Chloe Kim’s appeal is easy to understand. With a snowboard strapped to her feet, she can twirl and flip and generally send eyeballs rattling in sockets better than any teenage girl who ever has set foot on snow. A four-time X Games champion, she already might be an Olympic medalist if rules didn’t bar her from competing at the Sochi Games four years ago as a 13-year-old.
But talent is only part of the equation. Kim comes equipped with a bubbly personality — candid, eager and relatable — and a Korean heritage that makes her marketable at home and abroad. NBC long ago tabbed her as one of the faces of the PyeongChang Games, featuring her in a promotion that aired during the Super Bowl. Nike plans to feature her in a campaign on the ground in South Korea this month, and among her myriad sponsors is a South Korean-based cosmetics company. Oh, and she speaks English, French and Korean.
“You’d be hard-pressed to create a more promising brand spokeswoman in a lab,” Sports Business Journal declared this month.
How unique and marketable is she? Consider this: Kim obtained her California driving permit in November 2015. Barely five months passed before she signed a major sponsorship deal with Toyota, just days after her 16th birthday.
Kim, now 17, could emerge from these Olympics as a transcendent athlete — in the vein of a young Shaun White or Michael Phelps even — but she enters them already comfortable with who she is. Her Korean-born parents immigrated here more than 20 years ago, and she will have no shortage of extended family members gathering around the PyeongChang halfpipe. Despite her close ties to the host nation, Kim feels little internal struggle over cultural identity.
“I’m so used to America, used to the traffic in L.A., and I don’t really feel it click with the Korean culture,” she explained recently. “But obviously I have a Korean face, and I feel like that’s just — you know, I can’t walk around people like I’m, like, straight-up American. It’s like, I’m Korean American. My parents are from Korea.
“I don’t know. It’s weird. I just grew up in the States, so I feel like I identify more with the American culture.”
Identity is always a curious thing at the Olympics, especially as nations increasingly recruit athletes from around the globe, sometimes with only tenuous ties to their country. That Jamaican bobsled team competing in PyeongChang? One member is from New Jersey. The Nigerian sled will feature women from Texas, Illinois and Minnesota. The South Koreans will field nearly 20 athletes from other countries, and about three dozen U.S.-born athletes will be representing other nations at these Olympics.
There’s little confusion for Kim, the chatty SoCal teen with blond highlights, active social media presence and unlimited athletic potential whom the world is about to meet.
“I always get the question, like, ‘Where are you from?’ L.A. ‘No, where are you really from?’ I was born in Long Beach. ‘No, no, like, where are you really, really from?’ ” she said. “. . . I always get that question. It’s never, like, my first answer would be, ‘I’m from Korea,’ or, like, ‘I’m Korean.’ It’s always, like, ‘I’m American.’ ”
Kim’s parents met in Switzerland when both were working for travel agencies. Jong Jin Kim and his wife, Boran, found their way to Southern California, where he studied engineering and the couple raised their three daughters.
Chloe is the youngest and was all of 4 years old when she snowboarded for the first time. Jong took her to Mountain High resort in the San Gabriel Mountains outside of Los Angeles.
“He wanted my mom to go with him,” she explained. “So he took me as bait.”
Kim showed promise on a snowboard early, entering her first competition at 6 and winning junior nationals a year later. Even when she moved to Switzerland for two years at age 8, she made regular treks to the Alps. She would wake up at 4 a.m., take two trains to reach a halfpipe in France and continue her training.
“It was kind of crazy now that I think about it,” she said with a laugh.
When she returned to the States, she joined a developmental program at Mammoth Mountain, and her potential started to come into focus. By then, the Olympics were a distant goal for the family, and Kim’s father quit his engineering job to help make it a reality.
“Obviously, when I was 8, I had no idea what he was doing,” Kim said. “It was, like, ‘Why is Dad home more?’ You know? But now that I think about it, you know, I feel like it was a really bold move, and I can’t believe my mom was okay with it.”
The Kims started home-schooling and doing online courses with their daughter in middle school, and every weekend Jong would drive 5½ hours from their home in La Palma to Mammoth so Kim could learn from the best. Their lives suddenly seemed to revolve around a dream, which Kim said startled some of their relatives back in Korea.
“I think at first it was a little hard for them to support it,” she said, “because, you know, I feel like a Korean’s ideal thing is their kid being, like, a lawyer, a doctor.”
