It’s been twenty-six years since Kristi Yamaguchi’s Olympic gold in Albertville, France — but she still gets pre-competition jitters. Only this time, it’s on behalf of the competitors, not herself.
“It’s nerve-wracking,” Yamaguchi, a longtime Milk Life Olympic partner, tells PEOPLE of watching figure skating competitions — particularly those with high stakes, like the National Championships or the Olympics. “I do get very nervous for the skaters because you just identify with what they’re going through.”
However, she says that it’s important to remember that no matter what medals an Olympian comes home with, it’s important to remember that making the team in itself is a massive accomplishment. “There’s so much pressure to just make the team and it’s so competitive,” she says. “Once you’re actually named it’s like ‘Okay, so the dream has come true. I can call myself an Olympian,’ and whatever happens from there happens.”
She won’t be traveling to PyeongChang for this year’s Olympics — instead, she’ll be recapping the skating competition from NBC Sports’s Stamford, Connecticut office — but is especially invested in this year’s competition. She has a close friendship with American ladies singles skater Karen Chen, and has served as a mentor for Chen throughout her skating career. And going into the competition, Yamaguchi says Chen has the ability to dominate on the ice.
“She brings something special to the ice that when she turns it on people take notice,” she says. “When she skates the way she can then everything will fall into place.”
The gold medalist also had an emotional reaction to Mirai Nagasu’s history-making triple axel during the figure skating team event Monday morning in Korea (Sunday evening stateside), tweeting that she was crying “tears of joy” after Nagasu became the first female U.S. skater in history to land the jump at the Olympics.
Though Yamaguchi admits, thanks in part to technological advances, that things have changed since the days when she was competing at the Olympics — she received telegrams wishing her good luck ahead of the competition, while she says that competitors today may “not even know what a telegram is.”
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But in the end, she says, the core values stay the same.
“The pride of representing your country and being a part of team, you will never forget that,” she said. “Marching in [with] the best athletes in the country — snowboarders, speed skaters, ski jumpers, biathletes — you’re in awe of the company you’re in. It’s so much bigger than just your sport and competition.”