Chloe Kim balances on a skateboard and hovers for a moment before disappearing over the edge of a vert ramp. A vert ramp—for those unfamiliar with the term—is a sort of extreme half-pipe, so named because skaters essentially tip over the lip at a 90-degree angle before gliding into the curved belly of the pipe. From the top, I watch her vanish, then reappear at the bottom, where she pumps her legs and accelerates up the opposite side. Most skaters go through this exercise to catch air—to fly. But Kim is doing wind sprints, and despite the obvious exertion, she is skating smoothly and gracefully.
After a minute, her fitness coach signals for her to stop. Kim jumps off her board and carries it up the steps to where the rest of us—her nutritionist, her strength coach—have been queasily watching. She’s only slightly breathless as she checks her heart rate. “How many more of these?” she asks, smiling. The rest period ends. Kim twists her bleached-blonde hair into a braid and pulls it out of her helmet. (Her hair color rotates through the millennial rainbow—ranging from silver to teal to magenta.) Then, without a word of complaint, she drops in again.
From her skill on the ramp, it would be easy to mistake Kim for a professional skateboarder. This, however, is a sideshow: The seventeen-year-old is currently the dominant female half-pipe snowboarder in the world, a title she’s held for nearly three years, ever since she became the youngest athlete to take gold at the X Games, beating seasoned competitors almost two decades her senior. She changed her sport for good when, at the 2016 U.S. Snowboarding Grand Prix, she became the first and only female snowboarder to land back-to-back 1080s—that’s three full rotations in the air, executed 34 feet from the ground. Her score: a perfect 100.
The only other snowboarder, male or female, to receive a perfect score is Shaun White, that flame-haired rider with a stoner vibe and an amusing nickname (the Flying Tomato). When he first won gold, at the 2006 Olympics, White seemed everything the world expected a snowboarder to be—goofy, laid-back, and quite possibly high. But he also landed tricks that changed the sport, and he turned up everywhere from David Letterman’s couch to a Black Keys video. Corporate sponsors flocked to him, which at times put him at odds with many old-school riders. Before he could drive, he had been gifted a handful of cars.
Like White before her, Kim is pushing the boundaries of what is possible. (Her coaches believe she could debut a double flip and cork 1080 in the next couple of years—a “cork” is when a rider spins through the air on two different axes.) And, just as her redheaded predecessor did, she is opening her sport to a wider audience, from young fashionistas interested in her off-hill style to first generation–American teens. (Both of her parents come from South Korea.) “Chloe really draws a younger crowd,” says Frankie Chapin, the Burton rep who spotted Kim when she was a thirteen-year-old wearing a goofy helmet and scooped her up for the snowboarding company. “And it’s cool, too, that she’s a young female athlete. A lot of guy snowboarders are like, I gotta see what she does today.”
In February, Kim is expected to fly to Pyeongchang, South Korea, for her first Olympic games—she qualified for the Sochi games but was too young to compete—where she’s a heavy favorite to be the youngest snowboarder to take home gold. “Women’s snowboarding is set to transform quickly,” says Ricky Bower, the U.S. national team coach, who has been working with her for the last three seasons. “If someone learns a big trick, it’s going to be a chain reaction.” Odds are, Kim will be the catalyst.
The Park City, Utah, facility where Kim is training is part state-of-the-art gym and part high-tech skate park, with foam landing pits and trampolines. Stony-faced skiers are grunting on the leg-press machines, veins popping on their foreheads, while snowboarders are rolling around an indoor skate bowl, looking as though they came out of Dogtown and Z-Boys, or goofing off on a droopy tightrope that resembles something you might find at a Phish concert.
Whatever corporate-friendly attitude White injected into the sport, many of these athletes still have what Bower calls “more of an artistic mentality.” “In snowboarding there’s a lot more freedom and no real set of rules. So a lot of the people we deal with are more creative types than traditionally regimented athletes.” But Kim doesn’t have the vagabond attitude of many of her peers. In the off-season, she’s not wandering to Nicaragua to surf or playing guitar on the beach. And unlike most of her competitors, she’s not from the mountains. Like White, she’s from Southern California, specifically Torrance, a beach town in the South Bay area of Los Angeles.
