The attention was overwhelming.
It was last February, and Chloe Kim had been appearing at a series of test events in Pyeongchang. A media horde followed her every step, snapping her picture. Korean children flocked to her, hoping to get a glimpse of the world's best halfpipe rider—a girl who looked like them but whose accomplishments still boggled their imagination. (A promotional video from the trip released by the U.S. Embassy in Seoul—titled "Just Like Chloe Kim"—shows Chloe inspiring a group of young Korean snowboarders who, in Korean, say they want to ride in the Olympics, just like her.) Reporters asked dozens of personal questions, in English and Korean, many of which centered on Chloe's connection to South Korea. The country was preparing to host the Winter Games in 2018, and the assembled crowd surmised that the occasion would be a homecoming of sorts for the athlete.
"I felt like Kim Kardashian," Chloe would later say.
Chloe was in the land of her parents to represent the United States as a member of a flock of top-tier athletes traveling to promote the importance of leadership and respect for diversity abroad. Her prodigious success on the snowboard made her an easy choice for such a trip, but her heritage, too, made her perfect for the mission. Chloe's parents, Jong Jin Kim and Boran Yun Kim, moved from South Korea to the United States in 1982. And she still has a number of family members who live there.
The trip abroad in 2017 culminated with a visit to a college class. There, Chloe sat at the front of the room and was asked if she had any life advice. As the students stared back at her, Chloe struggled to come up with an answer, unsure of what, exactly, she was supposed to say. "I don't know if you can learn anything from me," she blurted out. "I'm still a teenager. I don't know what I'm doing with my life."
It's easy to forget Chloe Kim is just 17 years old, even as she is poised to become the most famous Korean-American female athlete in history. She might have earned that title four years ago, in 2014, had it not been for a technicality. Then, Chloe placed high enough at a qualifying event for the Sochi Olympics to make the U.S. team. The only problem: She was 13 years old, deemed too young to compete. (The minimum age was 15.)
Chloe's coaches estimate that she was the world's third-best snowboarder at the time on the halfpipe—behind two women (Kelly Clark and Torah Bright) more than a decade her senior. Since then, Chloe has surpassed them both.
In 2015, she became the youngest snowboarder to earn gold at the X Games. And a year later, she became the first female snowboarder to land back-to-back 1080s (for which she was awarded a perfect score of 100, a feat matched only by Shaun White). Now, despite still being younger than most of the field, Chloe is among her country's best hopes for a gold medal.
READ MORE FROM B/R MAG'S WINTER OLYMPICS ISSUE:
• THE HOME TEAM, PART 1: Shaun White Is Ready for More
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The media has latched onto Chloe's every move—perhaps in anticipation of her star turn, with all the attendant NBC camera crews and marketers' dreams coming true. Everything from her hair color to her humorous captions on Instagram (147,000 followers and counting) and her musical tastes (Chloe has lately become a Belieber) seems to attract attention—and sponsors (Chloe has contracts with Burton, Monster, Toyota and more).
Many expect greatness from Chloe. "She is one of the most talented young riders I've ever seen," Clark, her friend and most serious competition, said.
It's easy to understand how Chloe has gotten to where she is today once you've seen her fly on a halfpipe. "She looks so relaxed, carries a ton of speed and makes it look pretty easy," Rick Bower, the U.S. Snowboard head halfpipe coach, told me by phone. Chloe's style is difficult to pinpoint, mainly because there isn't really a competitor who can replicate what she does. "It's hard to describe my style," Chloe has said. "People will tell me that I'm really flowy."
While Chloe certainly has an immeasurable amount of raw talent, her parents have been there to push her along the way. Her mother attends nearly every event and practice and rarely misses a run. Chloe and her father are pretty much attached at the hip—he is his daughter's regular reminder that success didn't come without effort and discipline. "Mr. Kim came over [to the U.S.] and had this mentality that if you want something, you have to work for it," Bower said. "He tells Chloe that she's nothing special, which is something a U.S. dad would never do."
The coach added: "It's served him and Chloe well."
