BONGPYEONG, South Korea — The gold medal had been secured, the desire to eat a breakfast sandwich had been conveyed to the world, and the starburst had been completed. She stood at the top at Pyeongchang Halfpipe and had only one thing left to do, the thing she loved most, the most peaceful thing in a 17-year-old life about to be upended, to never again be the same. Chloe Kim had to perform.
For competitive purposes, the final run Kim took down the halfpipe meant nothing. For artistic and athletic value, it carried historic weight, both a punctuation and invitation. It stamped her, even at the start of her career, as a groundbreaker, one of the most talented snowboarders in the sport’s history. It begged other girls all over the world to join her: Look at what you can do, look at all the grand possibilities, when you strap a high-tech plank to your feet.
The coronation of a new American Olympic darling occurred here late Tuesday morning. Kim entered these Olympics as an overwhelming favorite in women’s halfpipe, with many snowboard enthusiasts convinced she could have won gold four years ago, at age 13, had she not been too young to compete in Sochi. But the expectation could not diminish the thrill of watching Kim twirl and spin and take the sport to new places.
Kim’s first run, which scored a 93.75, guaranteed her first place. She spilled in the middle of her second run, which left her “kind of annoyed.” On her third run, she executed three spins on the left side of the halfpipe, whooshed up the other wall and pulled off the same trick on that side. The crowd roared and shrieked: Kim had become the first female to land consecutive 1080s in the halfpipe at the Olympics. The run earned her a 98.25, more than eight points clear of Chinese silver medalist Liu Jiayu.
“I knew if I went home with the gold medal knowing that I could do better, I wasn’t going to be very satisfied,” Kim said. “That situation, I did put down a really good first run, but I was like, ‘I can do better than that. I can one-up myself.’ The third run was for me to prove to myself if I did it, and I could go home really happy and excited.”
Kim, an acrobatic performer of Korean heritage and California cool, is destined to become an even bigger star than she already is. She became a prodigy under the watchful eye of her father, Jong Jin, who was born in South Korea – a biographical fact that enhanced her stardom here. Jong Jin would drive his youngest daughter from La Palma, California, to Mammoth Mountain, 5 1/2 hours away. Jong Jin watched Tuesday from in front of the grandstand at the base of the halfpipe, holding up a sign reading “Go Chloe!”
“I told her, today is the day you will turn into a dragon,” Jong Jin said.
The world changed for Kim. She stood on a podium and dabbed a tear from each eye, then received a quick glimpse into a coming whirlwind. Handlers whisked her to an interview. Reporters trailed Jong Jin like ducklings. As her mother, Boran, hugged her and wiped away a tear, photographers clicked cameras and reporters held iPhones aloft. She navigated a gantlet of TV interviews and a maze of reporters.
“I don’t really know what’s happening, and I’m actually feeling a little anxious right now,” Kim said. “I’m a little overwhelmed.”
Despite her admission to nerves, Kim carried herself with an easy-going personality and acted very much like the Californian teenager she is. Kim tweeted about jonesing for ice cream Monday afternoon – between qualification rounds, in which she produced, by far, the two highest-scored runs of the day. She pulled the same schtick between finals runs, telling the world she wished she had finished her breakfast sandwich, and she was now “hangry.”
“I’ve just been on my phone a lot, just looking at social media, trying to distract myself,” Kim said. “When I get drug-tested, I’ll be doing the same thing, because I’ll be nervous when I’m getting drug-tested, because there’s a stranger watching me go to the bathroom.”
But it’s Kim’s athletic charisma and jaw-dropping talent that makes her most appealing. Even to a broad audience with scant snowboarding knowledge, her surpassing ability is obvious. She achieves more amplitude on her jumps, packs more spins and flips into them and lands her board back on the ground like a feather.
Her place in the sport will be pivotal. It may have been the final Olympics for five-time Olympian Kelly Clark, the 34-year-old standard bearer. She won her only gold medal at the 2002 Olympics but remained at the top of the sport long enough to miss out, just barely, on her fourth podium Tuesday.
“If I did the run I won with in Salt Lake,” said Clark, who finished fourth, “I wouldn’t even make a final today.”
American Arielle Gold, who won bronze with an audacious and flawless third run, called it “the most progressive contest we’ve ever seen. It just shows you the direction women’s snowboarding is going to go.”
Kim is at the vanguard, with a new world about to open to her – so many more possibilities. Just-minted gold medalists are often asked a version of the same question: What would you tell people like yourself, but younger? Less than an hour after her defining run, Kim nodded along as a reporter asked it of her.
“I’d say do whatever you want,” Kim said. “I think I was so fortunate to find my passion and the thing that brought me so much joy at such a young age. I think, you know, if you’re young – even if you’re old, it doesn’t matter how old you are – but if you find something that you really want to try, just give it a try. You’re never going to know. The one thing I learned is, just give everything a shot. You don’t want to live in regret.”
She had nothing to regret Tuesday, on a dazzling morning, bright sun reflecting off pristine snow, people from two nations screaming for her. There is so much Chloe Kim will have to navigate in coming years, but the joy of getting to perform will never grow old.