In a rare moment of quiet before the Olympic halfpipe final, the culmination of a dream that has consumed much of her 17 years, Chloe Kim got a text from her father.
“This is the time to be a dragon,” he wrote. “Today is the day the imugi turns to dragon.”
In Korean mythology, an imugi is a large snake. It eventually turns into a powerful dragon, one that can soar through the clouds and carries a golden pearl in its mouth.
What a perfect analogy.
In many ways, Kim is a typical American teenager. She posted to her Instagram story and broke into a quiet version of Lady Gaga’s Paparazzi during the medalists’ news conference Tuesday. She loves to shop and gets grumpy when she’s “hangry.” She adores her family, even if she’d rather die than admit it.
Strap a snowboard to Kim’s feet and let her loose in the halfpipe, however, and she turns into that mythical dragon. Magnificent, majestic, otherworldly.
She’s such a phenom she would have been in the mix for an Olympic medal four years ago, had she been old enough at 13 to compete. She’s taken the sport to new heights in the time since – she is the only woman to land back-to-back 1080s, which she did again Tuesday in an Olympic first – and is so dominant that the rest of the field came to Pyeongchang knowing they were riding for second place.
It is not easy to exist in such different worlds, yet Kim manages to live fully in both.
“There is a lot of pressure revolving around these Games,” she acknowledged, suddenly seeming far older than 17. “You wait four years to come here and this contest started at, what? 10? And I don’t know what time it is now, but it’s over. There’s definitely a lot of hype around this one-and-a-half, two-hour time period. It’s pretty nerve-wracking.
“You work for something so long, and it’s finally here,” Kim added. “You go home with the best possible outcome, it’s amazing. Just realizing how far I’ve come as a person and as an athlete. Standing on that podium, everything kind of combines. You realize that you won and you did a good run and you’re excited about everything.
“I don’t know what I’m saying right now,” she said, slipping back to her teenage world. “I’m just really happy.”
Kim is not the first 17-year-old to leave the Phoenix Snow Park with Olympic gold. Her American teammate, Red Gerard, won men’s slopestyle two days earlier. But while Gerard was more oblivious to the magnitude of his accomplishment – he has said that his Holy Grail growing up was the X Games, not the Olympic Games – this was the goal of Kim and her family.
In a story that’s been told a thousand times in the leadup to the Games and will now be told a million more, Kim’s parents, Jong Jin and Boran, emigrated to the United States from South Korea. When Jong decided to try snowboarding, he brought their young daughter along in hopes it would entice his wife to join him.
It didn’t. But after discovering little Chloe was a natural who loved to ride, a new plan emerged. Chloe Kim would become the best snowboarder there was, with the Olympic gold medal to prove it.
“I just dreamed it this way. Not really dreamed, but it was my hope,” said Jong, who eventually quit his job as an engineer to travel full-time with his daughter.
“The dream came true. The American dream!”
That it happened in Korea takes an already sweet story into fairytale territory. In the group of relatives joining Jong Jin and Boran Kim at the base of the halfpipe was Boran’s mother, who came from Seoul to watch her granddaughter compete for the very first time.
“I actually found out after my second run that she was at the bottom. I said, `This one’s for Grams,’” Kim said. “Being able to put that down was awesome. I hope she enjoyed watching it.
“I can’t wait to go shopping with her.”
As easily as she navigates both her worlds now, Kim knows it’s about to get harder. Her Instagram followers have more than doubled just since she arrived at the Games. Her tweet between qualifying runs about wanting ice cream made the internet erupt, and she was still the No. 1 trending topic on Twitter hours after she won gold.
Already a star in the snowboard world, she’s got the potential to achieve crossover status like Shaun White.
“I don’t really know what’s happening and I’m actually feeling a little anxious right now. I’m a little overwhelmed,” she said. “But this is the best outcome I could ever ask for, and it’s been such a long journey.
“Ahhh, just going home with the gold is amazing.”
Her father was right. This was the day the snake became the dragon, the day Chloe Kim went from snowboarder to superstar.
By Nancy Armour
This article was republished with permission from the original author and 2015 Ronald Reagan Media Award recipient, Nancy Armour, and the original publisher, USA Today. Follow columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour.