Figure skater Nathan Chen is an Olympic bronze medalist and the so-called “quad king” for his record-breaking ability to spin off the hardest jumps in the sport, one after the other. He is widely seen as one of the best figure skaters in the world, with back-to-back world championships to prove it.
Nathan Chen is also a 20-year-old college student who just started his sophomore year at Yale University, where he is considering a major in statistics and data science, with an eye on medical school. He has four roommates on campus (but a room all to himself). He’s taking four classes: math, but also Roman art and anthropology. Maybe — and he’s just putting this out there into the universe — he could one day work in data analysis for the NBA.
His schedule is heavily regimented: hours of class followed by hours of training followed by hours of homework. To criss-cross Yale’s campus on time, he uses a Boosted electric skateboard (and just appeared in a new video for them).
There was some fanfare when he first arrived on campus in April 2018, two months after the Olympics, during Yale’s Bulldog Days, a freshman pre-orientation weekend. Other students were asking him for photos and all of that.
“Within the first two days, I think people knew who I was and kind of got tired of me already and [were like], ‘Alright he’s a normal student,’ ” Chen tells PEOPLE. “And I liked that, feeling like I was an ordinary person and an ordinary student.”
It seems, at first glance, like an unusual post-Olympics choice for an Olympian who is still chasing gold. Though Chen medaled in the team figure skating event at the 2018 Winter Olympics, he arrived in South Korea carrying the expectation that he might win a men’s individual gold as well — and revive America’s legacy on the skating podium.
Instead Chen, famed for his jumps, fell and then fell again. His final skate, with a history-making six quad jumps, was a redemption — but only somewhat, he says. The 2022 Games are still very much on his mind.
“[Korea] kind of solidified the fact … you can work very very hard for these things, you can put everything you can into it, and you might not necessarily get the results you want,” Chen says. “But that is okay as long as you have other things that you can occupy your space and your time with.”
And so, instead of a remote ice rink somewhere, with a training-packed four years of solitude, Chen is at Yale.
College, he says, was his plan even before going to Korea. He’d been injured in 2016 and it was significant enough that it required surgery, and he says it “kind of opened his eyes” to a life without skating. Now he works on both versions of his future at once.
Becoming an Ivy Leaguer at the same time he’s training to be a two-time Olympian, well, credit that to Chen’s competitive streak. But what was he going to say? No? “Having the opportunity to come to a school like this is definitely an opportunity I didn’t want to pass on,” he tells PEOPLE.
There have been challenges at Yale — his first math class was one — and rewards as well. Skating, which Chen has done nearly his whole life, is insular, even isolating. Being a college student turns that inside out.
“You go into the rink and you see the same what, seven, 10 people every single day. And it’s awesome, you love these people, you grow really close to these people. You struggle, you have great successes with them, everything, ups and downs with them,” Chen says. “But you don’t really get to diversify outside of that,” he adds.
At Yale, he is one of thousands. He stands out in some ways (unlike a lot of his classmates, he still maintains an athlete-approved nine hours of sleep) but not in others. He brunches on the weekends. Recently, he and some friends took a weekend trip to New York City.
As a sophomore, he’s less academically shy than he was. (“I largely got in based on athletic merit,” he acknowledges. Assuming he might be out of his depth in class with other students, he found he’s pulling his weight.)
And like other students, he’s thinking about a future in flux.
“I’ve done so much on skating and skating has been literally my true love since I’ve been a kid,” he says, “so it’s like, what if I don’t find something that I’m that passionate about in the future? But you know, I’ll just take it day by day.”