Nathan Chen Deserves a Nap! The Record-Setting Olympian Opens Up About Why He's Not Sure What's Next

On the heels of fulfilling his dream of winning figure skating gold, the 22-year-old talks with PEOPLE about his upcoming plans — and how it feels to count Serena Williams and Elton John as fans

Nathan Chen is in a car somewhere on the streets of New York City, being ferried from place to place — from charades on the Today show with Ana Gasteyer to a Teen Vogue photo shoot — when this reporter's question reminds him...

Oh yeah, in a few months he is returning for his junior year at Yale University, where he'll swap his skates for statistics textbooks. But before that, he's going on a national Stars on Ice tour, which may sound like a lot of work but is actually kind of like vacation. And before that, he still has to fly back to California and actually, hopefully, get a break — or maybe just a bit of one.

It's like someone, somewhere, surely once said: No rest for newly christened 22-year-old Olympic champions.

"I'm on this high," Chen told PEOPLE just days — more like hours — after he got back to the U.S. from Beijing, where he won a gold medal at the Winter Games with a record-setting performance in the rink.

Still thrumming with adrenaline from the whirlwind of it all, Chen admits he's not quite sure what's next for him. Maybe he'll never skate again on Olympic ice. Maybe he's done exactly what it was he dreamed of doing as a little boy.

Maybe he needs some time to figure it all out.

"It's hard to make a very clear decision," he says. "So I think once everything settles a little bit more and I have more time to think, I'll be able to come to a clearer decision. And also when I go back to school, I think it'll help me realize where my priority is."

"I honestly kind of was hoping that after Beijing it would give me a clear idea of what I wanted to do," he says. "And honestly, after Beijing it kind of left me even more undecided between what I want to do in the future. But I've really enjoyed competing and the goal that I set out for myself in my career I kind of mostly reached — you know?"

Chen discussed a number of topics with PEOPLE, from his family's support and memories from the athlete's village to his new-found celebrity fans — and even the ribbing he's getting from his friends ("I got a couple messages being like, 'Man, I see you way too much' "). He shares what still excites him about skating and why he decided to go for that backflip in Beijing.

Below are edited highlights from the conversation.

Nathan Chen
Nathan Chen competing in the Beijing Winter Olympics. Matthew Stockman/Getty

Will he skate in the 2022 World Championships or at Yale?

"I haven't fully decided yet [on Worlds]. I was going to go back home and just mull it over for a couple days and then go from there. For this season it just seems like the worlds is sort of the end point. And honestly, for me, with competitions, I enjoy the process, the preparation for competition. It's great to be able to have the Games, but also still to have another opportunity so close after."

After his PEOPLE interview, figure skating officials announced Chen would compete in Worlds after all. Pretty soon, though, he'll be just Nathan Chen, college student (which, he admits, is "also kind of appealing").

"While I'm at school, if I could still get some ice sometimes, it'd be really awesome and just keep my body going a little bit while I'm there," he says. "But my course load's definitely going to be a lot higher than it was in the first two years. And more higher-level classes too, which will take more study time and whatnot. So I think that'll limit the amount of time that I can spend off the ice."

Chen continues, "[I'm] still stats, data science-related. I'm still majoring in that, but I have no idea what I'm going to end up actually doing. I guess I'll just figure out as I go I hope, just sort of improv along the way."

Nathan Chen
Nathan Chen lands a backflip during the figure skating gala exhibition at the Beijing Winter Olympics. Mao Jianjun/getty

All about that backflip he landed at the Winter Olympic figure skating gala

"I think it's a fun thing to do. Might as well do it in a performance and not just in practice, you know? ... I used to do gymnastics, so when I was learning, it wasn't something that was too crazy to learn, and I had some friends over in Sun Valley, Idaho, actually [choreographer] Ashley Clark, who does a backflip herself, taught me how to do it. So it was really cool to be able to have that moment with her. And then also now just to be able to do it on the ice."

He adds, "I'll do a quad [jump] in a show, and no one really reacts. And then I'll do a backflip, which is significantly easier, and they go crazy. So at the end of the day, I'll do that because it's easier and people like it better."

So how does he look ahead ... and look back on the journey so far?

"At this point, I'm pretty satisfied with what has happened already in my career. But that being said, I still really, really love skating. I still really love competing and the whole process of skating. So it's going to take more time for me to really think it out since it is a fairly big decision for me. We'll see. I think in the near future it'll probably help. As time goes on, I think I'll have a more clear idea."

He continues, "As time goes on for us, it's always just these little baby, baby, baby steps, you know? And every single day you're trying to change a little bit and get a little better and get a little bit better. And then there's another setback. And then you try to get a little better and better. And this just goes on forever, basically."

Nathan Chen
Nathan Chen. Charles Sykes/Bravo

"You have no idea how four years from now what the field's going to look like," he says. "And certainly the future of U.S. figure skating is very strong. So it's going to be exciting to see. And it's hard to say for me. I'm really happy with what I did here and I don't know, it's hard to be definitive about anything."

Chen is not the only international skating sensation: Japan's Yuzuru Hanyu competed in Beijing hoping for another back-to-back Olympic gold medal in men's skating while 18-year-old Yuma Kagiyama, also of Japan, is poised for dominance. Eventually, someone is going to land the until-now-impossible quadruple axel jump — or maybe even a quintuple.

