Pulkinen Graduates to U.S. Podium, Columbia Next

This season, Camden Pulkinen discovered the formula for success in both the classroom and on the ice. After two fifth-place finishes at his Grand Prix events, he earned his first senior U.S. Championships medal and will make his second appearance at the World Championships.

Photo Credit Melanie Heaney/U.S. Figure Skating
By Elvin Walker

Two seasons ago, Arizona native Camden Pulkinen was presented with the opportunity to compete at the ISU World Figure Skating Championships 2022 in Montpellier, France.

As the second alternate for the event, it seemed unlikely that the 24-year-old would have been called up to represent Team USA. But when Olympic champion Nathan Chen and perennial U.S. medalist Jason Brown opted out of the event, Pulkinen was given the nod.

In France, Pulkinen took advantage of the opportunity, establishing himself as one to watch as the new Olympic cycle began, finishing in a surprising fifth place, including third in the free skate.

With so much promise and a landslide of momentum on his side, Pulkinen entered the 2022-23 season with lofty expectations. However, the 2018 U.S. junior champion made the decision to depart his longtime training center in Colorado Springs, Colorado, and took a leap of faith to balance his skating with a strenuous workload at the prestigious Columbia University in New York City.

As he adapted to his new life in the big city, Pulkinen struggled to find harmony between his two passions – skating and learning.

“In Colorado where everything was focused on skating, there were coaches all around at all times of day and it was a really great environment for being able to skate for six hours a day,” he explained. “In New York, you don’t have that same luxury, so it definitely forced me to learn how to be on the ice and cut out some of the things that may be excessive and focus on the macros that are helping me to maintain and achieve success.”

Pulkinen’s season ended with an eighth-place finish at the 2023 U.S. Championships in San Jose, California.

As he entered the current season, Pulkinen was discovering the formula for success in both the classroom and on the ice. A year before, he was traveling to California on select weekend to train with esteemed coach Rafael Arutyunyan while seeking out the tutelage of former U.S. men’s competitor Alex Johnson during the week.

“Working with Rafael was fantastic, but I started to realize that taking a weekend trip and flying for a cumulative nine hours was not conducive for effective training,” he admitted. “I decided to cut out those trips this season and decided to make Boston more of a viable training solution. Taking the Amtrak for three hours takes a lot less toll on the body than a four-and-a-half-hour flight to California.”

While he still does train part time in New York City, Pulkinen and Johnson make the trip to Boston regularly to train alongside other elite skaters like Emily Chan and Spencer Howe, Jimmy Ma and Maxim Naumov. It is the camaraderie and friendly competitiveness in Boston that has renewed Pulkinen’s passion for training.

“The biggest reason for the trips to Boston is the convenience. It has a great set up and I feel very grateful that The Skating Club of Boston has welcomed me with such open arms,” he said. “It’s a really good opportunity for me to feel a bit of that competitive adrenaline.”

Pulkinen’s fall season was steady – he notched two fifth-place finishes at the Grand Prix Series and finished in fourth place at a Challenger Series event to kick off his international campaign. As the 2024 Prevagen U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Columbus, Ohio, approached, it appeared as if the 2022 World Championships competitor was poised to live up to his promise and make the leap to the podium for the first time in his career.

“It would be really easy for me to say that it is really hard to live up to expectations. It is a difficult thing to do when everybody expects you to achieve certain results,” Pulkinen said of attempting to finish with a medal. “At the end of the day, what I have learned and am beginning to understand is that people put those expectations on you because they believe that it is possible for you to meet them. I put those expectations on myself because I believe it is possible and I think that I am capable.”

In Columbus, Pulkinen did make good on that promise and captured the bronze medal and along with it, his first outright invitation to compete at the World Championships this week in Montreal. And he is happy to have done it in his own way on his own time.

“I had so many moments where I visualized myself on that podium – not really sure what spot that would be, but I always envisioned that I get there one day,” he said. “I think for many years I've kind of expected that I'd be on the podium, and I think that’s what got in the way of me actually doing it. So, to finally climb up those steps, it felt really rewarding and more than that, it feels really rewarding to have accomplished something I haven't done before while still in school.”

And while some might argue that Pulkinen could have climbed onto the U.S. Championships podium sooner had he reduced his commitment to school or even delayed his education until he was through competing, Pulkinen believes he is right where he needs to be.

“I think that I can honestly attribute my successes and change in mindset to finding my identity outside of sport," he explained. “I feel like coming to college and realizing that I am more multifaceted than I thought I was before, I have all of these different interests and different people who will still love and appreciate me has really helped me to go out and perform knowing that whatever happens whether I have a flaming hot skate and I win or whatever or maybe a subpar performance, I still have friends to come back to I still have my degree to earn.”

As he readies for the premiere event of the season, Pulkinen is hoping to make a big splash in Montreal to put an exclamation point on his unprecedented season.

“My job is to represent Team USA in the best way that I can,” Pulkinen said. “Whether you are the national champion or the bronze medalist, you want to compete your best and to earn three berths for next season. I have some personal goals, too – I’d love to be somewhere near the top six again.”

Pulkinen, who will celebrate his 24th birthday the day after the World Championships exhibition, expects to graduate from Columbia in May. He plans to focus on finishing up his studies after the competition, and then will figure out what his next move will be once he has time to breathe.

“It’s bittersweet,” he said. “Once undergrad is over, there is no such experience like it, so I am sad that it is coming to a close. But I know that there is life beyond this, so realizing that there is more to come is something that I have come to terms with. I am excited about the timing of graduation being after the World Championships so that I can go out with my friends and have fun. I’m really excited to walk (in the graduation ceremony) with my friends, grab some photos and do the things that 15-year-old me who moved to Colorado Springs thought I had closed the door to. This is all that I really wanted out of coming to Columbia and living in New York City.”

Don’t miss Camden Pulkinen at the World Championships this week. Stream the event live on Peacock and for live results and full event recaps, visit the U.S. Figure Skating Fan Zone.