In advance of his Senior Grand Prix debut, 2018 US Junior Men’s champion and two-time Junior Grand Prix Final competitor Camden Pulkinen took the time to chat with us after An Evening With Champions, an annual Harvard University-run ice show that benefits The Jimmy Fund. Read all about Camden’s perspective on the upcoming season, what he hopes to convey with his skating, and his friendships with skaters from all over the world in the interview below!
Kite: My first question is about ACI. It was your first major international competition of your senior debut season, which is a big deal. How was the experience different from competing as a junior, and is there anything that you're really looking forward to as a senior?
Camden: I think, weirdly enough, there's less pressure in seniors from my point of view. I know, of course, I'm very new to the senior scene. I'm not at the same level as [Yuzuru] Hanyu and Nathan [Chen] yet, but right now I don't have any expectations. I feel like juniors is basically just training grounds for seniors. It’s where you really make your mark, in the hope of getting two Grand Prix one day. I think you have to do well in juniors to become a good senior, in a way. I feel like I've already done that work in the junior ranks. Now, I kind of know how competitions, internationals, and schedules are like, and how to deal with the time changes. Last week at ACI, I was really nervous, but I trusted myself at the end of the day. I think I can finally step into my shoes as a senior, if that's the correct way to say it.
Of course, skating with [Yuzuru] Hanyu and even competing with Nathan [Chen] at nationals last year was completely different than juniors. I think now I'm ready for that. I'm ready for this challenge that's going to take me a few seasons to hopefully be at the top. If there's something I'm looking forward to in seniors, it's savoring the hardships and savoring the climb to the top of the ranks. That's something I took for granted when I was a junior, and I'm really going to enjoy every moment of the progress and the process of getting there one day. I feel happy that I'm finally at the highest level and can compete with [Yuzuru] Hanyu and Nathan [Chen]. Maybe not competitively right now [laughs], but [I can aim to] be at the same event as them and hopefully stack up well components-wise, in a way. Of course I'm not going to be there just yet, but [I will aim to] deliver a program that I can really show from the heart, and to share my love for skating with everyone that's watching.
Actually, piggybacking off of that, you're really well known in the fan community for your performance and how expressive you are, and how beautifully you interpret the music. We were wondering, is that something you practice when you're training? Or does it come naturally?
It's hard to say, because sometimes in practice I definitely know I'm not connecting with the music. If I'm just doing a section with a jump in isolation, it's hard to really connect to any type of music. In training, I think about it, and sometimes I feel like I'm very critical on the technique of my components. I feel like I can point my toes more, really elongate my arms and undulate my body more. But I know as soon as the music comes on, none of that matters, because it's a feeling for the music. Especially when I skated to "Fix You" today. That program - I just love it so much because it has a connection to my heart. And yeah, there are a lot of places where I can point my toe more, but at the end of the day, all of that comes from the inside. It's hard to explain, but when I do my programs, I never really think about performing, or I never think about, "Oh, look up, look out.” I listen to the music and I look inside my heart to show the world what I'm feeling when I’m listening to it. It's something that can never be taught or learned. It's something that you really have to just know.
What are you hoping that the audience gets from it?
Well, it depends what I'm skating to. If I'm skating to "Fix You", it's obviously about someone in love fixing another person. With this program, I want people to know that we're all together and we're all humans together so we shouldn't be fighting. We really should just be loving and helping each other out. My free program is to "The Last Emperor," and if you've ever watched the movie it has a very distinct story-line, so you can definitely follow it. It's easy to skate to something from a musical, like "West Side Story," or a movie like "The Last Emperor". My short is "Caruso" by Andrea Bocelli. If you translate the lyrics, it's about loving someone, and kind of letting go. I think there's so many different emotions that can be portrayed through skating. For my short, I just want people to know that it's okay to be alone and to let go of things. Every single performance should tell a different story. Wow, I feel like I'm definitely just going off on these answers.
No, we definitely appreciate it. I guess talking a little bit more about your programs from this season, "Caruso" and "The Last Emperor" free skate - you worked with Josh Farris and Stephane Lambiel on both of those, respectively. What was it like getting choreography from them, knowing that these two specifically have a reputation of being very artistic, expressive skaters?
I may have said this in a previous interview but I think it's very important and should be reiterated many times. Stephane told me that he gave me the outline of a sketch and the base, and it's up to me to fill in the sketch with different colors and, after the foundation, build it up and make my own house. That's important to me because it shows that he wasn't imposing a certain choreographical step on me. He was giving me a "Here is what you should do, but if you feel something better, then you do that.” It needs to come from within, and you really need to love it. Definitely with Stephane, I feel like he understands the components and understands how to connect with any piece of music. If you watch his skating, that's what he does the absolute best. It's good for me to have that somewhat of a father-figure. Someone who I can look at their skating and say, “Wow, that's just what I want.” I want to be able to portray a feeling when I skate that is more than steps and turns and jump placements. That's the biggest thing I ever learned from Stephane: at the end of the day, choreography should not be given to you from someone else. It should be a collaboration between the athlete and the choreographer.
