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Tuesday, August 9, 2022

American Chloe Kim, 21, secures history with consecutive Olympic golds in snowboard halfpipe event

Chloe Kim is the first woman to win two Olympic snowboard gold medals in the halfpipe. The lone American to make Thursday’s final, Kim, 21, won the event with her first-run score of 94, which was nearly four points higher than the rest of the field. Spain’s Queralt Castellet, a five-time Olympian, captured her first medal, a silver, and Sena Tomita of Japan finished with the bronze.

“I was dealing with all sorts of emotions [before the contest], but I reminded myself I just have to land one run, and I was so happy to do that,” Kim told NBC after the event.

Despite going into this contest open-eyed about the stress of Olympic competition, Kim couldn’t block out the pressure to repeat her performance from Pyeongchang. She had an uncharacteristic fall on her first run in qualifiers, and later admitted she was nervous before the contest began. Once she calmed her nerves, Kim landed the best run of the day to qualify atop the field and earn the privilege of dropping last in finals.

On Thursday, after what Kim called, “the worst practice of my life,” she took a deep breath, dropped into the pipe and outclassed her competitors with her first run. She went consistently higher above the pipe, landed technical tricks like a switch 900 and a backside 540 and bookmarked her opening run with 1080s.

At the bottom of the pipe, Kim slid to a stop, dropped to her knees and let out a messy explosion of emotions. “Oh my god,” she said, laughing, crying and breathing hard. When her score — a seemingly unbeatable 94 — appeared on the board, she stood up and walked through the media area hugging everyone she knew.

Back at the top of the pipe, the TV cameras caught Kim hugging United States coach Ricky Bauer as she wiped away tears. “I just started bawling,” she said. “I gotta get these tears out.” The pressure of landing a run worthy of gold was over. “Now?” Bauer asked. “What’s it gonna be?”

Kim answered his question in her second run, when she went for a 1260 on her third hit, a trick no woman has landed in halfpipe competition. She slid out on the landing, and then posted a photo of her face on Instagram with the caption, “Ow my butt.”

Kim went for the trick again on her third run but was unable to land it. At the bottom of the pipe, her peers cheered her for the attempt.

“[Progression] is so important and after I put down the first run, I got two attempts at landing the cab 1260. I’m super proud of myself for going out and trying to do it,” Kim said. “I’m looking forward to being able to land it at the next one … Now I’m so eager to see my family, my boyfriend, my dog. Then I will feel all the feelings and be proud of myself.”

Four years ago, Kim competed under the weight of two nations and her own lofty expectations. The daughter of South Korean immigrants, Kim was too young to compete at the 2014 Sochi Olympics, although her results that season would have qualified her for the team. Four years later, at 17, she made her Olympic debut as the most dominant woman in halfpipe riding and as one of the boldest names of the Games.

When she won gold in 2018, she was lauded for rising to meet it all — the pressure, the expectations, the sponsorship obligations — while tweeting about ice cream and churros and saying all the right things. With her win, which was earned by landing a run more progressive than any woman before her had done, Kim became the youngest woman to win an Olympic snowboard gold medal since the sport’s introduction in 1998.

But while her riding appeared effortless, her win didn’t come without cost. Not yet out of high school, Kim knew how to navigate life while standing sideways on a snowboard. It was out of the halfpipe where she lost her footing.

In the past year, Kim has spoken openly, if reluctantly, about the toll the pressure to win — and winning gold — took on her mental health. Like many Olympic champions, she stood on the medal podium in Pyeongchang expecting a magic lightning strike as she fulfilled what many considered to be her destiny in her parents’ home country. But the moment was overwhelmingly mundane. The gold medal around her neck felt like every other she’d won, the podium like any wooden box she’d topped in her career. There was no magic, just more expectations.

In the months after the Games, Kim says she struggled with celebrity, dealt with online bullying and anti-Asian hate, and feared for her and her family’s safety when she left her Los Angeles home. She enrolled at Princeton in the fall, moved across the country and spent her freshman year meeting friends who didn’t know who she was or what she did for a living. All of that helped her to figure out who she was outside of her sport.

This time around, Kim said yes to fewer media and sponsor obligations, and when she sat for an interview, she got real. She isn’t the bubbly 17-year-old from Pyeongchang anymore — maybe she never really was — and she no longer feels the need to hide behind that persona.

“I’m at a point now where I want to be myself and feel everything I feel and not bottle all my emotions up and explode one day,” Kim told ESPN in December. “That was standard practice for me a few years ago, so it puts me in a much better headspace. Speaking about all of this has brought a lot of calm to my life and a lot of peace, just knowing that I can be myself 24/7 and not have to put on a front.”

That openness has freed Kim to be herself within snowboarding, as well, to be honest about her desire to progress and to push her competitors and the sport forward. Four years after her win in Pyeongchang, Kim is riding at a level no other woman can match and her motivation is about more than winning contests. It’s about figuring out what her body and mind can achieve while providing her competitors with a benchmark for greatness.

Thursday morning in Beijing, she raised that standard even higher.

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