Updated: January 19, 2022 3:08 PM EST | Originally published: January 19, 2022 12:00 PM EST

After Chloe Kim returned home from the 2018 Olympics in South Korea, she put her gold medal in what felt at the time like the right place: a trash bin at her parents’ house.

“I hated life,” Kim, now 21, recalls over plates of pad thai in the airy four-bedroom home in the west side of Los Angeles she shares with her boyfriend, skateboarder Evan Berle. It’s early December, and a 10-ft. Christmas tree with an ornament featuring the paw print of her beloved mini Australian shepherd, Reese, looms over the living room. Upstairs, a mishmash of snowboarding awards are piled into a box, since Kim and Berle haven’t built enough shelving to display all the hardware. But it wouldn’t be surprising if many of them stay there. Kim has a conflicted relationship with the plaudits she has racked up on her path from child halfpipe prodigy to the world’s top female snowboarder. And none weighed heavier on her than the gold medal from the Olympics in PyeongChang.

It didn’t stay in the garbage for long. But fame came fast and hard for Kim, whose gravity-defying twists and flips made her the youngest female Olympic gold medalist in snowboarding history. She was an unguarded 17-year-old, quick with a smile and a joke (her tweets about eating churros and feeling “hangry” during the competition were the stuff of a viral marketer’s dream). Suddenly, she was making the rounds of late-night shows, got a Barbie doll designed in her likeness and was shouted out by Frances McDormand at the Oscars. In South Korea, where Kim’s parents were born and her extended family still lives, she was celebrated as a hero. The Seoul Broadcasting System created a short documentary on her.

Photograph by Bryan Huynh Collective for TIME

Beneath the adulation, Kim was still a teenager living with her parents, struggling with the constraints of sudden celebrity and the post-Olympic depression common to elite athletes who spend their lives training for a moment that comes only once every four years. She remembers it hit her shortly after PyeongChang, when she went to a Corner Bakery near her family home in Southern California. Kim was wearing mismatched pajamas and unmade hair—she was just out to grab a sandwich. But when she walked in, everyone turned around to stare. She panicked, ran out of the store and drove away. “The minute I come home, I can’t even go to my goddamn favorite place,” Kim says, remembering what it felt like. “It makes you angry. I just wanted a day where I was left alone. And it’s impossible. And I appreciate that everyone loves and supports me, but I just wish people could understand what I was going through up to that point. Everyone was like, ‘I just met her, and she’s such a bitch.’ I’m not a bitch. I just had the most exhausting two months of my life, and the minute I get home I’m getting hassled. I just want to get my f-cking ham and cheese sandwich and go.”

Bubbly is Kim’s “big brand,” she says, her fingers making air quotes as she speaks the words. And it has helped make her extraordinarily successful off the mountain: her annual endorsement income is in the mid-seven figures, according to an industry source. Kim is, indeed, warm in conversation, genuinely friendly and easy to laugh. But four years of growing up in the spotlight have both hardened her exterior and made her willing to reveal what’s going on behind the perma-smile. Kim now speaks openly about the racism she experienced competing in a mostly white sport, and how hate crimes against Asian Americans have left her feeling vulnerable and scared. She embraced therapy after the pandemic made her recognize the need to tend to her mental health. And she took time off from snowboarding to attend college, hoping to experience life like a normal teenager.

“I don’t care anymore,” Kim says, wrapping up lunch. “I guess I would tell my younger self that even though things get hard and people are mean to you or whatever, it’ll get better and you’re going to realize that you have so much good happening in your life, that the bad isn’t going to hurt you. It’s just annoying. It’s like an annoying mosquito in the background, just flying around.”

Kim, photographed in Los Angeles in December, will defend gold in Beijing
Photograph by Bryan Huynh Collective for TIME

What hasn’t changed for Kim is her dominance on the halfpipe. In PyeongChang, Kim became the first woman to land back-to-back 1080s—three full rotations in the air—at an Olympics, and a few months later she was the first woman to land a front-side double cork 1080—essentially flipping herself upside down twice during an aerial rotation—in a halfpipe. “She’s pushing the boundaries of what’s possible for women’s snowboarding,” says Arielle Gold, the recently retired U.S. snowboarder who won bronze in 2018. “She’s doing tricks that some of the men don’t even want to. It’s pretty crazy. She is the greatest women’s snowboarder of all time, by far.”

At the Beijing Olympics, which start Feb. 4, Kim is the overwhelming favorite to win gold. NBC will feature her in prime-time coverage, and blue-chip companies—Nike, Toyota and Procter & Gamble are among the sponsors that make Kim the highest-paid female snowboarder in history—have built ad campaigns around her. Few roles carry more pressure than being an Olympic front runner—fall short, and you have to wait four years for a shot at redemption. But if Kim thrived in PyeongChang in part because she hadn’t experienced the full wattage of global superstardom, she’s ready for Beijing because she’s now faced it head-on. By freeing herself of the happy-go-lucky facade, embracing the scars and struggles of the past four years and living her authentic self off the halfpipe, the real Chloe Kim is ready for her moment.

