At age 6, Chloe Kim earned three bronze medals at a snowboarding competition. The following year, she started to fall in love with the sport and attracted interest from a high-profile coach.
She reacts like a star-struck teen, gushing as one of her heroes approaches her in a hotel lobby.
Someone offers to take the teen’s camera and snap a posed picture of the two of them. But the teen immediately rebuffs.
“It’s all about the selfies,” the teen says, extending her left arm while simultaneously going cheek-to-cheek with the legend.
This moment transpired four years ago in Breckenridge, Colorado. The hero was Kelly Clark, the most decorated female snowboard ever, including an Olympic champion. The teen was Chloe Kim, a then 13-year-old prodigy who stunned many as the top qualifier for the U.S. Grand Prix Finals that week.
For a number of reasons, Kim has already secured her place as one of the stars of the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympics.
Her parents are immigrants from South Korea, and they sacrificed plenty to pave her path to snowboard stardom; she dominated a popular event, notching the highest qualifying score, tallying the top score of any competitor with a 93.75 then topping herself on the final run of the halfpipe with a 98.25; and she did all that with gusto and panache, tweeting comedic posts about ice cream and churros between runs.
“Chloe's an outstanding snowboarder, but I'm more proud of her for how she's handled herself as a person,” Clark, who finished fourth, told USA Today. “She's handled success and pressure with grace and class, and it's refreshing.”
The stories about her focused on her father, Jong Jin, who famously gave up his job as an engineer when she was 10 years old so he could ensure she could train more rigorously, or her becoming the first female to land consecutive 1080s on a single run, or her being a Korean-American superstar at the Olympics in her family’s native land.
But Kim’s story also provides some important lessons for parents of young, passionate athletes:
Support, don’t push
Initially, Jong nudged Chloe into the sport. He enjoyed skiing, but he wasn’t very good, so he switched to snowboarding. No one else in their family seemed interested, so he dragged Chloe along. He bought her first snowboard off eBay for $25.
“We learned together,” he said. “When she was 4, I took her on the lift, then we’d fall together."
Chloe didn’t take to the sport right away.
“I was forced into it,” she said.
Jong backed off.
But, at age 6, Chloe earned three bronze medals at a competition. The following year, she started to fall in love with the sport and attracted interest from a high-profile coach.
“‘Your daughter has a lot of talent,’” Benjamin Wisner, the director of the snowboard and freeski teams at Mammoth Mountain in California, told Chloe’s mother, Boran Yun.
About a year later, Chloe headed to Australia – where Wisner is from – to train with other promising snowboarders.
Chloe entered competitions, and she consistently won or at least medaled.
She reveled in the success.
“If I sucked,” she says, “I wouldn’t have kept doing it.”
Jong arrived in the U.S. in 1982 with $800 to his name. He worked first as a dishwasher then as a cashier before enrolling in college and earning an engineering degree.
Though living in Torrance, a suburb of Los Angeles, Jong drove Chloe up to Mammoth Mountain as often as he could. The drive was 5 1/2 hours, one way.
When she was 10, Chloe wanted to train more and more, and long road trips weren’t feasible with his work schedule.
So he quit his engineering job so Chloe could train four to six hours a day, five days a week.
Wisner said Chloe’s work ethic was special.
“She works really, really, really hard,” Wisner said. “That’s how she’s gotten to where she is, by putting in the hard work.”
Kim was obviously talented enough, at 13, to compete at the 2014 Sochi Olympics. But her father and coach didn’t complain (the Olympics bar any competitor under the age of 15) or lobby for any exceptions to be made for her.
“I want Chloe to be a little girl, for her to have fun,” Wisner said before the 2014 Olympics. “Everyone wants to push her into the Olympics, but she’s got a big future ahead of her, and there’s no reason to rush anything because she’ll dominate half pipe for years to come.”
Barely a teenager, Chloe started to medal against veteran snowboarders.
“I thought this would happen when I was, like, 15,” Chloe said when she 13.
Yet she didn’t seem the least bit fazed about not being able to compete at the 2014 Sochi Olympics, falling in line with her coach and father.
“Honestly, I don’t really care,” she said at the time.
That Clark was so approachable to Chloe in the hotel lobby in Breckenridge wasn’t an isolated incident; the legend was always that way, known universally for balancing her fierce competitiveness with a kind and caring personality.
Clark regularly encouraged and mentored younger snowboarders. Chloe also admired Torah Bright, the 2010 Vancouver Olympics halfpipe gold medalist.
“It’s not really weird because I talk to them,” Chloe said. “They’re really nice.”
Chloe finished 19th at her first U.S. Open of Snowboarding, in 2012. The following year, she moved up to 12th. But she started to break through in 2013 then earned a silver medal in the superpipe at the 2014 Winter X Games, behind Clark.
In 2015, Chloe earned the gold medal at the event, topping Clark.
She’s dominated ever since. When she first landed back-to-back 1080s in a competition, Chloe earned 100 points, becoming only the second rider ever — following Shaun White — to earn a perfect score.
Four years ago, Chloe's excitement about the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics centered on a fitting topic.
“I’m excited for the food,” Chloe said at the time, “because I heard the food there is really good. So I won’t even be practicing. I’ll just be in the cafeteria eating.”