A Teen Sensation Grows Up
LOS ANGELES — The American snowboarder Chloe Kim was 17 years old at the last Winter Olympics, in Pyeongchang, where she gleefully stomped her way to a gold medal in the halfpipe.
Her near-perfect runs came after a viral tweet about breakfast (“I’m getting hangry,” she wrote moments before her performance) and ended in the embrace of her parents, immigrants from South Korea. Hers may have been the biggest moment of the Olympics for two countries.
Soon, though, she thought of retiring.
Success felt like a tightening trap. She suffocated under the crush of instant attention, a perk and curse of Olympic success. One of her dominant memories from winning was escaping to a bathroom just to be alone, to get a look at the medal she had earned. Why did it feel like her big moment belonged to everyone else?
And then there was the Instagram message she received after the Games, a note from a top snowboarder. It was intended for someone else. It landed in Kim’s phone.
“Cocky ass bitch,” it called her.
It stung. The barb is still hooked inside.
“My 17-, 18-year-old self was a lot more immature — like screw it all, I’m done,” Kim said. “I’m going to take a break and revisit this conversation later.”
Later has arrived. Kim, 21, has soared past the age of innocence to land back here, the favorite to win at another Olympics, yet unsure of what people make of her.
Kim, shown competing in 2014, was already among the best in the world when she was 13, but she was too young to qualify for the Olympics. Now 21, hardened by the experience that made her famous, she is the defending gold medalist in the halfpipe.Credit…Harry How/Getty Images
“When I was 13 and I was up and coming and I was doing really well in events, it was like everyone was on my side,” she said. “Like, ‘Go, Chloe!’ and ‘Good job, Chloe, look at you go!’ Then after I won, the energy completely changed, and I was embarrassed to win contests. I knew that if I did well again, people would dump on me.”
And then the errant message.
“I just felt like everyone is out to get me or something,” Kim said. “So I was like, OK, if I’m going to be the villain in the story, then I don’t know if I want to do it. It’s just not fun.”
She broke her right ankle in early 2019, a blessing in retrospect, shooing her away from the sport she was not sure she loved, or that loved her. She slipped from the spotlight. She spent 22 months without strapping into a snowboard, an unheard-of voluntary detox for a top athlete just reaching her prime.
She went to Princeton and tried to be a regular college student. She sought out friends with diverse interests and backgrounds. She surrounded herself with people and things that reciprocate love, regardless of snowboarding success: dogs, horses, a boyfriend, new school friends, family.
Kim returned from her snowboarding hiatus last January, more refreshed than rusty. She won her first event, then the X Games, then the world championship.
This week, she begins her Olympic season with a Dew Tour stop in Copper Mountain, Colo., against an international field. She will be expected to win every contest she enters, especially the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing in February.
This is how it goes for top Olympic athletes: Win a gold medal, fade away while the real world churns on, then reappear on television screens four years later, as if someone undid the Olympic “pause” button.
Get Ready for the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics
Just a few months after Tokyo, the Olympics will start again in Beijing on Feb. 4. Here is what you need to know:
- A Guide to the Sports: From speedskating to monobob, here’s a look at every sport that will be contested at the 2022 Winter Games.
- Diplomatic Boycott: The U.S. will not send government officials to Beijing in a boycott to pressure China for human rights abuses.
- Covid Preparations: With a “closed-loop” bubble, a detailed health plan and vaccination requirements, the Games will be heavily restricted.
- The Fashion Race: Canada partnered with Lululemon for its Olympic kit, and a Black-owned athleisure brand will outfit Team Nigeria.
But Kim did not pause. She grew up. She is still funny, smart, silly. But she is older, wiser, hardened.
She repeated the words of the Instagram insult. She would not say who wrote them.
“It’s definitely one of those things that I wish I didn’t see, but I’m also grateful,” Kim said. “If I didn’t see it, I would have been, like, ‘Oh, cool, we’re still all good.’ It’s helpful for me to know. It definitely made me put my guard up a little more, which I think is OK. You can’t trust anyone.”
The front entry of Kim’s new house was a pileup of shoes, mostly Nike-branded sneakers and flip flops. It was a warm fall day, and Kim was excited about her plans. She slipped into a pair of worn cowboy boots.
She and her boyfriend, Evan Berle, a U.C.L.A. student and former pro skateboarder, drove through Torrance, Calif., one of several suburbs where Kim grew up. They hurried to an appointment at a small stable in Palos Verdes Estates, among rolling hills of ranch homes and twisting roads.
Kim has ridden horses nearly as long as she has snowboarded. It is unclear which brings her the most happiness.
“I’d like to purchase a ranch,” Kim said from the passenger seat as Berle drove. “Have chickens, little pigs … ”
“Goats,” Berle interjected.
“Evan loves goats,” Kim explained. “I love pigs. Oh, and I love donkeys. Maybe some exotic animals, too. Like parrots.”
She told a story about losing her pet parrot, Kiwi, a blue-crowned conure, when it flew away a few years ago. Nothing sounds too tragic or too amazing when it comes from Kim. She is adept at delivering lines in a pleasant deadpan.
At the corral, Kim and Berle watched a farrier re-shoe several horses while they waited for the trail guide. There was a mix-up over the meeting time, and Kim grew frustrated with the delay. She had other things to do, including a midday workout with her trainer. She wanted to leave.
Berle works as a steadying influence. He talked her into waiting. They met in 2019 through mutual friends in the skateboarding world.
“I’m glad I met you now, because I was not cute when I was younger,” Kim said.
The guide arrived. She had no idea who Kim was. Kim perked up, helped saddle a chestnut named Levi, and smoothly climbed on. She led the way down the trail. She turned back to Berle and beamed.
That easygoing effervescence, combined with singular talent, made Kim a major star in 2018. She won ESPYs for best female athlete, best female Olympian and best female action-sports athlete.
There were magazine covers (including Sports Illustrated, with Reese, her Australian shepherd), late-night interviews, a