PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — She’s just 17 years old, half the age of some of her teammates, but snowboarder Chloe Kim isn’t at the Winter Olympics just to make up the numbers.
The Californian teenager is already a slopestyle and halfpipe phenomenon, redefining the boundaries of her sport while most of her friends are finishing high school.
When she was 15, Kim became the first female snowboarder in history to land back-to-back 1080 degree spins in competition, at the US Snowboarding Grand Prix in February 2016.
That combination gave her a perfect score of 100, a feat only otherwise achieved by the legendary Shaun White.
In Monday’s halfpipe qualifying runs in Pyeongchang, Kim scored 91.50 — nearly four points better than any of her rivals. In the final, she clinched gold with her first run and then wowed the crowd with a spectacular second effort to earn a near-perfect score of 98.25 out of 100.
“There was a lot of pressure, but I’m happy I was able to do it here and do it for the fans and the family,” she said.
“I’m so happy I was able to land and being here is so exciting, this has been a dream of mine.”
In short, though her career is only just beginning, Kim is already well on the way to becoming a legend of her sport. And she doesn’t just have the hopes of one nation resting on her shoulders.
“It’s very special,” Kim told CNN. “I feel like I have this unique opportunity to represent both Korea and the US.
“Everyone’s really happy and I think this is the best scenario ever. At the end of the day, I’m so grateful that I get to be out here and represent the US in the country that my family came from. It’s a very big blessing.”
A Korean-American icon
Back in 1982, Kim’s father Jong Jin emigrated from South Korea to the US as a young man with big ambitions.
It was a desire to lure his wife Boran Yun Kim onto the slopes that gave the young snowboarding prodigy her first experience of the sport.
“He wanted my mom to go with him,” Chloe explained. “So he took me as bait.”
Aged just four at the time and at best ambivalent about the cold, it wasn’t long before Chloe was bombing down the mountain on her $25 board, leaving her parents in her tracks.
By the age of six she was competing in junior competitions around the US. By the time she reached 10, Jong Jin had quit his job to facilitate her development full-time.
“What would happen is that he would carry me out of bed,” Chloe recalled in 2016. “I would wake up in a new spot every time without even knowing what happened.”
How those long early morning drives to California’s Mammoth Mountain have paid off.
Already a four-time X Games SuperPipe champion, Kim traveled to her first ever Olympic Games among the favorites for the gold medal. It was also something of a homecoming.
“I definitely have a lot of Korean-American fans which is amazing,” Kim tells CNN, having inspired South Korean children some 5,000 miles away to follow in her footsteps.
“I think my family are just so excited,” she adds. “My grandma is in Korea. I have two aunts and three cousins in Korea as well.
“But I love all my fans. I love meeting them. I’m so happy to have all this support from everyone around the world and I’m forever thankful for all of them.”
It is testament to Kim’s prodigious talent that her extended family saw her compete for the first time at the very highest level.
Incredibly, only age restrictions stopped the young snowboarder participating at the last Winter Games, four years ago in Sochi. Team USA coaches estimate that Kim was among the world’s top three halfpipe competitors, even then.
Now, with the benefit of hindsight, she acknowledges the ruling was in place for a reason.
“I think I was a little bummed out then, but now that I look back at it, I think I’m kind of glad that I wasn’t old enough to go last time,” Kim reflects. “It’s too much stress for a 13-year-old, so I’m actually really happy that I wasn’t able to go.
“But, equally, I was so lucky to still be able to go through the whole qualification process when I was 13. That experience really helped me this year, knowing ahead of time what it was going to be like, what the pressure was going to be like. I think that was very comforting for me.”
Another comfort for Kim is knowing she can count one of her greatest idols among her US teammates.
Snowboarding legend Kelly Clark, 34, has already won three halfpipe Olympic medals — securing the first (gold at Salt Lake City in 2002) just two years after Kim was born.
Their paths first crossed in the lift line at Mammoth Mountain when Kim was eight.
“She tugged on my sleeve and asked to go up the lift with me,” recalled Clark. “It was pretty cute.”
Kim joined her on the ascent and, less than a decade later, she has arguably surpassed her.
Both have their place assured in the history books.
In 2011, Clark became the first woman ever to land a frontside 1080 while Kim was still in elementary school. Then at that US Snowboarding Grand Prix in 2016, Kim laid down her own marker — nailing a 1080 degree spin just like Clark, before immediately following it up with another.
‘Unique and beautiful’
The media glare and global acclaim in Pyeongchang is likely to far exceed anything Kim has experienced before. Sports Business Journal declared in January: “You’d be hard-pressed to create a more promising brand spokeswoman in a lab.”
But as she edges forward towards the halfpipe, listening to music on her headphones as she approaches the steep funnel with 22ft (6.7m) walls rising on either side, Kim’s mind will be on one thing only.
In that moment, the lucrative Super Bowl endorsement deals, global fame and geopolitical significance of her potential success will all fade away. Snowboarding, for her, is about the joy of expression as much as the pursuit of medals.
“The thing about snowboarding is everyone has their own unique style,” Kim says. “You know, two people could do the same trick but make it look completely different, and I think that’s what is so beautiful about snowboarding.
“I could even just watch two of my friends ride down without doing any tricks and I’d know exactly who they are because of the way they ride … the way their hand is, or the way they’re bending their knees. I don’t know, It’s just so unique and I think that’s something really cool about it.
“It doesn’t look the same; everyone has their own special thing that they do and I think that’s really beautiful.”