Kim waves the U.S. flag after winning Olympic Gold in Pyeongchang
Loic Venance—AFP/Getty Images

Kim is an unlikely addition to snowboarding’s Mount Rushmore. Her family didn’t grow up riding; her dad Jong Jin took up snowboarding as a hobby and took Chloe along. As she improved, Jong Jin would wake her up around 1 a.m. on Saturdays for the more than five-hour drive north from Orange County to Mammoth Mountain so Chloe could practice. Jong Jin, who years later quit his job as a manufacturing engineer to support Chloe’s career, scooped her up out of bed, carried her to the car and buckled three seat belts on her in the back seat of his Honda Pilot. “I was just like a mummy, strapped down,” says Chloe. “Then I would wake up and I’d be in Mammoth.”

Those long drives paid off. She started working with the U.S. national team at 13. Kim was usually the only Asian American on the mountain, which at times felt isolating. When she was a national-team rookie, she attended a team dinner at another athlete’s house. Everyone put their dishes in the dishwasher; but Kim had never used a dishwasher before, so she stood nervous and frozen, not knowing what to do. “We did everything by hand in my Korean household,” Kim says. “I waited for everyone to go somewhere else. And then I just scrubbed my dishes by hand and frantically searched for where to put them back. It was embarrassing. Those moments are kind of like, ‘Oh, I come from a very different place.’”

The alienation she felt was deepened by vitriol on social media. After Kim won her first major medal, a halfpipe silver at the 2014 X Games, she posted a picture of the prize on Instagram. In her direct messages, Kim says, people told her to go back to China and chastised her for taking medals away from white Americans on the team. She was 13. “I ended up crying myself to sleep on the best night of my life,” Kim says, recalling the memory while slinking into her cushy white living–room couch. “At that point, you’re like, ‘O.K., who can I turn to? Who has probably dealt with this before?’ I would constantly look for anyone. But there was no one.”

At 13, snagging Silver at the 2014 Winter X Games
RJ Sangosti—The Denver Post/Getty Images

Kim would have made the U.S. team at the 2014 Winter Olympics were it not for the minimum age requirement of 15. Four years later in PyeongChang, she more than made up for lost time. Kim landed her back-to-back 1080s in her final run, even though she had already clinched gold. The win cemented Kim’s celebrity in two countries, and the crowds in South Korea mobbed her whenever she left the Olympic Village. When the family went out, Kim’s parents and two sisters huddled around her to protect her from prying eyes. The crush of sponsor and media obligations left just one night to actually celebrate her win with her South Korean relatives. “The night before leaving Korea, we all gathered at our home, and Chloe’s grandmother got to try on the medal,” says Kim’s mother Boran. “We each got to try it on. So we celebrated in that way. But at that moment, I think Chloe was going through a very hard time.”

Kim did enjoy some of the surreal trappings of fame. Michael Keaton texted her congratulations. “Thanks, Batman,” she says now. McDormand said that winning an Oscar “is what Chloe Kim must have felt like after doing back-to-back 1080s in the Olympic halfpipe.” At a packed afterparty for the 2018 ESPY Awards, where Kim won Female Athlete of the Year, the rapper G-Eazy handed her the mic and asked her to rap Cardi B’s vocal section of his song “No Limit.” She nailed it.

But as Kim returned to competition, she started to lose her love of the sport. She says teammates (Kim won’t say who) who resented her success began to bully her on social media. She broke her ankle at the U.S. Open in March 2019. “I was so burnt out, I just couldn’t do it anymore,” says Kim. “I felt a little lost. I was in a pretty low, dark place.”


It was time for something new. Kim, who had been homeschooled while traveling the world for competitions, decided to take a break from snowboarding and go to college instead. She enrolled at Princeton University in the fall of 2019. She went, in part, to escape her celebrity. But fame was hard to shake, even on an Ivy League campus that counts princes and Presidents among its alumni. During her first night on campus, Kim attended an ice cream social. “As I was leaving, the girls came up to me, they’re like, ‘Chloe, can we get a picture, can we get a picture, can we get a picture?’” she says. “And I was like, ‘I don’t want to be here as the snowboarder. I want to be here as a student. I want to be like everyone else. I want to be normal.’ That’s why I came here. And I was like, ‘No, you can’t get a photo with me. I don’t want this to be a thing, because it’s going to make me uncomfortable.’ And immediately after that, everyone was like, ‘Oh, she’s such a bitch. Blah blah blah.’”