Anyone who saw her on the snow, though, understood. Kim was soon entering bigger competitions, steadily posting higher scores and drawing more attention along the way, from other competitors and potential sponsors.
“Chloe is one of the most talented young snowboarders I’d ever seen,” said Kelly Clark, who is heading to her fifth Winter Olympics. “I remember talking to Burton [a snowboard manufacturer] about her when I first saw her in Mammoth. I said, ‘Hey, I’ve never suggested that you pick up any athlete — except for this girl. This girl is someone you should sponsor and you should get behind. She has the potential to go very far.’ ”
The Sochi Games were not an option because the Olympics bar anyone younger than 15 from competing, but 2014 still marked the year Kim announced herself as one of the world’s best in the halfpipe, winning silver at the X Games at just 13.
It meant she had four years to prepare for her first Winter Games, and the Olympic world had four years to prepare for her.
Since she was small, Kim has visited her family in Korea almost every year. She enjoys going out with cousins there, sampling local cuisine and taking a break from her sport. “It’s cool. I feel like I have another life,” she said.
Even back in California, she never feels too far removed from Korean culture.
“Since I travel with my parents, my mom is always cooking Korean food,” she says. “So it’s, like, I always want American food. It’s like, I need In-N-Out. We need to go to Chipotle. KFC, where are you at?”
Her most recent visit to Korea came in February 2017, when the U.S. State Department tapped her as a special envoy for a goodwill tour. It was her first taste of how she might be received at these PyeongChang Games.
“It was actually really crazy; I had, like, a paparazzi moment there,” she said, “which was, like, kind of cool. I felt like Kim Kardashian. . . . I look up, and there’s like 25 cameras around.”
Snowboarding is still a growing sport in South Korea. Since 1992, the country has won 53 medals across eight Winter Olympics. All but two have come in speedskating or short-track speedskating. The host nation might only compete for a handful of medals at these Olympics, but Kim gives Koreans someone else to root for.
“I think people know that she’s from the USA, but her background is Korean. We can distinguish that she’s American,” said Im Bomi, a sports reporter for Dong-A Ilbo, one of the country’s largest daily newspapers. “But we respect that she’s a talented snowboarder who speaks Korean and who shares common things with us.”
In South Korea, headlines regularly refer to her as the “genius snowboarder” and highlight her Korean roots, noting her fondness for eating spicy rice cakes — a common after-school snack — and her predilection for K-pop groups such as Girls’ Generation, Shinee and Super Junior.
“She’s just like a South Korean teenager,” the Hankook Ilbo newspaper reported.
She has also become a role model for kids in the country. The U.S. Embassy in Seoul produced a video called “Just Like Chloe Kim,” featuring young Korean girls who want to snowboard like the Korean American teenager. Her goodwill trip last year included visiting the mountains, touring the U.S. Embassy, meeting local reporters and chatting with Korean college students.
“I’m, like, finishing up high school. I don’t know how you can learn anything from me because I’m still, like, a teenager,” she recalled. “I don’t know what I’m doing with my life.”
She was plenty familiar with the people, the culture and the sprawling city of Seoul but was still taken aback by the attention, each stop reinforcing to her what she is and what she isn’t.
“I was in Korea for media,” she said, by way of example, “and they do my face so pale. I had so much makeup on my neck to make it look like I’m pale. But, like, my hands are this color, and I’m not pale. . . . It’s definitely really different, and it’s kind of shocking to get used to, I guess.”
Back in the United States, she’s more well known, her face already ever-present on NBC promos in the weeks leading into the Olympics and her fan base bigger than any single demographic. “I got mail from a prison once,” she said with a laugh.
Kim is still among the youngest competitors at most competition stops, and she will wrap up her final year of high school this spring. She is applying to colleges and knows the next phase of her life — with or without an Olympic medal — will be different.
For now, she travels with both parents and has a publicist and a high-profile agent. She is backed by many big-name Olympic brands — Visa, Samsung and Oakley among them — but seems unaffected by the expectations that might be accompanying her to PyeongChang.
When she is entering the pipe, she is not thinking about any of that, of course. She rides up the 22-foot-high wall, climbing and climbing, before launching into the air. Kim spins and she flips and, for what can feel like several seconds, she looks like even gravity can’t pull her back down to Earth.
Min Jung Kim in Seoul contributed to this report.
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