Bower recalled one day last year when, while training in New Zealand, a nasty storm hit the resort where Team USA was training. Strong winds swept over the mountain peaks, creating poor visibility that would make for a terrible ride. Bower and his coaching staff recommended that the team take the day off and rest, but Jong Jin saw the conditions as an opportunity: Similar conditions could arise during a competition, Chloe's father thought. So he and Chloe took to the mountain. "They didn't get anything out of that day," Bower recalls. "But they were trying to make the most of it."
That's how things almost always seem to go, whether Chloe is at a competition or on social media. She always seems to be pushing forward.
Don't forget, though: Chloe Kim is just 17 years old, and as the world prepares to watch the first act of what many expect to be a decorated, dominant career on the slopes, she is still figuring things out. She's figuring out life as an American adolescent. She's figuring out how to grow up famous. She's figuring out what it means to be a Korean-American superstar.
Jong Jin Kim moved to the United States to pursue an engineering degree at California State University, Long Beach. But he also had ambitions of snowboarding glory. He had developed a passion for the sport early in life and rode mostly for fun. But his wife, Boran, didn't share his passion for the slopes.
When Chloe turned four, Jong Jin began taking her with him to the mountain to encourage Boran to join. He bought Chloe a $25 snowboard on eBay and enrolled her in group lessons. As she progressed, Jong Jin passed along a few skills, including his unusual technique of making it down the mountain—switching between a regular stance (with the left foot leading) and goofy (leading with the right). "It was almost like an accident," Bower told me. "Without knowing it, he gave her a solid foundation." (Through a family spokesperson, Jong Jin Kim declined to be interviewed for this article.)
Chloe showed lots of promise, which prompted Jong Jin to enter his daughter in her first contest when she was six. She finished third in her age group. Within a year, she had won two gold medals and three silver, catching the attention of the U.S. national team coaches. "Watching her at a young age was like watching Shaun White," Tommy Czeschin, a former coach with U.S. Snowboarding, told me. "She was leaps and bounds better than anyone her age, her height, anyone she would ride with."
When she was eight, Chloe moved to live with Jong Jin's sister in Geneva. Jong Jin would visit during school breaks, and father and daughter would commute to Avoriaz, France, for practice sessions. They left at 4 a.m., transferred trains twice and rode a gondola just to get to the mountains; by the time they returned home, it was 11 p.m. "It was quite a mission," Chloe says.
Chloe returned home to California when she was 10 and joined a developmental program at Mammoth Mountain. Every weekend, Jong Jin and Chloe would drive 325 miles to get her to practice. They would hit the road before sunrise, as early as 2 a.m. "What would happen is that he would carry me out of bed," Chloe remembered in 2016. "I would wake up in a new spot every time without even knowing what happened."
When they arrived at the mountain, other parents would watch their kids ride from the bottom of the hill, but Jong Jin suited up and rode down alongside Chloe. His approach always stood out, sometimes to the befuddlement of other families. "He never knew much about snowboarding," said Czeschin, the former coach, "but he did everything he could."
Eventually, the demands of training and traveling became so great that Chloe's personal life needed reorganizing. "I had some social anxiety when I was younger because I wasn't surrounded by many people in my life. I was very shy," Chloe said. "It was kind of scary to meet new people." She switched to online home-schooling and then to a new program, with the Independent Learning Center, after her grades fell off a bit. The camaraderie on the mountain, Chloe says, helped her break out of her shell and made her more outgoing.
These days, on Instagram, there are plenty of photos of Chloe hanging with her board-riding friends, like Kelly Clark. She's also created a separate profile for her mini-Australian shepherd, Reese.
Aside from her acclaim and early fame, Chloe is, by many indications, a typical teenage girl trying to determine what she thinks and who she is. This became apparent to me last September, when I saw her at a press conference during the Team USA Media Summit in Park City, Utah.
One of the assembled reporters asked one of several questions about her Korean-American heritage: "Do you identify pretty strongly with both cultures?"
Chloe looked noticeably uncomfortable. "I always get that question; it's never my first answer to say that I'm from Korea or, like, ‘I'm Korean,'" Chloe replied. "It's always, like, ‘I'm American.' Like, I feel like I'm pretty—what do they call it, ‘Twinkies'?"