"I think for sure someone's going to land a quad axel. I think for sure someone's going to land a quint really soon, but exactly how soon I have no idea," Chen says.

Though that person may not be him: "I mean, my poor body has gone through a lot," he admits.

What he saw in Beijing

"I got to see all of the Beijing events, which was really cool since actually in 2018 [at the PyeongChang Games], right after my free program I got the flu and got sent to quarantine and then basically I just decided to leave. So actually, I didn't get to go to closing ceremony, all of that, I just left early. I didn't get to see anything that happened. So I was glad that at least this time I could see a lot more of those," he says.

"There was a snowboarder, his name is Nicolas Huber, he's a Swiss athlete who's literally just the most crazy person I've met in my entire life. He was just the most eccentric, completely carefree [guy] — just a character — an insane character that we met. And a lot of the skaters became friends with him. So it was really cool to see that or to be able to have that sort of inter-sport sort of connection. That was probably the most memorable person that I met at the competition. He traveled to the competition in a morph suit."

2022 Olympics Best Pics
Nathan Chen celebrates after his figure skating gold medal win at the Beijing Winter Olympics. Jean Catuffe/Getty

Chen was also on the U.S. figure skating team with some of those closest to him, like Mariah Bell.

"I was just so happy for them as well, to be able to have their moments. It was just so cool," he says. "How often can you and your best friends go to the Olympics together, you know?"

He also shared his gold-medal moment with coach Rafael Arutyunyan, who despite his famous stoicism relished his student's victory too.

"I did take a picture of him with [my medal], which was funny. Which I have on my camera. But yeah, it was really special. I mean, I know how long he's been wanting this and he's been very vocal about not having had the opportunity to win a gold medal at the Olympics," Chen says. "Not that I necessarily felt like I had to do that for him, but it was just cool to be able to have the opportunity to share that with him. And I was just really happy that I was a part of that journey for him or with him."

Did Arutyunyan smile in his medal photo? "Perhaps with his eyes," Chen quips.

Nathan Chen
Nathan Chen (left) with coach Rafael Arutyunyan during the Beijing Winter Olympics. Jean Catuffe/Getty Images

How he leans on his family as the youngest of five

"Everyone just has such unique personalities and they've been supportive in their own ways, in such amazing ways. My oldest sister is definitely emotional support for me. Anytime that I need emotional support, she's there. The next sister, everything for her is a checklist. Very technical, very scientifically minded, I suppose. And so talking to her is very [much about] logistics: 'What's the next thing? What's the next thing? What's the next thing?' And then of course that's similar to my mom as well. And then my brothers are just … the next brother in the line of siblings [is] motivating, athletically minded. The next brother down is just someone I just talk openly with about whatever. So everyone has a different role and they play that really well. And so the support means the world and over the years it's been really nice to be able to have such a large family and be able to have support in so many different ways. And definitely wouldn't have been able to have that without them."

He recalls, "I talked to my sisters a lot and my mom [while I was in Beijing]. And my mom was actually with Janice, the second oldest sister. So it was cool. And every time I called my mom or called my sister they were together basically so having both their opinions. And then my oldest sister was in New York at the time. So I called her pretty frequently as well."

"When I was exceptionally nervous or anxious, I would talk to them," he shares. "And just hearing their perspectives on things [helped]. But I think most of the time we kind of didn't really talk about skating too much. When I'm focusing on skating, I focus on skating. But when I'm not at the rink and needing to focus on skating, I don't think it's the most beneficial to always be ruminating about what's to come."

Heading out for Stars on Ice in April

"It's just so fun," he tells PEOPLE. "One, it's just celebratory. We all finished the Olympics, we all finished our season. And then the show atmosphere is just very different than competition atmosphere. We have all these group numbers so we actually get to skate together on the same ice. And then afterward we're just able to hang out, and we are all over the nation too so we're like, 'Oh, let's go grab food in Washington or Seattle.' So we kind of just get to hop around and spend time in the cities that we're at. It's basically for vacation and then we get to hang out on the ice. So best of both worlds."

With his medal-winning run in Beijing — he also earned a silver medal in the team event with the other American skaters — Chen got plenty of supportive A-list messages from the likes of Elton John, Simu Liu and Serena Williams. The latter offered her perspective after Chen's last Olympics, when he stumbled badly.

"There were quite a few that were really cool," Chen says. "Elton John was unreal."

Nathan Chen
Nathan Chen. Richard Heathcote/Getty Images

"[With Williams after 2018] It was just nice to have some empathy and just support and being like, hey, you can keep going and you have my support. I mean, for someone like Serena to do that for me, which at that point, I'm just a random athlete, you know?" Chen says. "So it was crazy for her to just take the time out of her day to send a message to me."

Where's he keeping his medals these days?

"That's a good question," he says. "I still have my bronze [from 2018] in my closet. So it'll probably just join that for now. I definitely am not going to bring it to school. I'll let my parents take care of them."

The Beijing Winter Olympics have concluded but the Beijing Winter Paralympics have just begun — to learn more about all the hopefuls, visit and tune in to NBC to watch each day's events through March 13.

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