Camden Pulkinen, Alex Johnson: "It's important to have a life outside of skating"
February 11, 2024
By Ayaka Okumura
Photo © Kasumi Nabikawa
Camden Pulkinen is the 2018 US National Junior Champion, 2017 Junior Grand Prix Final silver medalist, and a two-time JGP champion. He made his senior Grand Prix debut in the 2019/20 season and finished fifth at the 2022 World Championships. In August 2022, he transferred to Columbia University to study financial economics and is now coached by Alex Johnson, a former American skater who won the 2017 CS Nebelhorn Trophy silver medal, competed in the 2018 NHK Trophy, and retired from competitive skating in 2019. We caught up with both of them during the NHK Trophy and talked about how they work together, their life combining skating with another full-time occupation, and their future plans and goals.
Camden, you delivered two wonderful performances here. How would you summarize this event?
Camden: I'm really happy with my short program. I think I made pretty good strides with it. I just felt really tired towards the free skate, so I think I have to train more for that program. Also, it's been a little bit of time since I've been in a podium position at a Grand Prix event, so I think that was somewhat a unique feeling for me. But overall, I'm pretty happy with the short program and there were some good things in the free, like the quad toe I'm happy with. I think I have a clear idea of what I need to plan going into the US Championships.
Talking about your free skate, it seemed like you were getting slower in the second half of it. Was it because of your stamina or...?
Camden: Yeah, I think it was stamina. I also felt really nervous, so I might have been a little slower because I wanted to be patient. So it was two things: stamina and secondarily, just a little bit of nerves. If I could go back, I wish I had pushed a little more because I know I have it in me. I didn't really feel super tired after the program.
Were you nervous because you were just a few points behind Lukas Britschgi after the short, and maybe thinking about podium?
Camden: Yeah, maybe a little bit. I think I was thinking about the podium, but more than that, I really just wanted to deliver a good free skate here. Unfortunately, that didn't happen.
What did you take away from this competition, and what do you need to work on towards your next event?
Camden: Definitely, more stamina for the free skate as I said and, of course, I'd like to go back and check the spins and see how I can time my breathing a little more so I'm not super tired going into the. I plan on strategizing over the next few months about how I can take an extra breath or two before a spin so I can really give it maximum effort, this is something I want to focus on.
Now let's talk about both of you. Camden, how did you end up choosing Alex as your new coach?
Camden: Hmm... (laughs)
Alex: By default!
Camden: Yeah, somewhat by default, but when I was moving to New York City, I needed a coach, and luckily, Alex was there for me. We competed against each other so he was a good point of contact for me. Sometimes it's a destiny, things happen out of serendipity and I think this was one of those. So although it was a choice that was made somewhat by default I'm pretty happy that I made it and I think we have a good rapport and we have a pretty good thing going.
Alex, how did you feel when you were asked to be a coach?
Alex: I didn't really assume that I was going to be doing what I'm doing now, I thought it was going to be more like an advisory role, helping out here and there. But again, I think when Camden moved to New York City full-time, it was more like, "hey, I need somebody there on a daily basis to help me get through my programs and help me train." And, given that I also went through what he is doing right now with [balancing] school and skating, I think I have an understanding, an experience that's similar to his, so that I can help him navigate this journey.
Did it take time for you to make this decision?
Alex: I feel like it slowly escalated. At first it was really just helping out here and there, and then it was "let's do a little bit more," and then it was "I'm really thinking about these decisions." Eventually I became that main person to go to. And again, having that experience of being an athlete and going through college, trying to figure out what life is like beyond skating, I think I'm able to share a lot of perspective and also relate to what he's going through. So yeah, it's slowly escalated and here we are today.
How do you manage your time between your work and coaching?
Alex: Actually, it's funny. Before I signed with my current job, going into the new company, I knew that I had this commitment and wanted to honor it. My previous company was very flexible with it. So, before I signed off, I explained my situation and said I wouldn't sign my offer unless they were flexible with it. My manager at the time was very accommodating and said it shouldn't be an issue, but now that remote work is going away, it might be a little bit of a change. I have some good vacation days built up, so we're in a good place. It's a lot, and I'm exhausted all the time, but it's worth it.
During daytime Alex has his full-time job and Camden has school. How do you two work together on a daily basis? What's your training routine?
Camden: That's a really good question. Considering our busy schedules, with as much of a fragmented schedule that we have between our work or school and skating, that requires as much of a hybrid type of training regimen that we have. Luckily I'm able to know every day whether I can do my work and then if Alex can come to check up on me, which is usually three times a week, then that's great. But if not, I know that I still have a program to do, I still have sections to run. I'll skate in the morning every day. I usually skate from 8:30 to 10:30 and then go back to classes and do them almost all day, until around 6 p.m.
Alex: How many credits are you taking?
Camden: 19, so I'm in six classes.
Alex: He's crazy!
Camden: Yeah, I'm crazy. (laughs) And then in the evening I'll try to do some core or cardio workout. So I start my day off with a workout and end it with a workout and then study, trying to go to bed at a decent time.