And Josh, it's good working with him. More than just choreography, he's an amazing skater, and he had his own troubles. It's good to have someone that I can talk to when I'm struggling with something in my head, and he can give me some advice on what to do. He's very laid-back, which is so good. I remember watching him skating his "Give Me Love" program by Ed Sheeran, and he was so introverted. I'm learning from him how to [go from] being introverted to being extroverted and looking out, because that's really the contrast that any great skater is going to have. That's something that Josh and I are working on a lot, but it's not something you can just learn overnight. It's definitely going to be a process.
Is it different working with Josh versus Stephane, because Josh was competing recently for the US? Is there a difference in how they...?
Yeah, I think there's a lot of differences. Josh may be a little more modern in the way of his choreography. A lot of times he'll give me a movement, and I'm like, "I think I remember you doing that, Josh.” [laughs] But with Stephane, whenever he teaches me choreography, he puts on the music and he just skates. And I skate to it. And he's like, "Oh, that, I like that. Do that in the program." Or it's like, "I want you to do this. Try it, how does it feel?" So it's very different. Stephane's very much in-the-moment, and Josh is a little more organized in his plans. Josh would say things like, "This is what we're going to do here, here, here, and here," and then Stephane would just be like, "I like this better. This seems better with the music," and we'll just play around with it. It's two completely different choreographers.
I saw you compete at both Philly [Philadelphia Summer International Competition] and Autumn Classic. I definitely saw some changes in your programs between the two competitions. How do you feel about your programs after ACI, and what are you planning to change, if anything, before you start competing on the Grand Prix?
First, I think Philly was not a fluke, but I think it was more of, “Okay, I dipped my foot in the water.” ACI was me maybe jumping in and jumping out, and then for the Grand Prix, I want to jump in and swim around a little bit. I think for Philly I didn't have enough repetitions of the program underneath me. And truthfully, I didn't really connect with the music at that point, but after that I went home and started listening to the music and finding my love for it. At ACI I think that showed a little more, so if anything I'm going to work on just connecting with the music more. At the end of the day, when I can connect to the music and focus more on the components, the technical content will come along with it. I think a lot of skaters nowadays are like, "Oh! Quad toe! Triple Axel! I have to be really strong in my left arm, I have got to jump straight up." But really at the end of the day, if you focus on everything but the jumps, the jumps are going to flow seamlessly. And it's going to make the program fuse together correctly, instead of ‘crossover-crossover-arm up-here's an Axel!-land-back into the choreo’. It's like the choreography leads into the jump, and that's how it should be. That's something I really want to keep improving on until Skate Canada and Cup of China.
Yes, very excited to see you at both. Aside from the skating, is there anything you're looking forward to doing there? Sightseeing?
Of course I want to go sightseeing! I've never been to Kelowna, and I've never been to Chongqing. I’ve actually never been to China before. That'll kind of top it off because I've been to Korea and Japan, so then I'll have been to three of the major Asian countries. I really just want to look around. It's really unique because I know Cup of China's never been in Chongqing. I'm really excited to look at new places and see the different cultures. I think that's the most important thing - seeing how people treat each other in other countries, seeing how people are exercising all the time, and seeing what food they eat. That's something that I always take away.
One more question! You have a big Instagram and social media presence, and you seem to be on really good terms with a lot of team USA skaters. Does this extend to skaters from other countries? Do you have good friendships with them, and is it easy to make friends with skaters who might not speak English as their first language, or you might not get to see them as often?
It's weird, because for me it's always been fairly easy to make friends. I'm pretty much an outspoken person and I like to always make friends with someone. If someone I don't know walks into the locker room, I'll always go up to them and give them a hug and say, "Hi, I'm Camden, nice to meet you." And maybe they're a Japanese skater that doesn't speak English, but they understand.
If you're not skating for the medals, you're skating for the friendships. That’s how I see it. Friendships last forever; medals only last so long. No one remembers who won worlds in 2002. I mean, maybe some people do, but the average person won't remember. It's really about the friendships that are going to last forever, and I have many friends from Japan that don't speak English, but we have been on podiums together. Like Koshiro Shimada from Japan. We're such good friends and his English isn't perfect, but we communicate. I texted him the other day to say happy birthday, and he was so happy. He wrote back, "I'm happy you texted me. I'm excited we have two Grand Prix together, good luck" and I was like, "Good luck to you." I met Kazuki Tomono the other week when I was at Champs Camp, and he was really great. He told me, "A lot of Japanese skaters said you're a really nice guy, and a good friend. I'm really glad I got to meet you."
I don't know, I just really like to think of myself as a friend to everyone, and I try not to be on bad terms with people. Of course there are some people who I maybe don't talk to as much, but for the most part, everyone is just amazing in the skating world. We're all skaters, and I think we all have a general understanding of what hardships the other person is going through because we've all been there.
Absolutely. Well, that wraps it up. Thank you so much for taking time after the show to talk to us!
No, I appreciate it. Thanks for everything.