In fact, despite all the time she spends on the slopes, Kim claims not to like the mountains all that much. “I’m much more of a city girl,” she says. “I like the mall. I like shopping.” Rather than the typical uniform of her competitors—Vans, Polarfleece, and ChapStick—she prefers ripped jeans and crop tops from Zara, Balenciaga bags, Anthropologie jumpsuits, and Laneige makeup. Her nearly 135,000 Instagram followers are roughly divided between those gaping at her flights above blinding expanses of snow and those who are cheering her on as she contemplates a rainbow-sprinkled doughnut the size of a dessert plate or commenting on her snazzy electric-blue Toyota Rav4—a gift from a sponsor for her sixteenth birthday.
So how did a self-professed “girly girl” from L.A. County turn into this fearsome athlete? It started more or less by accident. “My father didn’t want to ski alone, so he took me up to the mountains in order to basically bribe my mom to come with him,” Kim says. At age six, she entered her first competition. Soon she’d graduated from the local slopes to Mammoth Lakes, a serious ski town in the Sierra Nevadas, nearly six hours north of Torrance. “My dad would load me into the car under a pile of blankets in the middle of the night so I could sleep the whole way and be on the mountain when it opened.” By the time she was ten, Kim was a member of the Mammoth Mountain Snowboard Team and was taking classes online so she could concentrate on her training.
Her father, Jong Jin Kim, was Kim’s first coach and the person whom Bower credits with inadvertently setting her apart from nearly every other rider, male or female. “Jong Jin had Chloe practice going forward and then back with her other foot leading,” Bower explains. The exercise essentially made her the footed equivalent of ambidextrous, which is no small feat. (Imagine Serena Williams putting the racket in her other hand and being just as good.) Aside from her diligence, there’s an ineffable quality to her ability—something her coaches call an “incredible air awareness.” In fact, Kim herself is often at a loss to explain her methods. “I was really excited to land my first 1080,” Kim says. “But I was surprised that it came a lot easier than I thought it would.” But how? I press her. “I don’t know. I could do a 900, and then I spun a little more.”
After the session on the vert ramp is over, Kim gulps a Monster Energy drink and lets a trainer prick her finger to test her oxygen levels. Then we head inside to a dormlike dining area where skiers and snowboarders lie on couches, their morning sessions finished. Lunch is a feast of fish tacos, and Kim piles up her plate. I want to hear more about what this preternaturally mature yet childlike daredevil thinks about the future of her sport, but Kim has something else on her mind. She wants to know how different colleges stack up; she’s been scheduling tours for the fall. “I know I’m only one slam away from this not happening anymore,” she says. “On the road, Chloe was always busy with her schoolwork,” says Chapin. “I’d ask her to do some press, but she’d tell me she was busy studying. There’s not much you can say to that.” I tell Kim that Dartmouth has a pretty great tradition of sending athletes to the Winter Olympics—but Kim seems more interested in Prince-ton and Harvard.
The next morning, I pick up Kim and Reese, her mini Australian shepherd, for a hike to Bloods Lake, high in the mountains above Park City. The hike is her idea—she wants to get in a light workout on her day off before crashing in front of the TV. After some discussion, it’s decided I will drive; Jong Jin doesn’t want Kim to get mud on the Toyota.
We begin our hike, Kim apologizing that it might get a little steep. The trail is fairly crowded, and Kim is outgoing and chatty with the other hikers, particularly dog owners. As we approach the lake, which has been obscured from view by a phalanx of towering pines, there’s no sign of the “city girl” from Southern California—especially when she plunges ankle deep in the mud to encourage Reese to swim. We walk the circumference of the lake until the path ends in a giant landslide of rocks that seems to have descended from the mountains ages ago. Kim’s eager to scramble across them but wants to make sure Reese can keep up. The dog dashes ahead. When the hike is complete, settled back in my rental car, Kim takes out her phone and scrolls through her Instagram. “I owe my sponsors a few posts,” she says, neither overly enthusiastic nor annoyed. Today, Park City scenery, some TV, playtime with Reese, and some casual corporate sponsorships. Tomorrow, Pyeongchang.
To learn more visit teamusa.org. The Winter Olympics begin February 8.
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Hair and makeup: Erin Kristensen.