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Students at Olympian Nathan Chen's elementary school cheer him on

SALT LAKE CITY — Nathan Chen has more than 400 loud and enthusiastic cheerleaders at the school where he once attended kindergarten through sixth grade.

On Thursday, the day he made his 2018 Olympic debut, the children at Hawthorne Elementary in Salt Lake City designed their own Olympics-inspired mascots and decorated a banner wishing Chen luck in the Games.

"We've heard quite a lot about him," explained Samuel Lu, 9, as he colored his mascot.

The school's art teacher, Shelley Rich, has been teaching at Hawthorne for almost 20 years. She taught Chen art during his time at the school, and she remembers him as "the most humble, sweet, never braggy" child.

"He'd come in and casually whisper that he won the juniors," she recalled.

The figure skater has given the school's current generation of students a role model whom they can relate to.

"It's so fun for these kids to have this personal connection," said Megan Buhler, whose kids attend second and fourth grades at the school.

As students in one of Rich's art classes worked on their mascots, they chatted about the Olympics and their own dreams.

"We all play sports, and it's kind of fun to watch other people play them," 9-year-old Evelyn Link said, motioning at three friends gathered around her.

She said someday, she'd like to play soccer in the summer Olympics. Her friends agreed.

Lucy Young, 9, said she is excited to watch the opening ceremonies Friday. However, she doesn't share some of her classmates' hopes of one day participating in the Olympics.

"I do think it takes a lot of courage to do that. And I don't think it's courage I have," she added.

Her friend Thomas Workman, 9, seemed to agree. "I don't really want to go to the Olympics. I know I would get really nervous and mess up," he said.

But Lucy said that for her, the Olympics symbolize the idea that "you can really do whatever you want, no matter what part of the world you are from."

Rich hopes to educate the kids that "dreams really can come true." However, she also hopes to help instill in them the "reality that it took a lot of money, it took parents that were willing to dedicate their lives."

"We don't idealize it like: Any one of you can do this. No, there are steps. But to have them have ownership in someone that went to their school, I think, really means a lot to them," she said.

As the kids gathered with their banner to wish Chen luck, they chanted, "Go Na-than. Go Na-than!"

Whatever happens during this year's Olympics, Chen can rest assured that he has many young admirers at his old elementary school watching and cheering him on.