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Magnussen's career at the elite level of skating began when she won the Canadian national junior title in 1965, at the age of 13. Moving up to the senior level the next year, she became known for her strong free skating ability, and was even compared to Petra Burka, then the reigning world champion.3 Her march upwards in the rankings continued as she qualified to compete at the World Championships for the first time in 1967 and won her first Canadian title in 1968.
Magnussen had a tough season in 1969, first losing her Canadian title to Linda Carbonetto. Then, a few weeks later, she was diagnosed with stress fractures in both legs and was forced to withdraw from the World Championships. Using a wheelchair for weeks, Magnussen considered retiring from the sport. She eventually made the decision to continue.3 She won the Canadian Championships four more times, from 1970 to 1973. At the World Championships, she won a bronze medal in 1971 and then silver in 1972.
Like her American contemporary Janet Lynn, Magnussen was stronger in free skating than compulsory figures. In the early 1970s, both were competing against the Austrian skater Trixi Schuba, who was probably the best practitioner of the compulsory figures in the history of the sport. The scoring system at the time placed significant value on compulsory figure skills, allowing Schuba to build a huge lead before the free skating portion and making it difficult for skaters with weak figures to catch her. Schuba won the gold at the 1972 Winter Olympics in spite of being only 7th in the free skating segment, while Lynn and Magnussen (first and second in the free skating) took bronze and silver, respectively. With figures being less exciting to audiences and their dissatisfaction growing, the International Skating Union reduced the value of compulsory figures and introduced the short program, an additional free skating component, to the competition beginning with the 1972-1973 season. Combined with Schuba's retirement after the 1972 season, this development encouraged both Magnussen and Lynn to stay in competition another year.
At the first World Championships under this new system, in Bratislava, Czechoslovakia in 1973, Magnussen produced a strong short program (which included a double axel)citation needed, while Lynn fell twice in that portion of the competition. Although Lynn came back to win the free skating segment, her problems in the short cost her the title. Magnussen added a gold to complete her World medal collection.
Magnussen, who enjoyed a successful career as a professional skater after her 1973 World Championship win, is now a leading figure skating coach in her hometown of North Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.4 The Karen Magnussen Community Recreation Centre5 in North Vancouver is named for her. And Magnussen has established the Karen Magnussen Foundation6 to assist young skaters. Although Canada has gone on to produce many notable female skaters, such as Elizabeth Manley, Josée Chouinard and Joannie Rochette, no other Canadian has claimed the world title since Magnussen.4
In November 2011, an ammonia leak occurred at the North Shore Winter Club where Magnussen works; she said it caused her breathing problems, hampered her ability to speak, impaired her vision, and left her chronically fatigued.7WorkSafeBC inspectors cited the club for twelve health and safety violations.8 In May 2012, it was reported that Magnussen continued to suffer serious health problems and it was unlikely she would be able to go into a rink again.9