Staring down the halfpipe, ready for her third and final run, Chloe Kim hesitated a moment.
The Southern California teenager stamped her snowboard, leaned forward and exhaled hard. Twice.
An athletic prodigy at 17, Kim already clinched her first gold at these 2018 Winter Olympics with a solid first run, but solid wasn’t going to be enough.
“I was like, I can do better than that,” she said. “I can one-up myself.”
Putting an exclamation mark on her victory, Kim became the first woman to land back-to-back 1080s — two triple rotations in a flash — at the Pyeongchang Games, earning a near-perfect score of 98.25 and confirming her dominance in the sport.
“That third run was just for me,” she said. “To show myself that I could do it.”
Tuesday at Phoenix Snow Park was more than just a contest, it was a watershed moment in women’s snowboarding.
By taking the silver with a score of 89.75, Liu Jiayu made good on China’s ardent campaign to reach a world-class level, a project that began with the conversion of young gymnasts and martial artists.
Just as significantly, Arielle Gold of the U.S., who first showed promise at the 2012 Youth Olympics, won the bronze by slipping past teammate Kelly Clark with an 85.75 run at the very end.
Clark is a crucial figure in snowboarding, a woman competing in her fifth Olympics after winning a gold and two bronzes in past trips. Younger riders on the American team consider her a mentor.
“That’s what was bittersweet about it being between Kelly and I for that third spot,” the 21-year-old Gold said. “She’s always been a huge inspiration for me throughout my career, always been looking out for me every step of the way.”
Clark acknowledged that these might be her last Olympics. The 34-year-old talked about a passing of the torch.
“These women are the future of snowboarding,” she said. “They’re just getting started.”
No one embodies that future better than Kim, who figures to become a breakout star in Pyeongchang.
Her story is well known. Growing up in the suburbs of Los Angeles, she first tried snowboarding at age 4 when her father brought her to a local ski resort.
Jong Jin Kim and the rest of the family were at the snow park Tuesday, watching from the base of the hill.
“It was a great moment of my life,” he said. “The first run was nervous … maybe she would fall all three runs.”
That wasn’t likely to happen to a snowboarder who burst onto the scene with an X Games silver at 13. Kim actually qualified for the 2014 Sochi Olympics, but was too young to meet the age requirement.
Almost from the start, she displayed uncanny balance and speed, generating the momentum necessary to launch herself high above the pipe, creating enough time and space for elaborate tricks.
At the 2016 U.S. Grand Prix, she became the first female snowboarder to land the double-1080s and score a perfect 100. That moment has reverberated throughout the sport and could still be felt here at the Games.
Coming into the final, the top 12 competitors knew they would need to take some chances.
“It just shows you the direction women’s snowboarding is going to go,” Gold said. “Now it takes a 1080 or some really creative tricks to get on the podium and it’s great to see.”
As a veteran, Clark reflected on how much more technical and difficult things had become since her gold-medal performance at the 2002 Games in Salt Lake City.
“If I did the run that I won with in Salt Lake,” she said, “I wouldn’t even make the final today.”
So it figured that Kim would keep her foot on the gas for the final trip down the pipe.
The Games had been unnerving, she acknowledged, what with all the expectations and media attention. She had spent a few days beforehand in Japan, doing some casual riding in “pow,” as she calls fresh powder.
Once in Pyeongchang, she tried to stay loose with one of her cherished pastimes — social media.
It is a measure of her growing celebrity that, over the past weeks and months, her Twitter followers have jumped to more than 140,000.
“This whole experience has been insane,” she said. “You hear so much about the Olympics but just being a part of it is a completely different story.”
Like a lot of snowboarders, Kim likes to pump music through her earbuds during competition. It was a Lady Gaga song for the first run and maybe — she could not quite recall — Migos’ “MotorSport” at the end.
Shooting into the pipe, she started with a huge backside air, then transitioned quickly into those 1080s. Next came a 900, a McTwist and a couple more tricks that, despite their apparent difficulty, she described as “pretty mellow.”
Sailing to the bottom of the hill, she threw her hands up momentarily, then grabbed her head as if amazed.
The kid had given a performance for the ages.
“I don’t really know what’s happening — I’m a little overwhelmed,” she said.
“This was the best outcome I could have ever asked for.”
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