Heading into this year's Winter Games, Nathan Chen only had one medal left to win: Olympic gold.
Chen, 22, was a six-time national champion and three-time world figure skating champion – and going into Beijing, he was the favorite to win. But the last time he was favored to win Olympic gold, at the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, a stunning fall kept him off the podium entirely. It was the kind of failure that could have easily haunted him for the rest of his life.
Instead, Chen spent the next four years working to redefine what success meant to him. That included a major mindset shift: He stopped going into competitions thinking, "I'm here to win," he tells CNBC Make It. "Whether I won, whether I lost, I [wanted] to gain as much as I could [from the experience] that didn't revolve around what sort of placement I got."
Perhaps counterintuitively, refocusing away from winning helped Chen do exactly that: He captured Olympic gold earlier this month, landing seven quadruple jumps between his two individual events. His short program broke the world record – and, he says, he had a lot of fun doing it.
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Recalibrating his mindset was a two-step process. First, he says, he relied on his family, fellow skaters and a team including his longtime skating coach Rafael Arutyunyan, a mental performance coach and a group of choreographers and trainers.
The second part didn't happen until he was in Beijing, on a bus to the ice rink. Looking out the window, he says, was striking: He was heading into the biggest week of his life, while everyone around him was in the midst of their typical commute.
"Regardless of whether or not we win, whether or not we lose, the world's going to keep turning," Chen says.
Chen says the bus ride helped him zero in on what was important. Rather than picturing himself on the podium, he focused on feeling gracious for the opportunity to compete and the respect he carried for the other skaters.
He says it's a perspective he'd like to share with his 18-year-old self.
"[It's about] coming in with gratitude, with respect for what you do, respect for what all the other athletes do," Chen says. "Every single one of us deserves to win. Every single one of us deserves to have these opportunities. And ultimately, it'll just come down to how much we just enjoy the experience."
Chen says he isn't sure how he'll define success in the future. Currently, he's studying statistics and data science at Yale University. He's expected to graduate in 2024.
For now, he says, he plans to keep using his new mentality going forward – no matter the challenge.
"Something that I've learned for the past four years is just to try to stay present, to try not to project too far into the future," Chen says. "So right now, [I want] to live in the moment."
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