Kim immediately had regrets. “She’d call us and say, ‘Mom, people are staring at me and I feel so uncomfortable,’” says Boran. “She’d call crying.” Kim began to avoid the dining halls and other common areas—the very places where friendships are formed. “We were eating off campus a lot,” says Christian Pollard, a junior premed student who didn’t know who Kim was when they met as first-year students. “She didn’t want to put herself in that space.”

With her mother Boran at 12
Courtesy Chloe Kim

Kim says she asked that her dorm and room number be taken off Tigerbook, a directory that listed students’ addresses on campus. “I’ve had my fair share of stalker issues,” Kim says. Tigerbook removed addresses for all students, citing university privacy restrictions. Kim says she heard classmates blaming her for the policy change. “Every time I did something for myself,” Kim says, “it ended up being a whole issue.”

Things improved as the semester wore on and the novelty of having a gold medalist on campus wore off. Kim shifted her interest from chemistry, which she found too difficult, to anthropology. And she sought out friends who didn’t know much about her. Pollard, who grew up on an Alabama cattle farm, texted Kim during Princeton’s first snowfall, wondering if her friend from Southern California had ever seen the powdery white stuff before.

Perhaps most importantly, college let Kim be around other talented, driven people who didn’t always succeed. After years of chasing perfection, it was a revelation. “Everyone around me was falling apart when it came time to do an exam,” Kim says. “It’s a sh-t show. People are hiding away in the darkest part of the library until 3 in the morning, and then coming out like zombies at 7 and doing it all over again. That was great. It was just like, ‘I need this. I need to see other amazing people fall apart.’”

After the pandemic shut down campus in March 2020, Kim chose to return to competitive snowboarding. She hasn’t ruled out going back—which would make her mother happy. “I’d like Chloe to go to Princeton,” says Boran. “But Chloe’s happiness comes first. Chloe is now 21 years old and she can make decisions on her own, so I support her decisions.”

Kim, at age 6, snowboarding in California
Courtesy Chloe Kim

But Kim’s short time at school has had a lasting effect. She credits it with helping her be open to seeing a therapist and processing some of the fear and anger she has as a result of racist messages like the one from April: “You dumb Asian bitch,” it read. “Kiss my ass.” Similar slurs regularly fill her social feeds. That hate, combined with the rise in anti-Asian violence, has been scarring. “I’m scared to do anything by myself, and it sucks,” Kim says. “I feel trapped.” When she’s out to dinner with family, they often call her a fake name so as not to draw attention. They’ve tried Jenny. And Cindy. “It works,” Tracy, Kim’s older sister, says, “most of the time.”

Kim says therapy has been key to helping her unlock feelings she has long kept inside. “Just being able to let those things out that you just tuck in your little secret part of your heart helps a lot,” she says. “I feel much more at peace now.”


As the Beijing Games have drawn nearer, Kim’s focus has intensified. Always committed to training in the snow, she started hitting the gym with purpose too. Kim’s trainer, Roy Chan, has Kim doing single-leg squats and other core exercises to make sure she can sustain the force of her landings. “She pretty much doesn’t take any days off,” Chan says. “In a lot of cases, athletes sometimes just fall out of love with the extracurricular work that they need to sustain their season. But with Chloe that’s not the case.”

Kim feels the weight of expectation. And she knows her situation is not that different from Simone Biles’ before the Tokyo Olympics in July. Their acrobatic sports have frightening similarities too: if Kim’s mind isn’t right during a routine, she risks life-threatening damage. Pretending that the parallels with Biles don’t exist “is the worst thing you can do,” says Kim’s coach, Rick Bower, who also led the U.S. national halfpipe team from 2010 through last season. “To talk about it as it comes up, and not push it away or anything, that’s our plan.”

Kim says Biles’ decision to withdraw from competition in Tokyo rather than risk injury is a source of strength for her and other athletes. “Having that comfort knowing that, ‘Hey, I’m doing something really dangerous, or I’m doing something that is hard on my body, if I mentally can’t do it, then I shouldn’t,’” says Kim. “It’s in my best interest. Showing the world that you have to put yourself first and give up something like an Olympic gold medal, that was very touching and inspirational.”

For now, her plans for Beijing include unveiling three new tricks. “I’m so excited,” she says. “They’re an upgrade from everything I’ve done.” She won’t say more, which makes sense, but also demurs when asked more generally about the Winter Games. “Don’t have too many expectations,” she says softly. “Just let me vibe. I’m just trying to chill.” She gives it a beat. Then, in a more forceful voice, Chloe Kim gets real. “No, I’m just kidding. You just expect a lot out of me. I’m going to go off.”

With reporting by Sangsuk Sylvia Kang, Nik Popli and Simmone Shah

Set Design by Amy Jo Diaz; Styling by Brit + Kara; Hair by Kylee Heath; Make-up by Kip Zachary

 

Correction, Jan. 19
A photo caption in the original version of this story misstated Chloe Kim’s age. She was 6 when snowboarding in California, not 4.

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