PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — Chloe Kim, the 17-year-old who outsoared her helpless rivals to win the gold medal in the snowboard halfpipe Tuesday, was sitting near Shaun White on the eve of the Olympics, when a question about pressure was directed her way. Kim, lined up on an auditorium stage with the American team, was, after all, expected to overwhelm the competition here, and maybe at several more Games after this.
She shrugged the question away.
“I don’t really think about it as pressure,” she said. Pressure is a byproduct of expectations, she added, and expectations mean that people believe in you.
White, 31 years old and the most famous rider in history, fielded deeper questions about his life and career. Without much prompting, he kept returning to the concept of expectations and pressure. It was obviously on his mind, a constant companion for about 25 years now.
The years have taught him that the hardest trick is sustaining success when everyone expects it from you.
His audience was a room full of journalists, but it felt aimed, purposely or not, at an audience of one: Kim.
“It’s just kind of the mental mind-set of having won, and then having to win after winning, and win after winning after winning, you know?” White said, laughing. “It’s a great problem to have, but it’s finding that motivation, finding that drive.”
Kim has been beating the competition for years, but on Tuesday at Phoenix Snow Park she fully revealed her talent and charisma to a broad audience. She dazzled from the start with a score of 93.75 on her first run, and no one came close to beating that mark. On her third and final run, with the gold medal clinched, she wanted to “one-up myself,” she said later. She did, with a victory lap that included her signature back-to-back 1080s, three spins off one wall of the pipe followed by three more on the other. That run scored 98.25 from the judges.
“I knew that if I went home with a gold medal knowing I could do better, I wasn’t going to be very satisfied,” Kim said at the bottom of the pipe.
Pressure? Before that late-morning run, Kim had logged on to Twitter to tell her growing legion of fans that she was hungry.
“Just trying to distract myself” to ease the nerves, she said.
The silver went to Liu Jiayu of China, with 89.75. Arielle Gold of the United States had a strong third run, scoring 85.75, to knock her countrywoman Kelly Clark out of the bronze medal position. Clark, who scored 83.50 on her third run, finished fourth at her fifth Olympic Games — she also has a gold from 2002 and two bronze medals.
Kim, born and raised in Southern California as the daughter of South Korean immigrants, was warmly adopted by fans from the host country. On a sunny morning, she received the biggest ovation when introduced before her first run, and when she reached the bottom with a clean run and a bright smile, she was greeted by the sound of cheers and cowbells.
At the end of the event, chased by mobs of reporters and fans pushing to get closer, she finally found her family. Her eyes filled with tears as she hugged her father, Jong Jin Kim, who introduced her to snowboarding — something he learned alongside her — when she was a toddler. During the competition, he held a wrinkled, handwritten sign that read “Go Chloe!” next to a big, red heart.
The next stop for Kim is a higher stratosphere of celebrity. For Americans, she seemed certain to become the big name and face to emerge from these Olympics.
“This whole experience has been insane,” Kim said. “You hear so much about the Olympics, but actually being a part of it is a completely different story. I’m so fortunate to be able to go through all that, and share my story with the world. That has been amazing for me. And I’m really excited for the future.”
White knows all about that. Kim’s rise is a strong echo of his. It will be his turn on Wednesday to try to win gold. For the fourth time, he arrived as a favorite to win the Olympic halfpipe competition, looking for his third gold medal. In 2014, he finished fourth.
He has grown from brash childhood icon, with all the fame that Kim just boarded into, to elder statesman of a sport — a movement, really — now gliding into its next generation. The sight of him near Kim felt like a mash-up of the past and the future. Their competitions in the same venue one day apart feel like a swinging gate between yesterday and tomorrow.
Her gold-medal run included a trick that no other woman has landed in competition.
The comparisons are about more than celebrity. Both grew up in Southern California. Both were immersed in skateboard culture early. Both had parents who took them to the mountains to snowboard. Both began to dominate halfpipe contests by the time they hit puberty.
Kim stomped the competition in qualifying contests before the 2014 Winter Olympics, but she was too young to be eligible to compete in Sochi. She has won the X Games halfpipe competition in Aspen, Colo., three times, and also has a silver and bronze.
Both White and Kim soar past peers with a mix of fearlessness and acrobatics. Unafraid of speed (perhaps from years on skateboards) or height, they routinely fly higher than others, giving them time to perform tricks most others have never landed or even tried.
After a solid first run on Tuesday, Kim went for back-to-back 1080s — she was the first woman to land two in a row in 2016 — on her second try, but fell. But on the third run, she tried again and landed both for an emphatic exclamation point.
Both Kim and White have significant social-media followings (though White’s fans number in the millions while Kim has several hundred thousand). Kim had about 15,000 Twitter followers at the start of the day, but by the time the sun fell in South Korea, she had roughly 150,000.
Both have a wide spectrum of sponsors and teams of handlers — and complicated relationships with their competition. Snowboarders generally consider their trade more a lifestyle than a vocation. Camaraderie and an ambivalence toward winning contests permeate the culture.
White has long been a bit of an outsider among his peers, many of whom view his commercial appeal and embrace of fame with a mix of derision and jealousy. Kim is a bit different; she dropped into an already established culture, and riders like Clark became mentors and sister figures. But it is not hard to imagine a divide growing, as it did with White, between Kim and her peers — the women she continues to leave behind in competition and commercialism.
But no one asked about intrasport tensions when White and Kim were on stage together a few days ago. White talked about how much his focus changed when fame and fortune came his way as he prepared for his first Winter Olympics.
“I was 19, I had these huge contracts and deals and things, and my life was pretty much set, you know,” White said. “And then the motivation became just to solidify the fact that this is just who I am and what I do.”
White is a complex man — part athlete, part businessman, part cultural icon. He long ago shed his Flying Tomato nickname. His red hair is cut rather short, stylistically mussed, the vogue of someone who wants to play but also wants to be taken seriously.
He was sponsored by Burton at age 7 and was a snowboarding and skateboarding icon by middle school. Soon he was expected to win every competition he entered, from the X Games to the Olympics. From his earliest memories, he was expected to be the next big thing, he said.
“I was also teed up to be the next big failure,” he added.
All of this was said as Kim sat within arm’s reach. White never mentioned her, and he didn’t seem to realize that he was talking about her — over and over — as he was talking about himself.
A reporter asked White about Ayumu Hirano, who was 15 at the 2014 Winter Olympics when he won a silver medal in the halfpipe for Japan. By then, he was already being compared to White, heaped with big expectations.
“That’s a very tough position to be in,” White said. “I know, from being a young snowboarder myself.”
By then, Kim had leaned forward and turned to listen.
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