PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — Chloe Kim walked behind a dais Tuesday afternoon and sat down to face the assembled media, beaming a megawatt smile, trailing behind a relatively anonymous friend and teammate. Kim’s story is remarkable, but it is also straightforward. She worked hard, had extraordinarily dedicated parents supporting her, and refined supreme athletic gifts until she became, at age 17, the best snowboarder in the world, a bicontinental superstar and an inspiration to children of immigrants. Her path was blinding, but it was also straight.
Next to Kim sat Arielle Gold, a 21-year-old from Steamboat Springs, Colo., obscured by the mighty shadow Kim had cast on both the PyeongChang Olympics and the sport. While the United States celebrated and venerated Kim for her magnetic gold medal performance in the women’s halfpipe that morning, Gold had seized her own achievement, lesser in prominence but richer in other qualities, such as resolve and unlikelihood.
Gold won the bronze medal with a sizzling third and final run, barging her way on the podium one day after stealing the final qualifying spot and two runs after falling into last place in the final. Kim had started to grapple with international fame. Gold had begun to process a quiet satisfaction. They were doing so side by side.
“Being on the podium with one of my good friends is always a plus,” Kim said. “I’m so happy we get to go through this together.”
Gold had been to the Olympics before, but she had not competed in them until Monday’s qualification round. On a training run on Sochi’s criticized halfpipe, she tumbled and dislocated her shoulder. Gold had performed well enough at preceding events to be considered a medal threat. But the freak injury, at the worst time, knocked her out of the Games.
“Definitively a tough experience,” Gold said. “I think it made me that much stronger for this Olympics. It definitely set the bar low for what I wanted to do here.”
Gold’s PyeongChang Olympics did not start with disaster but still included wicked trepidation. In Monday’s qualifying round, she spilled early in her first run, leaving her fate entirely up to her second go. She landed every trick but received a mediocre 62.75, a score that sent Ricky Bower, coach of the U.S. halfpipe team, into the judges’ trailer looking for an explanation.
The score put her in 11th place, and only the top 12 scores advanced. She had to wait and hope as 10 more riders came down the pipe. Only one surpassed 62.75, bumping her to 12th — the final spot in qualifying.
“I was just excited to have another opportunity to ride that halfpipe,” Gold said. “Just really had the goal of laying down a couple good runs.”
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The finish placed Gold in the unenviable position of going first in the final. She started the competition in inauspicious fashion: She fell and earned the worst score of any rider. She landed clean in the second trip, moving up to fourth. Gold started her final run with a frontside 1080, a trick she learned just a couple of months before PyeongChang. The move propelled her to an 85.75, thrusting her into third, where she would remain.
Having won a medal, Gold gave partial credit to her sour experience in Sochi. It allowed better mental and physical preparation for these Games. Even before she dislocated her shoulder in Sochi, she said, she didn’t enjoy the experience, too tense about producing results and focused only on snowboarding.
“Before I even competed, I had already had way more fun at this Olympics than at Sochi,” Gold said. “That in itself was a victory. Going home with some hardware definitely doesn’t hurt, either.”
Gold probably could wear that bronze medal around her neck in Times Square with little disruption. Kim, conversely, attained a new level of celebrity.
“Someone told me congrats on the gold medal,” Kim said. “I was like, huh. I don’t really know what that means.”
She is about to find out. Even her father, Jong Jin, had acquired a measure of fame: Clips of him sipping a beer at the finish line had circulated on social media.
“My dad always likes drinking a beer,” Kim said. “Cracking a couple cold ones with the boys.”
When Tuesday evening’s news conference ended, Kim rose from the dais and exhaled, “Oh, my God.” She is in the middle of a cyclone, but it helps, she said, to be there with Gold. Kim has known Gold since she was 12, and in recent years they have gotten closer. They lived together in the Athletes’ Village. Kim illustrated a typical exchange:
“I’ll walk into her room and be like, ‘Yo, you want to get pizza?’ ‘I’m down.’ It’s nice to have someone. It’s so fun to have a buddy.”
“Having someone to beat her five times in a row in pool,” Gold quipped.
“Okay,” Kim replied, “I scratched every time on the eight ball. Let’s not go too far.”
Through the initial intensity of obligations, Kim has maintained her teenage spunk. Between her second and third runs in the final, she famously tweeted that she wished she had finished her breakfast sandwich, which had left her “hangry.” A reporter was incredulous that she had tweeted while in competition, which made Kim regard him as if he had been transported from prehistory.
“Like, what else am I supposed to do?” Kim asked. “Watching the contest just makes me more nervous and anxious. It’s when you’re just waiting there, when you’re supposed to go to the theme park and your parents are taking forever.”
Kim revealed why she did not finish that breakfast sandwich: The sandwich was cold. She happily reported that she was, after pizza and a latte, satiated.
Kim’s run immediately entered into snowboarding legend, a 98.25 that included consecutive 1080s, a first in the Olympics. Because she went last, and therefore there was no reason to leave room for a competitor to improve upon her run, it opened the possibility for judges to award a perfect 100. But she never considered aiming for the feat, and in fact, she believes such a mark would cut against the ethos of her sport.
“I don’t really care that much about the score,” Kim said. “Even when I did get the 100 in Park City, it wasn’t even that. I was stoked I landed the back-to-back [1080s]. I don’t think a perfect score is real. I don’t think you can do perfect. There’s always a way to one-up it.”
That might not be possible, but if it is, the world will be waiting to find out how. On Tuesday afternoon, at least, when she left the room and headed toward her next obligation, Kim had a friend next to her who had her own story to tell.
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