BONGPYEONG, South Korea — When she stepped to the top of the platform, slightly higher than her competitors, and an official who helps oversee the sport of snowboarding handed her a stuffed animal, the work behind Chloe Kim’s pursuit poured out. She wasn’t bawling at the base of the PyeongChang Halfpipe, but there were tears. She put her hand to her eye and wiped across, then turned her back to the crowd and flicked the salty water to the snow. There would be only joy.
“This whole experience,” Kim said, “has been insane.”
That accurately describes the buildup to Kim’s Olympic debut, and the only question was whether she could perform in such circumstances. Now we know. She did it Tuesday morning here under a brilliant blue sky, flipping and spinning her way to a gold medal in the women’s halfpipe snowboard competition that stood as a statement to her artistry, her flair, and her charisma, for sure.
But as you drink in Kim and acknowledge that she accepted and excelled in hype that was equal to any athlete at these PyeongChang Olympics, please pause to consider her insane athletic ability, badger’s tenacity and flat-out competitiveness. That she combines it with between-run tweets shouldn’t detract from who she is as an athlete and what she accomplished when the lights were brighter than she had ever faced.
“I think I’m always trying to distract myself,” she said, “and think of things in a positive way.”
Kim can easily be reduced to an ice cream-loving teen, because, well, she’s an ice cream-loving teen. And when she tweets between runs about her eating habits, as she did while competing for gold Tuesday — “Wish I finished my breakfast sandwich but my stubborn self decided not to and now I’m getting hangry” — it seem endearing, even cute. Treat the Olympics like a Friday night drive to the mall, and all will be chill.
Those assessments almost certainly wouldn’t bother Kim. But if you see her perform in person — and if you have the chance, here’s a word of advice: Go! — they could seem wildly unfair, maybe even demeaning. Yes, she’s 17. Yes, there are definite decisions to be made between Swiss almond fudge and mango sorbet.
But, man, watch her. Over the course of the two-day halfpipe competition, the 12 finalists made five runs. Kim posted the four best scores. So, in effect, she won gold, silver and bronze by herself — and finished just off the podium in fourth. That those runs were the best in the field was obvious, even to the uninitiated. Just because such sporting dominance comes wrapped in a bubbly, 5-foot-3 package shouldn’t reduce the power of her performances.
“Looking at her ride,” Canadian competitor Elizabeth Hosking said, “is just so much fun. It just looks sooooooo good.”
“If you didn’t get nervous,” said Kelly Clark, the snowboarding icon who is in her fifth Olympics, “you wouldn’t care enough.”
Which is part of it, too. The ingredients are all there. Mix them up, and you could miss the point. Start with Kim’s precociousness. She was likely good enough to qualify for the Sochi Olympics four years ago, but, at 13, she didn’t meet age requirements. Throw in the mellow vibe of snowboarding in general — and you have to look no further than newly crowned Olympic champion Red Gerard to get a feel for the Doritos-eating, counterculture stereotypes that form snowboarding’s roots. All you need is an ice cream cone and some churros, and you’ve used the future face of snowboarding to reduce the sport to a sideshow.
Twenty years ago, when snowboarding first appeared in the Olympics, the ring-head purists sniffed in it’s general direction. What, they asked, are they doing here?
Now, as Kim threatens to become an international face of the Olympics, the better question might be: Where would the Olympics be without them?
Look, I’m not going to pretend to understand the tricks Kim performed in her qualifying runs Monday. (For the record, from her mouth to this page after Monday’s qualifier: “I did a method, front seven, cab seven, front nine, McTwist, crippler, seven.”) I ski. I don’t snowboard. I’m part of the cultural divide between those two endeavors.
But what I learned in watching Kim is that there is an undeniable, visceral impressiveness to what she does. And while it looks natural, effortless even, it must be rooted in diligence and attention to detail. It just has to be.
“She’s been very intentional in how she’s done everything,” said Rick Bower, the halfpipe coach with the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association. “She’s put herself in pressure situations and had to perform.”
At the X Games last month, Kim trailed going into the final run. Because she is the best at what she does, and because the Olympics were approaching and she was coming more into mainstream focus, this was significant.
“Right before she dropped in there, she said, ‘You know, I like this,’” Bower said. “She thrives on that sort of stuff, and that’s why she can come here and do this.”
The first of Kim’s three runs in Tuesday’s finals produced a score of 93.5 from the judges — a run bested in Monday’s qualifiers only by Kim herself. Expert analysis: She seemed, at times, suspended in air, even as she twisted or flipped. Her landings were somehow smoother than the rest of the field, as if she could calculate the angle of her board and seamlessly make it equal the angle of the pipe. She was just — how to put this? — better than everyone else, and you didn’t have to understand the technicalities of it all. But even if you do . . .
“I see her do that run,” said Hosking, the Canadian, “I’m just like, ‘It looks so easy. I want to do that!’ ”
By the time she stood at the top of the pipe for her last attempt, she had secured gold. China’s Liu Jiayu, the last boarder with a chance to pass her, had fallen on her final attempt. Gold was in hand. But in her view, she had left half that breakfast sandwich on the table — which was far too much.
“I knew if I went home with the gold medal knowing that I could do better,” she said, “I wasn’t going to be very satisfied.”
So her final run included a pair of tricks most boarders see only with their eyes closed — back-to-back 1080-degree spins. There was, simultaneously, no need to attempt anything near that hard, and every reason to try to pull it off.
“She really wanted to do that here more than anything,” Bower said.
When she pulled it off and skidded to the bottom of the pipe, directly into the arms of fellow American Arielle Gold, who took bronze, she had both won gold and satisfied herself. But more than that, she had become a sporting character worthy of widespread appreciation. She is an elite athlete, capable of combining power and grace. She has a specific style, a palpable presence.
That such a package comes in the body of a carefree California teen should not diminish what she pulled off here, surpassing the hype and displaying a mastery of her sport that should be respected, whether she’s hangry for some ice cream or not.