When Chloe Kim started snowboarding at the age of 4, she was one of the only Asian-Americans on the slopes. Thirteen years later, she became the youngest woman to win an Olympic gold medal for halfpipe, but the victory has comes with its own pressures. Kim has grown up with a spotlight shining on her because of her magical athletic stunts and has become a symbol of Asian-American representation and a media favorite.
Yet, she's managed to hold her own both on and off the slopes. As Kim puts it in a recent campaign with Panda Express celebrating Asian-American heritage month: "A lot of people have said pretty gnarly things...like I shouldn't be allowed to compete for America...but at the end of the day, I did, and I won."
Besides being a wunderkind and international celebrity, Kim is also a normal teenager who is excited about attending college at Princeton, figuring out how to navigate the world on her own terms, and who likes to kick back with Netflix and ice cream.
espnW hopped on the phone with Chloe Kim in honor of Asian Pacific Heritage Month to discuss success, growing up in the spotlight, and representation.
espnW: How did your parents define success when you were growing up?
Chloe Kim: They always thought if you worked hard you'd be successful. My dad never quit or let me give up or anything like that. I just like what I do, it was never hard to motivate myself. I always wanted to do more. If I didn't like what I did, I'd be miserable in the mountains. I do what I do solely because I love it, and that's all the motivation you need.
espnW: How would you define success outside out of snowboarding?
Kim: I'm the worst person to ask. I haven't found it yet. I'm going to college. I'm going to see what I can do with my life outside of snowboarding. I'll have an answer for you in six years.
espnW: You've been put in a place of representation for Asian-Americans from a very young age. How do you feel about that?
Kim: Every time I'm stepping outside, I have to make sure I'm putting my best foot forward. That's hard sometimes. I ask people not to be so harsh. It has even affected my family. My mom's doing this knitting class and said she has to be careful, she's worried she might say something weird. We're working on it as a collective.
espnW: What are the parts that can get hard?
Kim: Sometimes when I have a bad day, I'll have to lock myself inside. I can't have a bad day. It's so easy now for something to go wrong. Someone will say, 'I met Chloe, she did this, she's a terrible person.' If you have a bad day, you're not always going to be the nicest.
It gets frustrating. I don't owe anyone anything but it feels like I do. I try to be as nice as possible, but sometimes you still get stepped on. I try to be nice to everyone. There are moments where I've met fans and it gives me bad anxiety, but I'm getting better at adapting to it, and working on it. Like right now, I'm sitting at this restaurant and I have eyes on me. I'm working on accepting that that's my life now. It's always going to be like that, I'm always going to be judged. Sometimes I'm like, 'damn, I wish I didn't tweet about churros that one time.'
espnW: Your interviews are always hilarious, poignant and real. Any advice for surviving the spotlight?
Kim: [Laughs] I don't survive it. So, my family is really great. Sometimes when we go and eat, we have a strategic way of sitting at the table so that no one can see me. I don't want to sound like a brat who says she hates her fans, I love my fans. Sometimes though I just want to be left alone. I'm so anxious about what I'm saying, what I'm wearing, or what I look like. It can be really hard.
espnW: What has snowboarding taught you about life?
Kim: It taught me to be patient and not to give up but the fame that came after the Olympics taught me a lot too. It made me realize that some people are out there for the wrong reasons. Some people aren't your friends, and you realize some people need to grow up and mature, and sometimes you need to let go of some people. I've done a lot of growing and healing. I always thought I needed to have a lot of friends and be popular, but now I have two really close friends and some friends in L.A. and I'm good.
Shalene Gupta is currently working on a novel about growing up Chinese-Indian in Minnesota. A former Fortune reporter, with an M.S. from Columbia Journalism School, she is currently a freelance writer living in Boston. Follow her @ShaleneGupta.