could be in a couple of years or if I don’t get to school, I’m still trying to improve myself.”
Bulkinin may have one foot in two different paths, but he hasn’t lost his way yet. Obviously, having a one-track mind is not the only way to see the way forward.
Philip Hirsch, who has covered snowboarding for the last 12 Winter Olympics, is a special contributor to NBCSports.com.
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