BONGPYEONG, South Korea — She can easily be reduced to an ice cream-loving teen, because, well, she’s an ice cream-loving teen. And when Chloe Kim tweets about cutting the tension by chomping on churros — “they were pretty bomb so if you ever get nervous go eat a churro” — it seems endearing, even cute. Treat the Olympics like a Friday-night drive to the mall, and all will be chill.
Those assessments almost certainly wouldn’t bother Kim. But if you see her perform in person — and if you have the chance, here’s a word of advice: Go! — they could seem wildly unfair, maybe even demeaning. Yes, she’s 17. Yes, she said she would choose between Swiss almond fudge and mango sorbet after Monday’s qualifying runs at the PyeongChang Halfpipe.
But man, watch her. There is artistry and flair and insane athletic ability. Just because it comes wrapped in a bubbly, 5-foot-2 package shouldn’t reduce the power of her performances.
“Looking at her ride,” said Canadian competitor Elizabeth Hosking, “is just so much fun. It just looks sooooooo good.”
Kim, a Californian with Korean roots, made the most anticipated debut of the PyeongChang Olympics Monday with a pair of qualifying runs in the women’s halfpipe snowboard competition. There was no medal to win; that part comes Tuesday. This was a shake-out-the-nerves opportunity. And Kim, the best at what she does even though she had never done it on this stage, needed to do some shaking out.
“She was really nervous for that first run,” said U.S. halfpipe coach Ricky Bower.
“If you didn’t get nervous,” said Kelly Clark, the snowboarding icon who is in her fifth Olympics, “you wouldn’t care enough.”
Which is part of it, too. The ingredients are all there. Mix them up, and you could miss the point. Start with Kim’s precociousness. She was likely good enough to qualify for the Sochi Olympics four years ago, but, at 13, she didn’t meet age requirements. Throw in the mellow vibe of snowboarding in general — and you have to look no further than newly crowned Olympic champion Red Gerard to get feel for the Doritos-eating, counterculture stereotypes that form snowboarding’s roots. All you need is an ice cream cone and some churros, and you’ve used the future face of snowboarding to reduce the sport to a sideshow.
Twenty years ago, when snowboarding first appeared in the Olympics, the ring-head purists sniffed in its general direction. What, they asked, are they doing here?
Now, as Kim threatens to become an international face of the Olympics, the better question might be: Where would the Olympics be without them?
Look, I’m not going to pretend to understand the tricks Kim performed in her qualifying runs on Monday. (For the record, from her mouth to this page: “I did a method, front seven, cab seven, front nine, McTwist, crippler, seven.”) I ski. I don’t snowboard. I’m part of the cultural divide between those two endeavors. Had the women’s giant slalom not been postponed by high winds at the Alpine venue, I would have covered that Monday. It’s a traditional event. Mikaela Shiffrin is a gold medal winner who’s trying to become a mainstream star. I would have enjoyed myself immensely.
But what I learned in watching Kim is that there is an undeniable, visceral impressiveness to what she does. And while it looks natural, effortless even, it must be rooted in diligence and attention to detail. It just has to be.
Kim’s first run in Monday’s qualifying produced a score of 91.5 from the judges, easily the best in the field of 24. Expert analysis: She seemed, at times, suspended in air, even as she twisted or flipped. Her landings were somehow smoother than the rest of the field, as if she could calculate the angle of her board and seamlessly make it equal the angle of the pipe. She was just — how to put this? — better than everyone else, and you didn’t have to understand the technicalities of it all. But even if you do …
“I see her do that run,” said Hosking, the Canadian, “I’m just like, ‘It looks so easy. I want to do that!’”
When Kim finished the first run, she all but doubled over before she skidded to a stop at the bottom of the pipe. She clutched her chest and clasped her hands, unquestionably thanking the crowd, but mixing in a good measure of relief.
It was clear, then, that this is serious stuff. And it was also clear, within an hour or so, that Kim can, at will, separate herself from the rest of the field. Her second run — which she called “really good, very perfect” — produced a score of 95.5, well ahead of second-best Liu Jiayu of China at 87.75. Only four athletes produced a run within 25 points of Kim.
“I was really nervous,” Kim said. “But my goal here is to land every run I do in the contest.”
Should she do that — the medal round will consist of three runs on Tuesday (8 p.m. ET Monday) — she will win gold. There’s no other way to see it. She is an elite athlete, capable of combining power and grace. She has a specific style, a palpable presence. That such a package comes in the body of a carefree California teen should not diminish what she is pulling off here, shaking out the nerves en route to displaying a mastery of her sport that should be respected, and then some.