U.S. Skating Champs Like Nathan Chen & Mariah Bell Open Up About Podium Dreams and Olympic Prep

The figure skaters open up about making the team, balancing the pressures and thrills of being on the ice, and share a little about their personal lives

They all just became national champions — amid a pandemic, with the looming threat of infection — and then they all just got named to Team USA, fulfilling years- or life-long goals.

And in a few weeks, the first-place finishers from this year's figure skating championships will be right back out on the ice. This time, they're hoping to skate their way onto the Olympic podium.

PEOPLE recently caught up with Mariah Bell, Nathan Chen, pair skaters Ashley Cain-Gribble and Timothy LeDuc, and ice dancers Madison Chock and Evan Bates, who each won first place in their categories at the skating championships in Tennessee earlier this month. Those wins also clinched their spots competing for the U.S. in Beijing at the Winter Olympics in February, where figure skating is the signature sport.

Below, in highlights from their PEOPLE interviews, the skaters open up about making the team, balancing the pressures and thrills of being on the ice, and share a little about their personal lives.

Mariah Bell, Nathan Chen, Ashley Cain-Gribble, Timothy LeDuc, Madison Chock, Evan Bates
From left: Mariah Bell, Nathan Chen, Ashley Cain-Gribble and Timothy LeDuc, Madison Chock and Evan Bates. Joosep Martinson - International Skating Union/International Skating Union/Getty Images (2);Atsushi Tomura/International Skating Union/International Skating Union/Getty Images; Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

Nathan Chen, a 22-year-old three-time world champion long tagged with the "quad king" nickname for the ease with which he spins off the hardest jumps in skating, is a contender for gold this year after falling repeatedly at the 2018 Olympics. His increased profile has brought a bevy of sponsorships (like Wells Fargo's Active Cash Visa Card).

"Having had all the experience that I've had over the past couple years has really helped me in this moment where I currently am. I really had a lot of fun at nationals and that's not something that I can definitively say was the truth the past few nationals.

"It's so easy to fall into the trap of being like, 'Oh my gosh, the pressure's building. Everything's so stressful. Everything's so scary.' I think that feeling in that way isn't necessarily a bad thing all the time, but just being able to remind yourself like, yes, this is a pretty stressful time, but at the same time, there's a lot more to life. There's so much more than this individual competition, than this one shot. So I think just to keep that perspective in your head and being like, 'I'm here. I don't really have that many opportunities to be here.' So while we have these opportunities and while we can do these amazing things, let's enjoy as much as we can. I think constantly reminding myself of that has been really helpful.

"I think the technical side of skating definitely comes more naturally to me, but I've been really fortunate to have a really great team of people helping me on the sides that I definitely need more work on. They've been giving me great content, like the programs that I have now, as well as just continuing to try to push me forward and be more expressive.

"Looking back in 2018, all I can think about is skating and not being able to obviously skate well. So I want to definitely be able to embrace the Games in a different way and make new friends and meet new people."

Nathan Chen
Nathan Chen competing in April 2021. PHILIP FONG/AFP via Getty Images

At 25, Mariah Bell is the oldest female national champion in almost a century but Bell — who is also close friends with Chen and is being coached by Olympic medalist Adam Rippon — says now is the perfect moment for her to succeed, despite recent challenges for U.S. women at the Games.

"In life, I'm very young, but in skating, I'm old. And I think it's super fun because I don't feel old in the slightest. I'm 10 years older than most of the people I'm competing against, but I don't feel that way. I feel I'm just getting into my prime and I just want to be an example for other athletes, skaters in particular, that there's no limit.

"There can be this sort of stigma or a culture around skating where you have to do it when you're young and that's just not the case. And if you want to be dedicated and take care of your body and your mind, you can do it for as long as you want.

"The Russian ladies are phenomenal, but they are not flawless. And there's a competition that's happening right now, European Championships, where my short program score would've had me in third. And that's against those top three Russians that are going to the Olympics. Nobody knows what's going to happen. Ice is slippery. All of the girls that are going, everybody's going to be in top form, top shape, but that's what's so exciting — anything can happen.

"I'm working a lot on, honestly, truly, mindfulness. I do some meditation every once in a while, because it gets to be a lot. But the biggest thing really is just when I'm enjoying something, be in the moment and I think I'm just going to really enjoy the Games and that'll allow me to be where I am, be present. It's like you've made it, that's the ultimate goal.

"I know that [my family back home] they're doing a watch party. Where my sister lives with her boyfriend is very near where my parents live and my grandparents live right there. And then we have other family members that are in very close states. So I think they're all going to be together to watch, which would be super fun, but we're also always FaceTiming."

