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PYEONGCHONG, South Korea – The most American story of the PyeongChang Games unfolded atop a mountain here Tuesday morning. The daughter of two immigrants who was pushed to perform extreme feats as a moppet and grew to document them through social media ubiquity won an Olympic gold medal. She is the spinning, flipping, dyed-blonde zeitgeist.
Chloe Kim, still every bit of 17 years old, still excited to go shopping with her grandma and snap selfies and tweet about her hunger pangs between runs down the snowboard halfpipe, was made for the moment she created at Phoenix Snow Park. Every move for the past decade, from sending her to Switzerland for elementary school to globetrotting in search of competition to crafting the cereal-box-ready image of a California girl who was her parents’ American Dream, was GPS-guided toward this. This is how you build a child into a brand in 2018.
America had fallen in love – as America is wont to do when the story is literally as picture perfect as Kim’s – well before the stunning third run that came after she had locked up gold with a first-run 93.75. Kim heaved herself high above the 22-foot wall to grab her board on the first hit and followed with the trick unique to her: back-to-back 1080s, twirling three times each. Three more flawless jumps followed, and her score of 98.25 blew away silver medalist Jiayu Liu and American Arielle Gold, who took bronze.
“I don’t really know what’s happening, and I actually feel a little anxious right now,” Kim said. “I’m a little overwhelmed. But this is the best outcome I could ever ask for. It’s been such a long journey. Ahhh. Going home with a gold is amazing.”
It is so much, so soon, though that captures the essence of Kim’s existence. Tears flooded her eyes as she stood atop the podium, and her mom couldn’t stave them off, either, and her sister was bawling into Kim’s hair. Only Jong Kim, her father, who had held aloft the laminated sign that said “Go Chloe!”, staunched the blubbering.
“My dad didn’t cry, which I don’t get at all,” Kim said. “Like, what are you doing?”
What he has always done: straddle the existence between assertiveness and nuisance. Parents of prodigies have long struggled with that fine line, and Jong’s involvement with Kim’s career is unmatched in snowboarding. He saw genius in his daughter.
“When she was 8,” Jong said, “I thought, ‘Well, maybe I can bring her to the Olympics.’ ”
So he quit his job and devoted his life to Kim. She moved to Geneva to live with her aunt. When Jong visited, they went to France so she could ride the halfpipe in Avoriaz. He accompanied her around the world at 10, when she would show up to competitions and flummox organizers that couldn’t fathom a girl this young, this good. Whatever potholes presented themselves – “Girls are kind of very difficult to take care of,” Jong said – were filled in with the promise of what was to come.
Kim, her father likes to say, was born in the year of the dragon – an important animal in Korea, where he lived until he moved to the United States in 1982. Legend says a dragon isn’t born a dragon. It is a giant serpent called an imugi that takes 1,000 years to grow into a dragon.
“Today,” Jong said Tuesday, “is the day imugi turns to dragon.”
Kim’s competitors saw nothing but the straight fire to which they’re accustomed. By 13, she was good enough to qualify for the Olympics – and probably medal – but age restrictions kept her from the Sochi Games. This gold was four years in the making, and it gave Kim and her team of handlers ample time to mold her image and persona.
There were the between-runs tweets about wanting ice cream and being hangry and the full-throated endorsement of churros as a performance enhancer. There was the cultivation of an Instagram account with such a big audience that her mom begs her to comment on her photos or like them to boost her following. The NBC commercials, the ad campaigns, the sponsorships – all of it followed the formula at which the snowboarding community writ large forever has sneered.
Kim wasn’t a snowboarder who became a star. She was a creation for mass consumption, the evolutionary inevitability of what happens when a sport like snowboarding hits the Olympic mainstream: Within two decades, along comes a manufactured luminary without a whit of the counterculture verve that was long the sport’s essence.
It still exists, to a point, and always will. There is room, too, for Chloe Kim to burn brighter than Sirius, even if what lit her wasn’t made of organic materials. Plenty of time exists for her to understand herself outside of the bubble in which she was built before she knew what it was.
For now, she’s just a kid doing amazing things. As she embraced her parents, reporters jostled for a look, one nearly coming to blows with a pushy photographer trying to capture the scene. Later, the dimples in her cheeks caved beneath a combination of joy and relief. This was over. And this was just starting.
If Kim is lucky, so much, so soon won’t turn into too much, too soon. She’ll keep sticking her tongue out in pictures and will take the SATs and will navigate far harder transitions than any she faces on a snowboard: from girlhood to womanhood, from passenger to driver, from Olympic gold medalist to whatever she pleases. Because while her father lived his American Dream in his homeland Tuesday, Chloe Kim’s story was just beginning.
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