Alex, it seems you really enjoy being a coach. So, another skater comes up to you, what would you do?
Camden: Yeah, what would you say? I want to know!
Alex: I don't know. I think I can do one at a time. I still love having figure skating in my life. I do some choreography for a synchro team and for some collegiate skaters. And honestly, some other up-and-coming skaters as well. So I'll definitely always have skating in my life, but I have to be good about putting up boundaries because there are other parts of my life and who I am that I want to continue exploring. But this is such a reward for me, it's so fun to be back at the NHK. I did this competition as a skater, it was the only Grand Prix I did. So now to be back with Camden here is really neat.
So, regarding taking on another skater, it's mostly a matter of playing out my time and figuring out what I have open. But I would absolutely continue to be involved at this level, I'm still doing a lot with skating and still doing a lot of creative projects and skating will always be a part of my life.
What are you learning from your coaching life?
Alex: Coaching at this level requires a lot of psychology. Athletes know what they need to do, and it's more about figuring out how to get them in the right headspace to perform, to train, to do all the things they need to do on a daily basis. So that's been a hard lesson because I'm so used to thinking, "I'm just going to go do it; I know how to execute it, I'll stick to my plan." Now it's more of, "oh, I see that he's a little tired today" or "maybe he looks a little nervous, how can I get him in the right place to do what he needs to do? So it's really more of a psychological challenge versus the things that you do at the lowerlevels when you're teaching kids how to just skate and do crossovers and learn all of the basic jumps. Coaching is not easy, and I'm glad that I have a little bit of it, but I also have other things outside of it.
Camden, Alex is a different type of coach compared to your prior coaches, what is the best thing you have learned from him so far?
Alex: Oh, you better say nice things. (laughs)
Camden: I think there are a few things. Something I'm really grateful for is that Alex allows me to have more ownership of my skating. At 23, I really want to own my skating and training, so I'm very grateful to have someone who allows me to steer the ship but who is in that advisory role and says things like, "maybe you should focus on this" or "maybe don't forget to hold this spin." The biggest thing I learned from Alex is that you don't have to reinvent the wheel, but sometimes it's just adding a new tire tread or changing the gears. You don't have to completely change everything; it's all about the little details. In the past, sometimes I've thought that if I had some little thing wrong, I needed to change everything, but that's not always the case. You don't need to throw out what's going well.
Can you tell us more about your plans for after college? Are you going to be a full-time skater or are you thinking about retiring?
Camden: One thing is for certain: I'm not retiring. While I'm still figuring out what I want to do after skating, I still have so much to give back to the sport and it's really moments like these, performing in front of an amazing crowd at the NHK, that bring me back to the sport time and time again. So for sure I'm not retiring. But to agree with what Alex said, it's really important to have a life outside of skating. So at the moment I'm still figuring out exactly what that may look like for me in the future.
That's great to hear! And what is your goal for your skating career?
Camden: Definitely, my biggest goal would be the Olympics. Everyone says they want to be in the Olympics, but really, that is the highest thing on the docket for me. Looking back on my career so far, I've gone to every major event I've wanted to, I've gone to Worlds, Four Continents, Nationals. The only event that's missing in my life is the Olympics, so that's really where I want to go and planning out these next few years for that Olympic season is the most important for me. But beyond skating, I'm not sure yet. I'd like to go explore other venues in life, maybe do something of what Alex is doing.
Alex: And what is that [that I'm doing]? A whole lot of everything? I don't know...
Camden: Exactly, a whole lot of everything! And potentially one day to come back to skating as a coach, but I think that's so far in the future that I need to go explore another life and see another part of the world before I decide if I want to come back to coaching.
Finishing only eighth last year, Camden performed incredibly well at the 2024 U.S. Figure Skating Championships last January. Achieving personal-best scores in both the free skate and overall, he secured the bronze medal, marking his first appearance on the national podium in a career that began in 2011. Camden was selected for the 2024 US World Team and opted to withdraw from the Four Continents Championships, "prioritizing recovery and training leading up to Montreal."
Before we published this interview, we asked Camden for a quick update.
Camden, how did it feel heading into Nationals this year? Did last year's result add pressure, or, on the contrary, did it help you not fixate on placement?
I felt extremely prepared going into this event. Building off last year's U.S. Nationals - my first with school in the picture - I figured out the proper formula for balancing school and skating this season, and I prepared myself the best I could. Of course, I was nervous, but I knew that my body was prepared and my programs were trained, so I got out of my own way and let myself have a fun time.
What is your plan for the Worlds in March? What will your focus be on in your training? Were there any "lessons learned" from Nationals - something that went well or needs improvement?
Heading into Worlds, I feel it's about maintaining. I just need to keep myself fit and confident. I'd like to improve some of the spin levels and push my cardio a bit more for this final competition of the season! Regarding the US Champs, I think the overall program went well, but there were some sections where I felt I could increase GOE and presentation.
Regardless, I am excited to be back on the World team and I am looking forward to representing the US again!