Mariah Bell
Mariah Bell. Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP/Shutterstock

With a long career already behind them, 29-year-old Madison Chock and Evan Bates, 32, are no stranger to the top of the podium, with three national championships and multiple Olympic berths to their name. But the couple — on and off the ice (they announced they were dating in 2017) — say they're about to hit their peak.

Bates: "Some part of me feels like it's something we've been working towards for a long, long time and talking about for a long, long time. And then the other part of me is like, 'How did it get here so quickly?' It's just bizarre."

Chock: "Even at nationals, we had two good skates, a great skate in the short. And the free we felt like we definitely can still improve. And we're like, 'Okay, that's fine because we don't want to be peaking right at this moment. It's not time yet.' But now we have two weeks to gear up and kind of complete our training plan and get ready to peak in Beijing."

Bates: "We are so lucky because we have this thing that we share, this ice dance that's our own little corner of the universe. And it's something that we together get to pour everything into. We're super passionate about it. We push each other, we inspire each other, we share ideas, we go back and forth. It's our job, but it doesn't feel like our job. It doesn't feel like work because it's such a passion. It's such an art form. And it's just so unique that we get to do that together, and that we're also in love."

Chock: "We've learned so much from skating and experiencing so many high moments and low moments that we've found such a deep support for each other and communication that we continue to work on and foster through our sport. And so that's been really helpful for our relationship off the ice to have learned those lessons and to be able to deal with that kind of stress and pressure and excitement."

Bates: "And I think the growth that we've achieved and the success we've had in the last three and a half years since moving has already been such a success that whatever happens in Beijing won't necessarily make or break whether we feel like it was worth it. We don't feel we have to go there and make up for anything that's happened in the past that what we've already done and the growth we've experienced has been more than worth the move and all the work that we've put in."

Ashley Cain-Gribble, 26, and Timothy LeDuc, 31, will be the first to point out the ways in which they aren't traditional pairs skaters: Their routines are built around equality for both of them and de-emphasize the typical romantic themes. LeDuc, too, is a barrier-breaker as the first openly gay and nonbinary Winter Olympian.

LeDuc: "Ashley and I have worked so, so hard to try to make this Olympic team and we just, we really wanted to do right by all the work that we put in. We really put a lot of pressure on ourselves to do a great competition, and we did. But the letdown after that is intense — we're just, we're so tired. Our job this season was to make the Olympic team. And even more so, to skate like the athletes that we know that we can be and to perform the way that we know that we can perform. And we felt like we did that in our programs at nationals, but we're also really excited because we have room to grow and to do even better at Olympics."

Cain-Gribble: "It had been since 2015 since we had won that [national] title. And we just felt like we were the best versions of ourselves this year to be able to step back onto that top of the podium. Those were two big goals of ours. And when they finally all came to fruition, just being able to look at our team and say we all made this happen was pretty surreal."

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LeDuc: "With world rankings and looking at scores all season, yes, it's a tricky path for us to make it to the podium. But we also remind ourselves that the Olympics is one competition. Anything can happen. All it takes is for us to step up and really do the best programs that we know how to do, and for another person to make a mistake and anything can happen."

Cain-Gribble: "I think being able to be in a partnership in two different aspects of my life makes those relationships better as well. Because I'm constantly learning how to communicate, how to work things, how to be empathetic to somebody else's feelings. I feel like they've really benefited each other, which is good. But it's been fun. I mean, my husband [whom she married in 2019] is so supportive of my career and my journey and everything that I do with Timothy. And he was able to be there at the National Championships and see everything. It's the first time he was able to see me compete since before quarantine and everything, so it had been a while. And I actually, I came out in my skating dress and he's like, 'Oh wow, I really like that one. I haven't even seen it yet.' "

LeDuc: "I've seen some of the headlines saying that I'm going to be the first openly nonbinary athlete competing in the Winter Olympics, which is really exciting, but when people see my story and see Ashley is in my story, I don't want it solely to be about us and my accomplishments or my reaching this level of sport. I'm hoping that people see the story, and instead the narrative turns to more broadly the progress that queer people are making. And hopefully, the message that this sends to young queer people, that I hope they feel like they can lead with authenticity and that they can enter their spaces, their sports, their school, any spaces that they enter, and be authentically themselves. And not have to feel like they have to change themselves or adjust themselves in order to be successful or to be taken seriously. And it's been really challenging for me, navigating a very gendered sport like figure skating and leading with authenticity. I'm still trying to figure out how to do that properly. And I'm really fortunate to have Ashley as my partner because she's been so helpful and so supportive as we both navigate this together."

To learn more about all the Olympic hopefuls, visit TeamUSA.org. Watch the Winter Olympics beginning Feb 3 on NBC.

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