Charles Flaherty was 13 years old and watching the Sochi Winter Games when he made a casual remark that ultimately changed his life: He told his father that he thought skiing looked pretty cool.
“I think my dad took that as a ‘hey, I want to compete right now,’ which I was fine with — that was not the intention of the statement — but it worked out,” Flaherty tells PEOPLE. “Over time it evolved into this massive journey toward the Olympics.”
Not only one of the youngest competitors there, he’ll be the first athlete to compete for the island in the Olympics since 1998. Puerto Rico sent a bobsled team to the 2002 Games, but did not compete as one of the athletes was ruled ineligible.
(While native Puerto Ricans and those with Puerto Rican parents and spouses are reportedly eligible to compete on behalf of the commonwealth, another way is the option taken by Flaherty: live there for at least three years.)
“I’m still learning news things,” Flaherty says with a laugh. “I thought I would have had it down by now, but there’s always something new, which I absolutely love. It’s a great chase.”
Flaherty traces his skiing aspirations back beyond 2014. An Ohio native, his family moved from Cincinnati to Puerto Rico around early 2010 to follow his dad, a commodities trader, for work. The move was done with two weeks’ notice, “completely blind,” Flaherty says, but the community they found when they relocated was very welcoming.
There was another factor at work: Flaherty’s younger brother, William, then 3, was diagnosed with hemophagocytic lymphohistiocytosis (HLH), a life-threatening condition affecting the immune system. He required a bone marrow transplant, and Flaherty was a match.
As William grew healthier, Flaherty says his family adopted a more “seat of our pants” mentality — life is short.
“That sort of attitude got us into skiing and got us here,” he says.
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In the years since the move, Flaherty’s attachment to Puerto Rico has only grown. He carried the commonwealth’s flag when he walked in the opening ceremonies on Friday, alongside his coach and two officials, all wearing uniforms that are “amazing.” He’ll be joined in Korea by his dad, his mom, a retired nurse, and his brother.
“I’ve never looked back. It’s an amazing place, I’m really proud to call it home,” he says of Puerto Rico. “I’m really proud they’re letting me represent them. It’s a great experience. I’m really thankful.”
When he isn’t skiing or training, Flaherty says he finds some time to spend with friends.
He also loves to read — his favorite is Andy Weir’s The Martian and he just finished Into the Black, about the first flight of the space shuttle Columbia — and he calls space “his other passion.” Keeping up with school work is “a constant struggle,” but it helps that they’ve organized it so his classes, at the online Laurel Springs School, are on summer break.
Flaherty, who began skiing competitively at 13 and who trains abroad in the summers and in Colorado in the winter, is quick to note that he has drastically less experience than his fellow skiers and a medal likely may not be in his immediate future.
“I’ve definitely been playing catch-up the entire time and it definitely helped keep me motivated and it definitely helped me work harder than anybody else on the hill, which is a great thing,” he says. “I’m having a lot of fun while doing it.”
But his goal at this Games is not necessarily to make the podium. Having earned the temporary endorsement of Puerto Rico’s Olympic Committee — which will reportedly be re-evaluated after six months — Flaherty says a longer term success would be the wider recognition of winter sports on the island.
“There are definitely athletes out there that are missing the opportunity,” he says.” In the 2014 Games, another athlete that I know, Kristina Krone [a skier who qualified for the Olympics] … tried to go to the Sochi Games but politics got in the way and she couldn’t.”
“There are definitely other people out there who are eligible to go for Puerto Rico,” Flaherty says, “and we want to help give them the opportunity.”
The 2018 Winter Olympics are airing live on NBC. To learn more, visit teamusa.org.