Chen tells PEOPLE how he landed his history-making series of quadruple jumps during his free skate at the Winter Games last week

By Adam Carlson
February 21, 2018 11:59 AM
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The shortest answer to the question of how U.S. figure skater Nathan Chen landed his historic six quadruple jumps at the Winter Olympics last week is: He jumped, succeeded and then just kept jumping.

But there’s a longer answer, too.

“I start every day just trying to narrow down little tasks so I don’t get so overwhelmed by the whole picture, and that’s the way that I approached my long program here,” Chen, 18, tells PEOPLE just a few days after his startling comeback in the men’s individual free skate on Saturday.

That’s where Chen pulled off his unprecedented number of quads, which require four full rotations in the air and which, until this weekend, had never been done so many times before in one routine on Olympic ice.

“There are six quads, if you look at them in a big picture, it’s six quads, it’s a little overwhelming,” Chen explains. “But if you’re like: ‘Alright, first jump is lutz, next jump is flip …,’ it really helps narrow down and helps me focus on what’s at hand.”

His triumph during his second program in the men’s event launched him from 17th place to finish fifth, and his quads, five of which he landed cleanly, meant he easily won that part of the competition.

It wasn’t quite enough, however, to compensate for what he calls a “disastrous” short program the day before (a routine that echoed a similarly uncharacteristic and mistaken-prone performance in the skating team event).

“I mean I was very, very happy that I was able to lay down that long program,” says Chen, who is sponsored by Kellogg’s and is a part of their #GetsMeStarted campaign.

Figure skater Nathan Chen during his free skate in the men’s event at the 2018 Winter Olympics
Figure skater Nathan Chen after his free skate in the men’s event at the 2018 Winter Olympics

“I felt accomplished despite the short programs,” he says. “And part of me was disappointed because I had laid down such a great long program and also such a terrible short program, they [wouldn’t] really match up and I [wouldn’t] be able to make that podium spot.”

Such regret was tempered by the redemption of his final competitive appearance at these Games, which he had entered as the two-time U.S. men’s skating champion and America’s likeliest shot at gold.

“I was just glad that at least I ended it like that,” he says.

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In the lead-up to and after his free skate, social media filled with messages from his teammates, fans, fellow skaters and other athletes, such as basketball player Jeremy Lin. (Chen’s an NBA fan who, if he could have, might have been in Los Angeles for the recent NBA All-Star Game.)

“All these notable figures were shouting me out, and a lot before even my long program, which to some degree even means more just knowing that I did two really bad performances and yet people still believe in me, they still support me,” Chen says. “And having that support was really nice.”

He adds that he was “kind of glad people realize that I’m human, I make mistakes.”

That failure lifted the pressure which, he says now, was pressing down on him, allowing him in his long program “to focus on competing and being myself.” Without telling his coach, he also decided to add in a sixth quad to his planned five.

Figure skater Nathan Chen during his short program in the men’s event at the 2018 Winter Olympics
| Credit: ARIS MESSINIS/AFP/Getty Images

In Korea after his successful free skate, Chen’s family was with him to celebrate, including a dinner after the competition at the official USA House.

“Having their support here was just incredible,” he says. “I was so happy that they got to experience that: my lowest of lows and the highest of highs. It was really great to be able to at least put out a program like that to end my Olympic competition. I was really worried that I would be remembered by those two short programs, and I’m glad I was able to change that with the long.”

There’s no rest now though, and already Chen is fielding questions about his plans for the 2022 Games, in Beijing.

Four years is an eternity in figure skating — where athletes can dim quickly due to injury, decline or disinterest — but it’s not so far away that Chen isn’t already thinking about it.

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He says his sights are “definitely set on” the next Winter Olympics (college is also in the mix). Maybe, he says, he’ll follow in the footsteps of someone like Scott Hamilton, who placed fifth in his first Olympic appearance only to return four years later and win gold.

In the meanwhile, there is another world championship to train for, more competitions, more jumps to land.

And somewhere in there: a break.

“I’m excited to get back, try and watch some games,” Chen says. “Excited to go back to the beach back in California and just relax a little bit.”

The 2018 Winter Olympics are airing live on NBC. To learn more, visit teamusa.org.