Chloe Kim stood atop the hill, blonde tendrils draping from either side of her goggles and Lady Gaga playing through her earbuds, the weight of two countries borne squarely on her 5ft 2in frame. She peered down at the cluster of specks at the bottom, a mass of humanity that included her mother and father, two sisters, three aunts, two cousins and the 75-year-old grandmother who had driven in from Seoul that morning to be there for the final step of a long-held Olympic dream. All eyes on her.
And then she dropped in.
The 17-year-old from California all but clinched the gold medal with her first run in Tuesday morning’s halfpipe final at the Phoenix Snow Park and etched her name into immortality with her last, this time to Migos, putting a stamp on an imperious Games debut with back-to-back 1080s, the heart-stopping sequence of three-revolution spins that no other female rider has ever landed in competition besides her.
When it was over she could finally exhale, even though for Kim the ride is only just beginning. The hours that followed were a self-described blur as she was ushered along on a whistle-stop tour of media and sponsor obligations. She’d better get used to it.
There are many Olympic gold medalists, but stars are harder to come by. Kim, even before Tuesday’s coming-out party on the world stage but undoubtedly in the wake of it, appears bound for the rare brand of global crossover fame reserved only for the Lindsey Vonns and Shaun Whites of the world. In winter sports, even the most decorated athletes have a habit of vanishing for four years at a time once the post-Olympics fallout of one-off endorsements and late-night talk show appearances dry up and the parade moves on.
Not Chloe. She is candid, easygoing, worldly and relatable, armed with a magnetic personality and a megawatt smile. She’s fluent in English, Korean and French, the latter honed over two years living with her aunt in Switzerland, with an already formidable endorsement portfolio including Toyota, Samsung and Nike that will no doubt redouble after Tuesday’s triumph. Even the cattiest of snowboarding journos who slight her image as over-produced admits she overcomes any artifice with her athletic charisma.
These may have been Kim’s first Winter Games but the teenager was a debutante in name only. She was already one of America’s best snowboarders at the age of 13 when she qualified for the Sochi Games but was more than two years short of the Olympics’ minimum age requirement. At 14, she captured the first of four X Games titles. At 15, she became only the second halfpipe rider ever to earn a perfect score of 100.
Now at 17, she’s an Olympic gold medalist after delivering one of the transcendent performances of these Winter Games while auguring a future of limitless promise: 2022, 2026, 2030 … and beyond? On the day before White looks to beat back the encroachment of time and win back his Olympic men’s halfpipe title at 31, the new face of winter sports has arrived.
The catharsis was immediate for Kim’s mom, Boran Yun, who was in tears when the outcome was achieved. Not her father. Jong Jin took a reflective tack as the memories of their journey washed over him like torrents. How husband and wife emigrated from South Korea to the United States. Those first trips up California’s Mammoth Mountain with four-year-old Chloe, who quickly surpassed her dad on the $40 snowboard he purchased on eBay. The decision to quit his engineering job when Chloe was eight to nurture his daughter’s gift full time. The entire year he compelled her to exclusively ride switch, opposite to her natural right-foot-forward stance, which has since paid off in spades. The rise, the rise, the rise …
“I have no time to cry,” Jong Jin said, wearing a look of satisfaction only a father could understand. “Maybe I’m going to cry when I go back home.”
That it all played out here in South Korea only enriches the narrative. The host country, absent halfpipe contenders of their own, adopted a rooting interest in Kim because of her ties to the country. Twice the pressure, perhaps, but twice the payoff.
“It means a lot just being able to do it where my family is from,” Kim said. “A lot of pressure, but I’m happy I was able to do it here and do it for the fans and the family. It was a really fun moment for everyone.”
Yet Kim’s story is more than a tale of talent and dedication paying off, but one of identity that strikes at the heart of the American experience. Here in the Taebaek mountains she is 김선. Back home in the Los Angeles suburb of Torrance, she’s Chloe, the American girl who loves shopping and video games and Hawaiian pizza. As she held court with the press on Tuesday with the composure and seasoning of an athlete twice her age, it was difficult to imagine the impossibly self-possessed teenager ever struggling with anything, but she acknowledged in Tuesday’s aftermath a self-reckoning that didn’t always come easy.
“When I was younger I struggled a little bit trying to understand my identity and who I wanted to be,” Kim said after gratefully filling up on pizza and a latte. “I think having my family be there through the whole process was so helpful. I’ve surrounded myself with such amazing people that they definitely made it much easier for me. I feel like I got to represent both the US and Korea today.”
At a moment in US history when the value of immigrants has been called into question by the nation’s own president, the subtext of a first-generation Korean-American teenager emerging as a national hero and role model is not difficult to parse. She is the perfect face for Team USA. And that she appears ready to embrace the role of ambassador in a male-dominated sport is loaded with meaning.
“There are so many people here who came to watch, that is so exciting to see women’s snowboarding be something that people want to see,” she said. “I was so fortunate to find my passion and the thing that brought me so much joy at such a young age. If you are young or even if you are old, if you find something you really want to try, just give it a go.”
Kim might not be a panacea for the hand-wringing over the Olympics’ waning relevance among millennials, but she certainly doesn’t hurt the cause. She’s a natural on social media – even tweeting between runs during Tuesday’s final that she was hangry – with a bubbly personality that rings authentic. What the olds might bemoan as a distraction, Kim has leveraged toward a tactical end: filling the negative space between runs where an athlete can allow the mind to run riot.
“I’ve just been on my phone a lot of looking at social media, just trying to distract myself,” Kim said. “When I get drug tested I’ll be doing the same thing, because I get nervous when I am getting drug tested because there is a stranger watching me go to the bathroom.”
All told it’s enough to wonder if the Olympics need Chloe Kim as much as she needs them.
“This whole experience has been insane,” she said. “You hear so much about the Olympics, but actually being a part of it is a completely different story. I am so fortunate to be able to go through it. To share my story with the world has been amazing.”