Since the moment American figure skating champion Nathan Chen first stepped on the ice as a toddler less than two decades ago, he has mastered the ice at a record-setting pace.
“Basically, I’ve skated every single day since to where I am now,” Chen told PEOPLE prior to leaving for Pyeongchang, where he hits the Olympic ice for this first time Thursday evening (U.S. time) in the figure skating team event. “I’m currently 18 so that’s quite a few days on the ice.”
At such a young age, Chen has already left his mark on figure skating by becoming the first man to land five quadruple jumps in one program, and winning the 2017 U.S. championship, Four Continents Championship and Grand Prix Final championship.
After another top performance at the 2018 national championship, where he earned first place in men’s singles by a wide margin, Chen was named one of three men’s skaters on Team USA alongside Adam Rippon and Vincent Zhou.
Not only that, he is the first — and currently the only — figure skater competing with five different types of quadruple jumps: the toe loop, Salchow, loop, flip and Lutz. But when he takes the ice at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, Chen says it will be the biggest moment of his career.
Chen says he continually challenges himself to top what he’s done the day before, and this has been the impetus for his historic performances. This drive to continuously improve and push himself has placed him on the verge of completing a lifelong dream.
“There are times when as an athlete or as a person you kind of lose some motivation for what you’re doing, but for me my biggest goal is to make that Olympic team,” he says. “My biggest goal is to be on that podium for the Olympics and every single day when I wake up, I know that’s my goal and what I’m working for — I’ve worked my entire life for this moment and I’m not just going to give it up that easy.”
In 2016, Chen injured his hip hours after participating in an exhibition after winning the bronze medal at nationals. The avulsion injury — where a chunk of bone breaks off its larger piece — caused him to miss the world championships. But Chen credits his team with helping him recover in the weeks that followed and setting him up for his recent success.
“They helped me recover to get back on the ice really quickly, helped me to make sure I was strong and ready when I stepped back on the ice, all of that combined really helped me take me to where I am even this season,” he says. “I’m even stronger than I was before the injury and I think that all of that is based off the help I received.”
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Throughout the performances of his career, Chen says the best happen when he is able to block out everything and go into “auto-drive.” He is able to place himself in this zone by repeating his performances over and over again in practice. (The special Eminem playlist he listens to before his programs helps too!)
Though he hasn’t even entered the prime of his career, Chen is conscious of soaking in the experience of the Olympics when he is there, because he knows he won’t be skating forever.
“In the grand scheme of things, it’s just a small little portion of life, so obviously I have to think about what comes after that. Of course, I have to focus on the current season and also what will come in skating in the next four years or so,” Chen explains. “But after that, I definitely do want to go to college and see where that takes me, I’m not really sure what that will lead to but I definitely want to go to college.”
But before then, Chen is set on both the 2018 Winter Olympics and the 2022 Winter Games in Beijing, which would be the perfect stages for his unique talents on the ice.
“I think 2022 is possible, definitely it will depend on how my body is doing, depends on a whole bunch of general factors,” he says. “Honestly, my mind is set on both Olympics.”
The 2018 Winter Olympics will air live, starting Feb. 8. To learn more, visit teamusa.org.
• Reporting by ADAM CARLSON