PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — When Chloe Kim arrived at Incheon International Airport for the Winter Olympics, she had to use a different exit than originally planned.
“That never happens to me in America, where I have too much press at the airport waiting for me,” said Kim, the 17-year-old snowboarding phenom.
The Long Beach, Calif., native has good reason to demand a crowd of media here. Not only is she a four-time X Games halfpipe champion, the first woman to land back-to-back 1080s, and the first woman to score a perfect 100, but her parents are from South Korea, immigrating to the United States more than two decades ago.
“Competing at my first Olympics in a country where my parents came from, it’s pretty insane,” she said.
Kim, who could not qualify for the Sochi Olympics in 2014 because of age requirements, anticipated being stressed out upon arrival at these Games. Although a regular visitor here — about once a year to see family — she had been warned there would be an uptick in attention this time. But you would not be able to tell by talking to her. Kim’s mellow tone with occasional inflections of excitement conveys an easygoing disposition that is synonymous, no matter how cliché, with her hometown.
“SoCal, baby,” she says with a smile as she shimmies her shoulders and elongates the “y” sound. Her poise and personality are showcased with seemingly relative ease in a swarm of microphones, television cameras, and questions at her arrival news conference, held in a large concert hall-like venue.
She acknowledges the chaos, but is undaunted.
“I think . . . whooo,” she said at one point, pausing to take a second before continuing. “It’s kind of crazy. I think this is the craziest place I’ve been so far, just all of these cameras and like the media village days, too, have been pretty crazy, but it’s all part of the experience.”
Her first few days here, she hung out in the Athletes’ Village with her teammates, whom she raved about. They went to a water park, where she translated for her teammates, a role she reprised when cleaners came to the snowboard team’s accommodation. (She hated learning Korean growing up, but did so at her parents’ insistence, along with French.)
When she first tried on her Olympic uniform, she was almost brought to tears, flooded with emotion thinking of the sacrifices her family has made to help her reach this dream she has had “since I was a baby.” (Her father, Jong Jin Kim, is a former engineer who left his job 10 years ago to help his youngest of three daughters chase this snowy aspiration.)
“It was just, like, you know, you made it, and we basically went through hell and back to get here,” she said.
She has not been in Southern California a lot lately. When she has been, it was for half a day to repack before leaving again for competition.
“Nothing feels homey, but something about a halfpipe just,” she says, pausing for two seconds before continuing, “makes you feel at home.”
But three days before the ladies’ snowboarding halfpipe final, Kim is finally back home — on the halfpipe — for her second day of training at Phoenix Snow Park. Her father is there to watch the 2½-hour session. Wearing neon orange Oakley goggles, a coat the color of red brick, and black snow pants, with an underlayer hood pulled over his head, he eagerly greeted Chloe after each of her practice runs.
Sometimes it was a high-five with an outstretched hand over a temporary blue fence cordoning off the viewing area at the bottom of the pipe. Sometimes he threw both arms over his head and pumped his fists. Sometimes he simply clapped. Each time, she flashed a huge smile his way as she motored by to head back to the lift for another run.
“I can’t express how much I love my dad,” she said two days earlier. “I always get teary-eyed when I talk about him because he’s so great.”
In between Chloe’s practice runs, he paced the viewing area, pausing occasionally to fiddle with shovels leaned against a fence, toss fistfuls of snow in the air to test the wind, or lean against a fence pole to watch the other athletes make their way down the pipe.
After one run, he took off running to meet her beyond the end of the fence. They spoke for a few moments as she unbuckled her board to propel herself over to the lift. After the next run, she called out “Papa!” as he again made his way to meet her, this time just walking, to give her more instruction. On her final practice run, she fell about halfway down the pipe. She crouched over, elbows on her knees, and slid down the rest of the pipe.
“I’m just tired,” she said standing next to her dad as they looked up at the hill and talked. He gave her more instruction, motioning his arms this way and that way, and delivered a gentle push on her back as she started to back toward the lift. Her last pass down the pipe on this day was straight down the middle with her backpack in tow.
“I’m really happy with it,” she said to him after finishing for the day. They discussed how she might piece together her runs, how she was still trying to get a good feel for the pipe.
“I’ll call you later tonight,” she told him.
They chatted for just a little bit longer. Then father and daughter hugged once more, this time a little bit longer, before she boarded out of sight.