VAIL — Chloe Kim affirmed her position as heir to the U.S. snowboarding throne Saturday at the Burton U.S. Open, capping a spectacular season with a third-place finish at snowboarding's most venerable contest.
Not bad for a 13-year-old, 115-pound eighth-grader whose dominant performance in three Olympic-qualifying contests made her a top contender for U.S. Snowboarding's Olympic halfpipe team. But Olympians have to be at least 15.
No problem for Kim, who said she had fun during the stressful qualifying push into Russia's Winter Olympics. Five contests in six weeks tested both veteran and rookie riders, but Kim wasn't bothered. She grinned through every contest, landing podiums and in January becoming the youngest-ever medalist at the Aspen X Games with a silver in the halfpipe.
Rocking Katy Perry on her ear buds, nibbling candy and always missing her pets — two dogs, a rabbit and a chatty parrot — the ever-giggling Kim is all 13-year-old. Except when she drops into the halfpipe. Then she becomes a fierce competitor, one of the world's top riders, with highly technical switch airs, double grabs and twisting, off-axis tricks.
She's able to shed pressure, she said, because there's so little on the line. If she wins, great. If not, no worries. Her youth, she said, maybe gives her an edge.
"I don't really care about the pressure. I can be like 'whatever,' " she said. "I'm just trying to have fun. I don't really care about the results. I want to have a good time and put a good run down, and if I get good results, that's awesome."
This love took time
Snowboarding wasn't always a good time. At least it didn't start out that way for Kim.
"I hated it at first, because I was pretty much forced into it. It was cold, and there were people everywhere, and it's not what a 4-year-old wants to do," she said. "Then I started liking it around 7 or 8."
Today, her parents tell her she can return to the normal teenage life whenever she likes. No pressure.
"I keep going because it's so fun," she said.
Last year, Kim failed to advance through qualifying at the U.S. Open. This season, she landed all three of her runs, improving her score each time to cap a season that saw her medal in all but one of seven halfpipe and slopestyle contests.
"I feel like I have more energy now than last year," she said, noting that she hopes to compete in more slopestyle competitions next season.
Having fun was a theme for freeskiers and snowboarders competing at the Winter Olympics. Numerous athletes said they were able to skirt the pressure of the highest-profile event by focusing on the reason they first slipped down snow.
She's the futureFor Kim, it doesn't take much effort to focus on the fun. She giggles through news conferences and is all grins during her runs. Her appreciation for the simple thrill of riding has prompted many to herald her as the future of women's snowboarding. She is poised to take over the crown from Kelly Clark, the most medaled snowboarder in history, who won her seventh U.S. Open title Saturday. (Clark is hardly ceding her leadership position. Her 17-foot 1080 was the biggest trick of the women's contest Saturday, and she almost stuck a first-ever cab 1080 on her victory lap.)
"It's been no secret to me she's been one of the most amazing up-and-coming riders to watch," said Clark, who rides regularly with Kim at Mammoth Mountain. "I think she's gotten rid of that up-and-coming title as of now. It's going to be amazing when the rest of the world finds out."
With her stellar performance in the halfpipe this season and a top-five finish in a national slopestyle contest last month, Kim's third-place finish at the U.S. Open on Saturday made her the youngest-ever TTR World Snowboard Tour overall world champion.
"She just has a really amazing fundamentals-based skill set that allows her to stand on her board in a very powerful position," said Spencer Tamblyn, U.S. Snowboarding's rookie coach.
Kim's coaches and parents always encouraged her to ride switch — with her non-dominant, back leg leading down the pipe. Last summer during a training camp in New Zealand, she spent an entire month riding switch. She even gets off the chairlift riding one-legged switch to rest her strong leg. (Her switch prowess is snowboarding's equivalent of ambidexterity and a rare characteristic of even the most top-tier riders.)
It's difficult to discern between her switch and dominant direction riding. In Saturday's contest, she sandwiched her runs down the pipe with switch straight airs, soaring 15 feet above the 22-foot halfpipe.
"She is one of those athletes who can accept the fear and not be swayed by it," Tamblyn said. "She just stands up on her board, winds up for a trick and throws it. There's no hesitation, and that's really what it takes to reach that elite level."