fter Chloe Kim returned home from the 2018 Olympics in South Korea, she put her gold medal in what felt at the time like the right place: a trash bin at her parents’ house.
“I hated life,” Kim, now 21, recalls over plates of pad thai in the airy four-bedroom home in the west side of Los Angeles she shares with her boyfriend, skateboarder Evan Berle. It’s early December, and a 10-ft. Christmas tree with an ornament featuring the paw print of her beloved mini Australian shepherd, Reese, looms over the living room. Upstairs, a mishmash of snowboarding awards are piled into a box, since Kim and Berle haven’t built enough shelving to display all the hardware. But it wouldn’t be surprising if many of them stay there. Kim has a conflicted relationship with the plaudits she has racked up on her path from child halfpipe prodigy to the world’s top female snowboarder. The gold medal she won at the Olympics in PyeongChang was the most significant for her.
It didn’t stay in the garbage for long. Kim was quickly a household name, with her gravity-defying flips and twists making her the youngest ever female Olympic snowboarding gold medalist. She was an unguarded 17-year-old, quick with a smile and a joke (her tweets about eating churros and feeling “hangry” during the competition were the stuff of a viral marketer’s dream). She suddenly became a star on late-night TV, won a Barbie doll in her own image and was praised by Frances McDormand during the Oscars. In South Korea, where Kim’s parents were born and her extended family still lives, she was celebrated as a hero. A short documentary was made by the Seoul Broadcasting System.
Bryan Huynh, Bryan Huynh Collective photograph for TIME
Kim, despite all the attention, was still just a teenager. She lived with her parents and struggled with celebrity pressures. When she was visiting a Corner Bakery close to her home in Southern California, Kim recalls feeling it. Kim was wearing mismatched pajamas and unmade hair—she was just out to grab a sandwich. Everyone stared at her as she entered the store. The panicked woman ran from the shop and drove off. “The minute I come home, I can’t even go to my goddamn favorite place,” Kim says, remembering what it felt like. “It makes you angry. It was all I wanted. And it’s impossible. Although I know that I have been supported and loved by everyone, it is difficult to understand the struggles I went through. Everyone was like, ‘I just met her, and she’s such a bitch.’ I’m not a bitch. I just had the most exhausting two months of my life, and the minute I get home I’m getting hassled. I just want to get my f-cking ham and cheese sandwich and go.”
Bubbly is Kim’s “big brand,” she says, her fingers making air quotes as she speaks the words. It has made her extremely successful on the mountain. According to industry sources, her annual endorsement income amounts in the middle-seven figures. Kim is warm and friendly in conversation. She’s also easy-going, friendly, and lighthearted. But four years of growing up in the spotlight have both hardened her exterior and made her willing to reveal what’s going on behind the perma-smile. Kim speaks out about racism and hate crimes that she witnessed while participating in an all-white sport. Following the pandemic she realized the importance of taking care her mental well-being and she began to seek therapy. In order to be able to enjoy normal teenage life, she decided to stop snowboarding and go to college.
“I don’t care anymore,” Kim says, wrapping up lunch. “I guess I would tell my younger self that even though things get hard and people are mean to you or whatever, it’ll get better and you’re going to realize that you have so much good happening in your life, that the bad isn’t going to hurt you. It’s just annoying. It’s like an annoying mosquito in the background, just flying around.”
Kim in Los Angeles December 2012, is seen defending Beijing’s gold
Photo by Bryan Huynh for TIME
What hasn’t changed for Kim is her dominance on the halfpipe. In PyeongChang, Kim became the first woman to land back-to-back 1080s—three full rotations in the air—at an Olympics, and a few months later she was the first woman to land a front-side double cork 1080—essentially flipping herself upside down twice during an aerial rotation—in a halfpipe. “She’s pushing the boundaries of what’s possible for women’s snowboarding,” says Arielle Gold, the recently retired U.S. snowboarder who won bronze in 2018. “She’s doing tricks that some of the men don’t even want to. It’s pretty crazy. She is the greatest women’s snowboarder of all time, by far.”
Kim is the favorite to win gold at the Beijing Olympics. They begin February 4. NBC will feature her in prime-time coverage, and blue-chip companies—Nike, Toyota and Procter & Gamble are among the sponsors that make Kim the highest-paid female snowboarder in history—have built ad campaigns around her. Few roles carry more pressure than being an Olympic front runner—fall short, and you have to wait four years for a shot at redemption. But if Kim thrived in PyeongChang in part because she hadn’t experienced the full wattage of global superstardom, she’s ready for Beijing because she’s now faced it head-on. The real Chloe Kim has embraced her past and is now ready to face the world.
