Chloe Kim is on a roll. The 16-year-old snowboarding prodigy has been racking up halfpipe wins like a kid grabbing Skittles from a bowl—and she makes it look that easy. Earlier this month, Kim claimed gold in the halfpipe at the Laax Open in Switzerland, marking her eighth consecutive victory in less than a year. Right now, Kim is the middle of the moment when a breakout performer becomes a revered champion.
There’s only one question lingering as Kim heads into X Games this week in Aspen, Colorado, where she’ll compete in the women’s superpipe finals on Saturday: Can anyone even get close to beating Kim?
“Chloe seems to be dominating the field in women’s snowboarding right now,” Rick Bower, the U.S. snowboarding halfpipe head coach told Excelle Sprots. “She is such a strong competitor because she has very strong riding fundamentals. She can ride switch with almost as much skill as she can going forward—this is very rare and something that she developed through practice as a young up-and-coming snowboarder.”
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Kim’s versatility is a big reason she’s been able to blow snow all over the rest other competition. Before Laax, the Southern California native won the U.S. Grand Prix at Colorado’s Copper Mountain in December. Last year, she claimed gold at the Youth Olympic Games in both slopestyle and halfpipe, becoming the first American woman to win snowboard gold at the event. At last year’s U.S. Grand Prix in Park City, Utah, she took gold by becoming the first woman to land back-to-back 1080s (three full rotations) and earn a perfect score from the judges. And don’t forget her three halfpipe gold medals at X Games, from 2015 in Aspen, Colorado, and 2016 in Aspen and Oslo, Norway.
Her skills aren’t the only way that Kim is taking women’s snowboarding to a whole new level. She’s also sponsored by mega brands like Target and Nike—two deals that would have been unheard of for a female snowboarder a decade ago. She was nominated for an ESPY award in 2016 for Best Breakthrough Athlete, named by Time magazine as one of the 30 Most Influential Teens of 2016, recognized by Forbes as one of the top 30 sports stars under the age of 30 and showcased by Teen Vogue as one of 21 women under 21 who are changing the world.
So really, who can beat her? There’s American veteran Kelly Clark, who’s been competing at the X Games since 2000 and has more medals—a whopping 13—than any other woman in X Games history. Clark, who took fifth place at X Games last year to miss the podium for the first time since 2007, recognizes that Kim is leading the way right now. “When Chloe hit back-to-back 1080s at the Grand Prix … I celebrated that like a victory,” Clark told Sports Illustrated in 2016. “I wasn’t mad because I didn’t do it, because look what we’re doing. In that moment, she was carrying the sport forward. That’s who she is … It’s been great to see her progress and take snowboarding so far.”
There’s also a chance that Arielle Gold, who was runner-up to Kim in Laax, Switzerland, last week, or five-time X Games medalist Elena Hight—the first woman to land a double cork in competition in 2013—could overcome Kim. Less likely but with all the potential is China’s Cai Xuetong, who scored third at the Copper Grand Prix and Laax Open but has yet to podium at X Games.
And according to Coach Bower, Kim is beatable. “I think Kelly Clark with her power and amplitude, Arielle Gold with her unique style and mixed bag of inverts or Maddie Mastro with her precise riding ability all could edge Chloe out if they can manage to put down a clean run and Chloe makes a few mistakes,” he said.
But for any of them to stand a considerable chance at beating Kim this weekend in Aspen, it might take a slip-up from the teenage stalwart who’s not known for making errors.
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When Kim won her first X Games gold in 2015 and unseated Kelly Clark, she was just 14, then the youngest champion in X Games history. Later that year, she crashed into the lip of the pipe during a training run and smashed her face, chipping a tooth. She ended up landing her run smoothly during finals and accepted her gold medal with a bandaged face. “I was definitely surprised because I hadn’t been able to land that run during practice and smashing my face wasn’t very helpful either, but everything worked out in the end,” Kim said about her first gold.
Kim’s parents immigrated to the U.S. from South Korea, settling in the Los Angeles area. She learned to snowboard at age 4 on the slopes of Mountain High, outside of L.A. She moved to Switzerland for a few of years in the third grade, where she learned to throw tricks in the halfpipe and speak her third language, French, to complement her Korean and English.
“I learned so much and it was where I learned most of my pipe tricks,” Kim says about her time in Switzerland. “I think that it was really helpful for me because I was able to go out and ride in a different kind of setting.”
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By age 10, Kim was back in southern California and dedicated to snowboarding. Her father, Jong Jin Kim, who’s still by her side at every competition, offered to drive her the five hours each way every weekend so she could train with elite coaches in the halfpipe at Mammoth Mountain. The effort paid off. In 2014, her breakout year, Kim earned a silver medal at the X Games in her rookie appearance as a spunky 13-year-old.
Kim would have been a medal contender at the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia, but at 13, she wasn’t old enough to compete. She still performs in both slopestyle and halfpipe, but it’s in the pipe where she really shines, boosting out of the icy pipe’s 22-foot walls in a series of dizzying spins and flips.
“Pipe just feels a lot easier for me,” she says. “Something about it clicks with me.”
If she stays on track, Kim will graduate from high school in 2018. And if all goes well, she will contend for a gold medal in the Winter Olympics that same year, which will be held in her parents’ home country of South Korea. “Definitely one of my goals is to compete at the Olympics,” Kim says. “Another goal would be to not let the pressure get to me and to keep having fun.”