Before she even reached the age of 16, snowboarder Chloe Kim made history. Kim, now 21, became the only athlete in X Games history to earn three gold medals before her 16th birthday. It wouldn't be long until Kim continued making history and captivating the sports world.
In 2018 at the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, Kim claimed her first gold medal in the halfpipe. With that gold, she catapulted herself into a new dimension of fame. She'd go on to win the Dew Tour, X Games and world championship before an ankle injury ended her season.
One month after the Olympics, Kim announced that she got accepted to Princeton but deferred enrollment until 2019. For most of her life, Kim knew only snowboarding. Her life revolved around the sport, and she wanted to change that.
After spending 22 months away from the sport while attending her first year at Princeton and recovering from an injury, Kim returned to competition in January 2021. In a widely anticipated return, Kim swept the competition and claimed a win at the Laax Open. Shortly after, Kim won her sixth halfpipe title at the X Games.
Taking a sabbatical from Princeton to focus on the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics, Kim talked to espnW about transitioning back into competition mode, living in Los Angeles during the COVID-19 pandemic and finding herself away from her sport.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
espnW: What was it like to return to competition after 22 months away?
Chloe Kim: I'm not going to lie. I was so nervous at my first contest back. I was nauseous. I was about to throw up before. I was so nervous because 22 months is a really long time. And I kind of forgot what it was like because I got so accustomed to my chill college life, where I go to class and hang out with friends. I definitely kind of forgot how nerve-wracking it is.
My sponsors, including Toyota, supported me through my decision to go to school. And it really did help me mentally feel confident because I just really felt like my partners believed in me and were confident that I'd make a good return. So, I'm forever grateful for them for doing that.
espnW: What are some takeaways you've had during your time away from the sport?
Kim: Snowboarding kind of was the only consistent thing in my life. I feel like that was the only thing that felt safe for me because it was always there for me. I felt like I wasn't experiencing things other than snowboarding-related things.
I just felt like I was missing out on a lot. And then, at the end of my season in 2019, I had an injury. So, I figured that might have been like a big, low-key invitation for me to go try something else and explore the other great things of life. And I'm really happy I did it because I met a lot of new people that have nothing to do with snowboarding, which I didn't have before. And being a college student's kind of cool. I'm really happy I did it. I was in the library, going to class, taking notes, that's something I never really experienced. I'm really happy that I did.
espnW: You're one of the top snowboarders in the world, but when you went to college, how did the other students react to you? Did they know who you were?
Kim: I was nervous that I was going to attract the wrong kind of people. I didn't want people to want to be my friend just because I was Chloe Kim, the Olympian or the Olympic gold medalist. But unintentionally, all my friends actually ended up not knowing who I was.
One of my best friends is from Alabama and didn't even really know what snowboarding was. And she ended up becoming one of my really good friends. And one of my friends from New York, again, doesn't really follow winter sports but had heard of me. And Princeton kids, they're always reading things. So, she read an article or something about me in the past, but she just kind of forgot about it. And so, all my friends didn't know who I was, or kind of heard about me but didn't really care enough to be invested in my life story. So that was really funny. But I had a bit of a guard up when I first went to school because I didn't want to be friends with people that just wanted to be famous by association.
espnW: You've been back in competition for a few months, and we're now only a few months from the Winter Olympics. How do you shift your mindset back into Olympics mode?
Kim: I don't think I have an Olympic mindset mode. I just kind of have snowboarder Chloe and L.A. Chloe. And I love that.
It's just like one of those things that I feel like if you think too much about something, put too much pressure on one thing, it just might blow up in your face. It might not work out. And I think that's kind of the mentality I had going into it. I have a few competitions before the Olympics, so those are kind of my main focus right now. And then we'll just go with the flow, I guess.
Right now, I'm like L.A. Chloe. I'm just chilling in Venice. And then on Friday [Oct. 1], I'm going to Switzerland to train. I'll be a little more focused, be an athlete. But I like to just chill. I don't want to do that to myself.
espnW: What does it mean to you to positively influence the next generation of women athletes?
Kim: I feel like I was kind of put into the spotlight at a young age. When I was 13, I was doing well at X Games and podiuming at every event. And when I was 14, I started winning every event. I feel like my idea of being a good role model changed a lot in the past, what, eight years, or six years, I guess. But for me, I think back then when I was younger and these people would message me, talking about how I was an inspiration. I was like, "OK, cool." I'll just continue being this happy, bubbly version of myself, even when I'm not feeling that way because that's what I want to show people. Right?
But then as I got older and I dealt with a lot of stuff and kind of the concept, being a professional athlete, I just noticed that that was making me unhappy. And I think now, I'm kind of coming from a place where it's just being true to myself, just completely raw. It's OK to have a bad day. And that's something that I didn't allow myself to have when I was younger. And I ended up taking it out on my loved ones, like my friends, my family. But now I feel like it's been healthier for me to just be myself and just embrace that version of myself. And that's what I've been trying to do. I don't know if it's working, but it's put me in a happier place.
espnW: This year, you launched a new media company with Alex Morgan, Sue Bird and Simone Manuel called Togethxr. How does it feel to have created a platform dedicated to amplifying women's voices in a sports space? Why is that so important to you?
Kim: Honestly, it's so important to me because I feel like, growing up, I didn't really know who to look up to. There weren't many athletes who looked like me, or athletes that had similar stories that I did. I was feeling really lost. And everyone who did try to help me, they had a very different experience. I think that really was a struggle for me growing up. I felt lost. It was isolating. And it just sucks when you don't have anyone to look up to.
It kind of made me have almost an identity crisis. And so, Alex came to me with this idea and I was completely down. It was incredible. And I just felt like, I think, we're making really good... or we will make really good, positive change and really help inspire young girls and women all around the world to continue to chase their dreams, that anything's possible, to never give up. And share our stories while we're doing so.
espnW: Over the last few years, you've been on a new journey of self-exploration and growth. What do you want people to know about this journey before you head into Beijing?
Kim: I want people to know that you should just do whatever you want to do. Life's short, and that's something I realized recently. Life's short. So go on a road trip, go on an adventure, do something fun. Literally, that's what I've been doing. We've been randomly packing up my Toyota 4Runner and just going on drives and going on a new adventure. And those are some of the best memories I've ever made in my life. So, go do that.