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.”

And how: Now 17 years (and two months) old, Flaherty representing Puerto Rico as an alpine skier in the 2018 Winter Olympics, holding the flag for his country during the opening ceremony.

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.

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