It wasn’t making history that got to Chloe Kim, at least not the span-of-Olympic-snowboarding kind where her second gold medal set a new benchmark.
No, it was the last few hours of history that had her bent over in relief, gasping for air. The American snowboarder did as everyone expected, winning the Beijing Olympics final in a contest that showed just how far ahead of her peers she was.
But that win came after a shaky pre-competition practice in which she landed her safety run just two times rather than the normal eight. She wasn’t celebrating a win. She was celebrating just landing it.
“It just felt so inconsistent,” Kim said. “I was like, I don’t want to feel all this pressure of not being able to land my first safety run.
“I just was so proud of myself.”
Kim, 21, had plenty to be proud of. She became the first woman in Olympic history to win more than one halfpipe snowboarding gold medal, a feat that several top riders failed to achieve in the more than two decades it has been in the Games.
Coming four years after she first took gold in Pyeongchang, Kim’s win at Genting Snow Park on Thursday came in the face of Herculean expectations. Since she returned to competitive snowboarding after taking a break to go to Princeton for a year, she’s won all but one competition – and even there, she finished second.
“It was not easy. She is riding so much better than everyone else, but that expectation to win is crushing,” said Rick Bower, halfpipe coach of the U.S. Ski & Snowboard team.
“We’ve had several women on the U.S. team who could have won gold medals multiple times, Kelly Clark mainly. I’m just so proud of her for being able to overcome the tremendous pressure and be able to ride her best at the Olympics.”
Her best was nearly four points ahead of Spain’s Queralt Castellet, who took silver, and nearly eight points ahead of Japan’s Sena Tomita, who won bronze.
That Kim won again without her most progressive riding speaks to how far ahead of the field she is.
On her first run, Kim landed a 900 and two 1080s. No other rider attempted more than one 1080, and only half of the 12-woman field even tried one. Just four successfully landed one.
Kim dismissed the idea that she’s ahead of the rest of the field and was quick to praise her peers for pushing progression.
“We’re at the Olympics,” she said. “It’s a lot of nerves here, and the fact that everyone was able to overcome that and land the runs of their lives is just so impressive.”
But it was on her second and third runs that Kim showed how she’s driving the progression in her sport.
She came into the Games wanting to debut three new tricks, and she attempted a cab 1260 on her second and third runs. She fell both times, but she said she has landed it in practice.
“I’m really proud of myself for going out there and trying it,” Kim said
No woman has landed a 1260 in the halfpipe, yet Kim’s plan included two variations of it and a switch backside 900, Bower said.
Kim is choosing how she wants to progress, too. She learned a frontside double cork 1080 – a difficult trick that combines two off-axis flips with three spins – a couple years ago but decided she didn’t like it.
“She’s riding at a different level than the rest of the field,” Bower said. “She’s doing tricks that she wants to do. … She decided after taking some time that she wanted to showcase the riding that she was proud of, and that’s what she did out here. Mastery of the sport, spinning all four ways and landing well and going big.”
That mastery has put her in the position of having to navigate the post-Olympics crush and crash that can flatten some athletes and did for Kim after 2018.
The demands after winning a medal from sponsors, media and fans can be great and come at a time when they’re normally not competing. Criticism sometimes follows. Then after the whirlwind following a Games, it just stops.
After Pyeongchang, it became too much for Kim. Kim threw her gold medal in the trash, blaming it for her problems, though she later retrieved it.
This time, she says she’s grown up and better understands boundaries. Plus, she points out, she has a good therapist. And she’s getting better at sharing those struggles in a way that athletic greats like gymnast Simone Biles and tennis star Naomi Osaka have done in the past year.
“It’s unfair to be expected to be perfect, and I’m not perfect in any way. I think after my last Olympics, I put that pressure on myself to be perfect all the time,” she said. “I would be really sad and depressed all the time when I was home, and I was hurting the people I love the most by doing that.”
Though COVID restrictions mean her family and friends couldn’t be here and that this gold medal celebration is different, Kim is trying to enjoy as much as she can of it.
After qualifying, she told NBC that she was doing that because she doesn’t know how many Games she’ll have. At 21, Kim certainly has time for five Olympics like Clark, a three-time medalist, or Castellet.
She made history by becoming the first woman to win multiple gold medals in the event, and the way she is leading the sport suggests she could add to it. But that’s if she chooses.
“I just said that because I genuinely don’t know how many more Olympics I’m going to do,” she said. “I think honestly, it’s all about how I’m feeling mentally, physically, if I feel like maybe I want to enjoy snowboarding and not do at a crazy competitive level for too long.
“It’s all about being smart with it, prioritizing my health above all and just taking it step by step. “
That step Thursday was one no woman had taken before, one back atop the Olympic podium.
Rachel Axon | USA TODAY