After winning Olympic Gold in Pyeongchang, Kim wave the flag of the United States
Loic Venance—AFP/Getty Images
Kim is an unlikely addition to snowboarding’s Mount Rushmore. Her family didn’t grow up riding; her dad Jong Jin took up snowboarding as a hobby and took Chloe along. Jong Jin would awaken her every Saturday at 1.am to make the nearly five-hour journey north from Orange County towards Mammoth Mountain. This allowed Chloe to practice. Jong Jin, who years later quit his job as a manufacturing engineer to support Chloe’s career, scooped her up out of bed, carried her to the car and buckled three seat belts on her in the back seat of his Honda Pilot. “I was just like a mummy, strapped down,” says Chloe. “Then I would wake up and I’d be in Mammoth.”
These long drives were worth it. At the age of 13, she began working for the U.S. team. Kim often felt lonely on the mountain as she was always the only Asian American. When she was a national-team rookie, she attended a team dinner at another athlete’s house. Kim, who had never been to a dishwashing machine before, was nervous about how it would work. “We did everything by hand in my Korean household,” Kim says. “I waited for everyone to go somewhere else. Then I was left to scrub my plates by hand, and then I searched in vain for the right place to return them. It was very embarrassing. Those moments are kind of like, ‘Oh, I come from a very different place.’”
Social media vitriol only added to the alienation Kim felt. Kim shared a photograph of the award on Instagram after she won her first major silver medal at the 2014 X Games in halfpipe. Kim claims in direct messages that she was told by people to return to China. She also received a scolding from others for taking the medals away to white Americans. 13 years old. “I ended up crying myself to sleep on the best night of my life,” Kim says, recalling the memory while slinking into her cushy white living–room couch. “At that point, you’re like, ‘O.K., who can I turn to? Who has probably dealt with this before?’ I would constantly look for anyone. But there was no one.”
Silver was won by the Winter X Games 2014 at 13
RJ Sangosti—The Denver Post/Getty Images
Kim is likely to have made it on the U.S. team for the 2014 Winter Olympics had she not been below 15 years old. In PyeongChang in 2004, she made up her lost time. Kim won her second consecutive 1080s, even though she already had gold. The win cemented Kim’s celebrity in two countries, and the crowds in South Korea mobbed her whenever she left the Olympic Village. When the family went out, Kim’s parents and two sisters huddled around her to protect her from prying eyes. In the midst of all her sponsor and media obligations, she only got one night to enjoy her South Korean win celebrations. “The night before leaving Korea, we all gathered at our home, and Chloe’s grandmother got to try on the medal,” says Kim’s mother Boran. “We each got to try it on. We celebrated that in this way. But at that moment, I think Chloe was going through a very hard time.”
Kim was able to enjoy the bizarre trappings fame can bring. Michael Keaton sent her his condolences. “Thanks, Batman,” she says now. McDormand said that winning an Oscar “is what Chloe Kim must have felt like after doing back-to-back 1080s in the Olympic halfpipe.” At a packed afterparty for the 2018 ESPY Awards, where Kim won Female Athlete of the Year, the rapper G-Eazy handed her the mic and asked her to rap Cardi B’s vocal section of his song “No Limit.” She nailed it.
Kim began to lose love for the sport after she was back in competition. She says teammates (Kim won’t say who) who resented her success began to bully her on social media. In March 2019, she broke her ankle playing at the U.S. Open. “I was so burnt out, I just couldn’t do it anymore,” says Kim. “I felt a little lost. I was in a pretty low, dark place.”
It was high time to try something different. Kim was homeschooled as she traveled around the world competing in snowboarding competitions. Kim decided that it was time for something new and to quit. In the autumn of 2019, she enrolled at Princeton University. Partly, she did so to escape the fame. Even though the Ivy League college boasts Presidents and Princes among its alumni, fame proved difficult to break. Kim was invited to an ice-cream social during her first night. “As I was leaving, the girls came up to me, they’re like, ‘Chloe, can we get a picture, can we get a picture, can we get a picture?’” she says. “And I was like, ‘I don’t want to be here as the snowboarder. I’d like to come here as a student. I would like to be just like everybody else. I want to be normal.’ That’s why I came here. And I was like, ‘No, you can’t get a photo with me. I don’t want this to be a thing, because it’s going to make me uncomfortable.’ And immediately after that, everyone was like, ‘Oh, she’s such a bitch. Blah blah blah.’”