Chloe looked at me—I'm also Korean-American—as if searching for affirmation. "Yeah," I told her, slightly startled. "Or bananas."
"Yeah, bananas," she continued. "I don't know. Like, you know, like, Asian on the outside, white on the inside. I don't know. It's, like, weird. But I just grew up in the States, so I feel like I identify more with, you know, the American culture."
It was hard to tell whether Chloe was joking or serious. (She could not be reached for a follow-up interview to clarify, despite multiple requests through her spokesperson dating back to September. The spokesperson, Laura Potesta, declined to comment.) I asked the Olympic gold medalist, figure skater Kristi Yamaguchi, who is a fourth-generation Japanese-American, what Chloe might have meant by the comment. She told me she had thought about it in her youth. "I totally get where Chloe is coming from when she said, ‘I see myself as a Twinkie,'" she said. "It's not because she doesn't see herself as Asian. I think it's not necessarily seeing yourself as white. It's just identifying as American."
Chloe's hometown of Torrance, a suburb in southwest Los Angeles, boasts a sizable Asian-American population—34.5 percent, according to the most recent U.S. census. The mountain was a different story, however. A recent study by the National Ski Areas Association Journal, a trade publication for ski resort operators, found that, nationally, nearly 90 percent of riders are white. Of the top 15 female snowboarders in the world—across slopestyle, halfpipe and big air—only three women are of color.
At the press conference in Park City, Chloe said she hasn't seen many Korean-American snowboarders on the hill. "I don't really see a lot of crossover," she said. "Most of my snowboarding friends are white."
Jong Jin, during an Instagram live session, also noted: "Of course people always noticed me. ... I was the only Asian person on the slopes."
The Hall of Fame tennis star Michael Chang, who is Taiwanese-American, told me that playing in a predominantly white sport was at the back of his mind frequently. He often feared isolation because of his race. "When you're young, when it comes down to it, you just want to fit in," he said. "You don't really want to stand out, even though you do." Chang grew up in Hoboken, New Jersey, which was approximately 80 percent white. And in 1989, he became the youngest male tennis player ever to win a Grand Slam title. (He was 17, the same age as Chloe will be at the Olympics.)
Chloe has likely seen a lot of the things that Chang saw, or she will when she makes her splash on the international stage. At the press conference in Park City, she suggested that, on a few occasions, people have awkwardly challenged her Americanness. She explained a typical interaction:
Where are you from?
"Los Angeles," Chloe responds.
No, where are you really from?
"I was born in Long Beach," she says.
No, where are you really from?
"My parents are from Korea," she says.
Yamaguchi told me that she, too, had experienced a similar form of racism as an American athlete of Asian heritage traveling on the road. While passing through the Halifax airport in 1990, on her way to the World Championships, she was stopped by a stranger who questioned her nationality based on her appearance. Yamaguchi was taken aback. "They kind of were just like, ‘Oh!' because it was an international competition, and they just assumed I was not American," Yamaguchi told me. "The way I looked, they thought I couldn't speak English."
Much of the Korean-American community is watching Chloe from afar, excited for the whole world to take notice of her talents. Justin Chon, a Korean-American director and actor whose recent film Gook explored the lives of Korean-Americans during the Los Angeles riots, told me that, for him, Chloe's Olympic moment carries a special, though complicated, significance. "She represents all of us," he said. "We're Korean by blood and that's our heritage, that's our culture, but we're Korean-American."
Over the last year, in anticipation of the 2018 Games in Pyeongchang, Chloe has had to answer dozens of questions about her connection to South Korea. "I don't really click with Korean culture, but obviously I have a Korean face," Chloe said in Park City. "I feel like I can't go around telling people I'm straight-up American."
But much of Chloe's family still lives in Korea, and she visits from time to time. She's particularly excited that her grandmother (who has been too frail to fly) will finally be able to see her compete.
When I saw her, in September at the Team USA Media Summit, Chloe admitted that she probably can't relate to how her family feels about her competing in Korea. "That's where they grew up—that's where they feel connected," she said.
She paused for a second, gathering herself. "But Korea doesn't feel like home to me. It's just another place, another contest."