ASPEN, Colo. (AP) — Ask snowboarder Chloe Kim what she thinks the “Chloe Kim Story” really is this year and she hesitates just a moment, before deciding on “The California girl that went to the Olympics.”
It’s perfect, easy, and oh-so-fitting for the 17-year-old from Torrance, California, who loves music and the mall almost as much as she loves stomping her runs — and the competition — in the halfpipe.
But Kim, whether it’s fair or not, has come to represent more than that for these Olympics.
Her parents are from South Korea, where the games will be held starting Feb. 9. Among the handful of relatives who live there is Chloe’s grandma, who has been known to brag about her high-flying granddaughter if, say, she’s out to tea with her friends and a picture of Chloe happens to appear in the newspaper, which happens fairly often.
“They’ve never seen me compete before,” Chloe says. “I’m excited to have them there.”
Though it’s tempting to turn Kim’s story into a bigger narrative about a lifelong wish to win a gold medal in her family’s country, that narrative is not the right one.
She admits to not having all that much more familiarity with South Korea than the average 17-year-old American kid, and the fact is, more than any grand plan, it was the quirks of the calendar, the International Olympic Committee and a hundred other things that will place her in Pyeongchang for her Olympic debut.
Kim was so good at age 13, she might have won the Sochi Olympics had she been old enough . But with the Olympics not allowing anyone in under 15, she did not make the cut. And though her father sacrificed much time, effort and sleep to further Chloe’s career, the thought of doing it so his daughter could make her first Olympic splash in his native country was never part of the equation.
“When we started, Korea was not declared as hosting the Olympics,” Jong Jin Kim says. “I thought I had a chance to bring her to the Olympics, so it was amazing and very lucky that they matched together.”
Jong Jin Kim moved to the United States in 1982 to pursue his engineering degree. He met his wife, Boran, in Switzerland. Chloe, the youngest of three sisters, was born in 2000, and when she turned 4, Jong Jin bought her a snowboard on eBay and dragged her onto the mountain, in part because he wanted his wife to come along, too. Chloe took lessons, and by the time she was 7, she was winning contests. By the time she was 8, she was living in Switzerland with her aunt, and was regularly waking up at 4 a.m. for long train rides to the mountain.
“Crazy. Quite a mission,” Chloe recalls.
At age 10, Chloe was back in California, and her folks were rearranging both her and their lives with the thought she might become a professional snowboarder. Home-schooling and 2 a.m. wake-up calls became routine. In 2014, a month before the Olympics she could not attend, she took her first Winter X Games medal — a silver. She won her first Winter X Games the next year, and after her victory in Saturday night’s halfpipe contest, she now has three under her belt.
What separates her from the pack on the halfpipe is her ability to do back-to-back 1080-degree jumps. She first pulled that off at a contest in 2016. Though there are other riders who can challenge her — Americans Arielle Gold and Maddie Mastro pushed Kim hard in Saturday night’s X Games and 34-year-old Kelly Clark remains on top of her game — Kim has the tricks and the style to win the Olympics if she executes.
Since they met in a lift line 10 years ago, Clark has been impressed with Kim, in part because she has been a firsthand witness to the teenager’s work ethic.
“She rides longer than anyone, takes more runs than anyone. For me, that’s been a core value to my snowboarding,” Clark says. “Talent can get you only so far. It’s about putting in that hard work and extra effort that makes a difference.”
If Kim wins the gold in Pyeongchang, she would cash in on all the hopes that sponsors (Toyota, Monster and Target among the many), her fans (157,000 Instagram followers and counting) and NBC (she’s a prominent figure in its pre-Games hype machine) have placed in her.
For all that hope and hype, though, she is hardly dominating the coverage in South Korea, which boasts a former figure skating champion in Yuna Kim who, though retired, was key in bringing the games to Pyeongchang and may still be the country’s most recognizable Olympic star.
The women’s hockey team, especially now that it has combined with players from North Korea, along with short track speedskaters, also are part of the pre-games story line in the host country.
“Snowboarding just doesn’t have the same exposure there, and she doesn’t have the same accomplishments yet as someone like Yuna Kim,” says Jean Lee, a global fellow at the Wilson Center, who previously served as Associated Press bureau chief in Pyongyang, North Korea. “But she has the potential. If she goes home with a medal, and I think she probably will, she’ll become a huge star in South Korea.”
For now, though, Kim is content being a star on whatever halfpipe she’s dropping into at the moment, whether it be in Colorado, California or South Korea.
She dotes on her Australian shepherd , Reese, enjoys heading to the beach and, of course, she lives for the mall.
Her favorite day used to be the first of any month, when her mom would give her that month’s $100 allowance.
While she’s well aware that the upcoming Olympics are more than just another contest, she may not fully grasp how big they could become for her. And maybe that’s the takeaway message in all this. Chloe Kim is 17, having fun , trying to live a normal, California kid’s life in a not-so-normal world in which she flies higher than anyone else.
“I’m very thankful my parents make sure I have a normal life of some sort,” she says. “It’s still so crazy to think about the fact that I’ll be 15 feet in the air one minute, and the next minute, I’m in my pajamas, watching a movie.”