Kim regretted it immediately. “She’d call us and say, ‘Mom, people are staring at me and I feel so uncomfortable,’” says Boran. “She’d call crying.” Kim began to avoid the dining halls and other common areas—the very places where friendships are formed. “We were eating off campus a lot,” says Christian Pollard, a junior premed student who didn’t know who Kim was when they met as first-year students. “She didn’t want to put herself in that space.”
Boran, her mother at 12.
Courtesy Chloe Kim
Kim says she asked that her dorm and room number be taken off Tigerbook, a directory that listed students’ addresses on campus. “I’ve had my fair share of stalker issues,” Kim says. Tigerbook removed all student addresses due to university privacy restrictions. Kim claims that she was criticized by her classmates for changing the policy. “Every time I did something for myself,” Kim says, “it ended up being a whole issue.”
The semester went by quickly and things got better. However, the novelty of having a campus gold medalist started to wear off. Kim switched her focus from chemistry to anthropology because she didn’t find it too hard. And she sought out friends who didn’t know much about her. Pollard, who grew up on an Alabama cattle farm, texted Kim during Princeton’s first snowfall, wondering if her friend from Southern California had ever seen the powdery white stuff before.
Perhaps most importantly, college let Kim be around other talented, driven people who didn’t always succeed. It was an amazing realization after years spent striving for perfection. “Everyone around me was falling apart when it came time to do an exam,” Kim says. “It’s a sh-t show. The library is filled with people hiding in its darkest parts until three in the morning. They then come out at seven like zombies and start the cycle all over again. It was amazing. It was just like, ‘I need this. I need to see other amazing people fall apart.’”
Kim decided to go back to competitive snowboarding after the March 2020 pandemic that decimated campus. She hasn’t ruled out going back—which would make her mother happy. “I’d like Chloe to go to Princeton,” says Boran. “But Chloe’s happiness comes first. Chloe is now 21 years old and she can make decisions on her own, so I support her decisions.”
Kim at 4 snowboards in California
Courtesy Chloe Kim
But Kim’s short time at school has had a lasting effect. She credits it with helping her be open to seeing a therapist and processing some of the fear and anger she has as a result of racist messages like the one from April: “You dumb Asian bitch,” it read. “Kiss my ass.” Similar slurs regularly fill her social feeds. This hate and the increase in anti-Asian violence has made it difficult. “I’m scared to do anything by myself, and it sucks,” Kim says. “I feel trapped.” When she’s out to dinner with family, they often call her a fake name so as not to draw attention. They’ve tried Jenny. Cindy. “It works,” Tracy, Kim’s older sister, says, “most of the time.”
Kim believes therapy was the key to unlocking her deepest feelings. “Just being able to let those things out that you just tuck in your little secret part of your heart helps a lot,” she says. “I feel much more at peace now.”
As the Beijing Games have drawn nearer, Kim’s focus has intensified. She was always committed to skiing and began hitting the gym regularly with purpose. Kim’s trainer, Roy Chan, has Kim doing single-leg squats and other core exercises to make sure she can sustain the force of her landings. “She pretty much doesn’t take any days off,” Chan says. “In a lot of cases, athletes sometimes just fall out of love with the extracurricular work that they need to sustain their season. But with Chloe that’s not the case.”
Kim is feeling the expectation weight. And she knows her situation is not that different from Simone Biles’ before the Tokyo Olympics in July. Their acrobatic sports have frightening similarities too: if Kim’s mind isn’t right during a routine, she risks life-threatening damage. Pretending that the parallels with Biles don’t exist “is the worst thing you can do,” says Kim’s coach, Rick Bower, who also led the U.S. national halfpipe team from 2010 through last season. “To talk about it as it comes up, and not push it away or anything, that’s our plan.”
Kim says Biles’ decision to withdraw from competition in Tokyo rather than risk injury is a source of strength for her and other athletes. “Having that comfort knowing that, ‘Hey, I’m doing something really dangerous, or I’m doing something that is hard on my body, if I mentally can’t do it, then I shouldn’t,’” says Kim. “It’s in my best interest. Showing the world that you have to put yourself first and give up something like an Olympic gold medal, that was very touching and inspirational.”
She has three more tricks in Beijing, but that’s all for now. “I’m so excited,” she says. “They’re an upgrade from everything I’ve done.” She won’t say more, which makes sense, but also demurs when asked more generally about the Winter Games. “Don’t have too many expectations,” she says softly. “Just let me vibe. I’m just trying to chill.” She gives it a beat. Chloe Kim takes it to the next level with a stronger voice. “No, I’m just kidding. I expect too much from you. I’m going to go off.”
By reporting Sangsuk Sylvia Kang, Nik Popli AndSimmone Shah
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