Chloe Kim fulfills her golden destiny, from 'baby girl' to full-fledged dragon
PYEONGCHANG, South Korea -- Tuesday afternoon, on the sunniest, warmest, calmest day of the Pyeongchang Olympics, American snowboarder Chloe Kim did what she was supposed to do, what she was expected to do, what she was destined to do. She won. It all happened so effortlessly, so absolutely on-script -- and while she was tweeting about ice cream and sandwiches -- that it was easy to overlook the fact a 17-year-old kid with the pressure of two nations and all she heaps upon herself was able to shut out the noise, focus inwardly and land the two highest-scoring runs of the women's Olympic halfpipe final.
"I'm a little overwhelmed. This is the best outcome I could have asked for," said Kim, who became the youngest woman to win an Olympic snowboarding gold medal and the second 17-year-old on the U.S. snowboard team (Red Gerard took gold in slopestyle) to win gold at these Games. "This has been a long journey," she said. "Going home with the gold is amazing." The kismet in Kim's story is impossible to miss. Born in 2000, she was good enough, but too young, to compete in the Sochi Olympics in Russia. So, she waited and made her debut in Pyeongchang, South Korea, a city located a few hours east of Seoul, where her parents grew up and where much of her extended family still lives.
Those four years she waited, she and her father, Jong, believe were necessary to allow her to become old enough and strong enough to handle all that comes with Olympic competition. He and Chloe's mom, Boran, call their daughter "Ipugi," a hybrid Korean word they say means "baby girl dragon." Chloe was born in the year of the dragon, or the "imgui." According to Korean myth, a dragon is born a snake, waits 1,000 years then, on a stormy day, goes up into the sky and becomes a full-fledged dragon.
"Chloe didn't wait 1,000 years. She waited four," Jong told me last year, foreshadowing Tuesday's competition. "At the Olympics, the ipugi will become a real dragon with her big power, the gold medal."
Jong jokes that when his daughter is finished competing, he will open the Pink Dragon Snowboard Academy to coach other girls with Olympic dreams. But on Tuesday, he was focused on only one girl and her dream. After Kim's first run score of 93.75 catapulted her into first place, he realized that dream was within reach.
"I was happy," Jong said. "But the contest was not over."
When Kim's first-run score flashed on the screen in the finish area, she covered her face and showed the first outward emotion of the day. She'd landed a run. A gold medal was within her grasp. Before heading back up the chairlift to take her second run, Kim stopped in the friends and family area at the bottom of the halfpipe and chatted with Burton Snowboards owners Jake Burton and Donna Carpenter, her sponsors since she was 13, and pro snowboarder Louie Vito. They reminded her what happened two weeks ago at the X Games in Aspen, when her U.S. teammate, Arielle Gold, bumped her out of first place and forced her to land an even better run -- and her back-to-back 1080s -- on her third.
"We told her to be ready to have to throw down on her third run," Vito said. "I told her to live in the moment, take a deep breath and find a way to have fun."
On Tuesday's second run, Kim attempted those back-to-back 1080s, but sketched her landing on the cab 10. When she dropped in to take her third and final run, the last rider to drop in the contest, she knew the gold was hers. The next 30 seconds were nothing more than a victory lap. But Kim didn't see it that way. "I knew if I went home with a gold medal knowing I could do better, I wouldn't be very satisfied," Kim said. "I wanted to do the back-to-back 10s. I wanted to go bigger. That third run was for me to prove to myself that I did it, so I could go home and be happy with myself."
At the top of the halfpipe, her coach, Ricky Bower, told her, "You've got nothing to lose. Try to get a perfect score at the Olympics."
Kim plugged in her music -- she said she thinks she was listening to "MotorSport" on that run, "Paparazzi" on her first -- dropped in, launched a sky-high method, and then stomped back-to-back 1080s, making her the first woman to do so in Olympic competition. She didn't score a 100, but her 98.25 beat her previous score, which was what she was aiming to do all along. Besides, Kim said she wouldn't have scored her run a 100 either.
"I really wanted to land the best run I've ever done, but I definitely could have improved a little bit on that third run," Kim said. "I'm hard on myself, but I'm proud of how I handled the pressure today."
The journey to arrive at the Olympics has been a family affair, and Kim's American and Korean families weren't about to miss her debut. Her parents and sisters, Tracy and Erica, flew to South Korea to support her, and this morning, Kim's 75-year-old grandmother, Jung Ae Moon, traveled from Seoul to watch her granddaughter compete for the first time. She was wearing a black neck warmer with "Chloe" embroidered on it and holding a poster that said "Go! Chloe Kim! Chloe's Family" in Korean. She stood, bundled from eyebrows to toes, for the entire competition and posed for photos with her other grandchildren, daughters and family friends.
After her second run, Kim learned that her grandmother was in the crowd and told herself she was dedicating her third run to her. "I said, 'This one's for Grams,'" Chloe said.
"It's very special," Moon said through Chloe's mom, Boran. "I love it all. I have tons of pride today."
All four members of Team USA rode to make their country, coaches, families and supporters proud. Despite falling on her first-hit 1080, Maddie Mastro never held back. Kelly Clark landed all three of her runs, each better than the previous, and was competing through pain. Two weeks ago, at the X Games, Clark crashed on her second run in the finals and scans the next day revealed a bone bruise and fracture in her left tibia. Arielle Gold, who took bronze with her third run Tuesday, dislocated her shoulder on the second day of practice here in Korea, and managed her pain with anti-inflammatories and gritted teeth.
"To be able to push through that was about proving to myself that I am able to overcome anything that's thrown at me," Gold said. The same, she said, goes for her Olympic roommate, Kim. "Chloe is mature beyond her years," Gold said. "There were a lot of questions coming into this contest and I knew she would be able to hold up. I'm grateful to share the podium with her."
Tuesday morning, Jong texted his youngest daughter on the day the two of them had been preparing for since she was 9 years old to remind her of all that was at stake. "Hey, Ipugi, today is your day to become a dragon," he said. But unlike the lore, Tuesday was not a stormy day at the halfpipe.
"It is not about the weather," Jong said. "It's a mental thing. It was a mentally stormy day. And she did it. I am very happy. It's a dream come true."
After the flower ceremony, Kim fought through an overwhelming crush of media, coaches and fans to reach her parents for the first time all day. "I told them I loved them," Kim said. "I told them, 'Thank you.'"
After all the hard work, the years of waiting patiently for her moment, after overcoming the pressure of entering Olympic competition as the gold-medal favorite, does she feel like she's earned her full dragon status?
"Yes," Kim said. "I'm a dragon."