Shaun White doesn’t remember the first time he met Chloe Kim, but he can’t forget the first time he heard about Kim.
At a halfpipe contest a few years ago, word spread that a 12- or 13-year-old girl posted the highest score in qualifying.
“It was this huge upset, and everyone thought she was from another country,” White, 30, said of Kim, a daughter of South Korean immigrants who is now 16. “We’re like, oh, is she like a Korean rider? They’re like, no, her name’s Chloe. Since then, obviously she’s been living up to her hype and winning events.”
White and Kim, the best U.S. halfpipe riders at opposite ends of their careers, headline the U.S. Grand Prix at Mammoth Mountain, Calif. The event, which also includes ski halfpipe and ski and snowboard slopestyle, will be streamed on NBCSports.com/live and the NBC Sports app starting Friday. NBC will air coverage Saturday from 4:30-6 p.m. ET and Sunday from 3-4 p.m. ET.
Both White and Kim honed their skills at Mammoth.
In the 1990s, White’s family would drive six hours from San Diego to Mammoth every Friday in their 1964 Econoline van, nicknamed “Big Mo.” In lieu of paying for a hotel room, the five Whites – Shaun, his mom, dad, brother Jesse and sister Kari – would sleep in the van, cooking meals on a stove in the back. As White progressed, the family started staying in a Super 8 Motel.
Then White turned pro at age 13, and the rest is history. He’s now a two-time Olympic champion and well-versed businessman who last year bought a minority stake in Mammoth Resorts.
White began snowboarding at age 6. Kim started at age 4.
Almost every weekend, Kim’s father would make her a bed in the back of their SUV and drive her at 1 a.m. on Saturdays from La Palma, Calif., to Mammoth. La Palma is about 100 miles north of San Diego on the California coastline. The overnight trips to Mammoth took six hours.
“I’d sleep in the car,” Kim said, “and my dad would probably just sleep while I practiced.”
Like White, Kim was a star by age 13. She would have made the Sochi Olympic team if she wasn’t 16 months too young to compete at the 2014 Winter Games.
White did ride in his third Olympics in Sochi, but it did not go well. He pulled out of the new Olympic event of slopestyle on the eve of the Winter Games and then finished fourth in halfpipe, losing at the Olympics for the first time.
In the last three years, Kim ascended to become the world’s best female snowboarder. White barely competed in 2015 and then re-ascended last season with two statement victories. He is probably a favorite at Mammoth this weekend, though not as much of one as Kim.
Mammoth marks the first of five U.S. Olympic qualifiers for ski halfpipe and ski and snowboard slopestyle. Those fields include Sochi Olympic champions Jamie Anderson, Maddie Bowman, Joss Christensen and David Wise, but not Sage Kotsenburg, who is not competing this season to focus on filming and undecided on a 2018 Olympic run.
The next four qualifiers in those events (plus all four in snowboard halfpipe) will take place next season in the run up to the PyeongChang Winter Games in February.
White and Kim would make history just by qualifying for PyeongChang.
White would become the first U.S. halfpipe snowboarder in their 30s to make an Olympic team (as would fellow three-time Olympian Kelly Clark). Kim could become the second-youngest U.S. Olympic halfpipe rider ever. Snowboarding was added to the Olympics in 1998.
Kim can learn plenty from White’s career. Not just by watching his tricks, but how White deals with the pressure and scrutiny that comes with being the face of his sport.
“You can’t start believing your own hype, if someone’s going to say to you that this gold medal is yours, all you’ve got to do is stick your run,” NBC Olympics snowboarding analyst Todd Richards said. “No matter what happens, you cannot lose sight of the actual goal. And that’s the only thing I can possibly say Chloe would fall victim to. Because she’s young. She seems media savvy, but no one can prepare you for the onslaught of what the Olympics brings.”
Kim, who has sisters 10 and 15 years older than her, has a team around her managing the increased requests for her time. Her growing list of sponsors includes Target, Toyota and the South Korean cosmetics brand Laneige. She grew up in California and Switzerland, in a Korean-speaking environment, and has also spent time in South Korea, including last season.
“I actually went snowboarding in PyeongChang at the resort,” she said, “but I spent more time shopping.”
White has his own clothing line and chewing gum and recently endorsed Halfpops, a half-popped popcorn snack. He said Kim’s family has come to him for advice.
“Who’s your lawyer?” they asked, White joked. “Because it’s a very tough business to be in. It’s not like traditional sports where you have certain agents like fighting over representing the new top draft pick. … At a certain point, having an agent was very uncool because it’s so corporate and non-rebel, whatever you want to call it that the sport started out in. I remember hearing those things when I first got an agent. … Nowadays, we’re coming of age, where it’s an Olympic sport, you’ve got guys like myself and others making great money. There’s interest from more talented agents and lawyers and people, and it’s looked at differently. There are simple questions like that [from Kim’s parents]. My door’s always open, I guess, for anyone if they want advice.”
White has scaled back his off-the-snow interests in recent months. He had been in a band, Bad Things, before Sochi, but they have broken up.
He’s also no longer training slopestyle, devoting all of his time to halfpipe. His new coach is J.J. Thomas, the man who bumped a 15-year-old White from making the 2002 Olympic team. He has a full-time physical therapist who used to work with Serena Williams. White had surgery in 2016 to clean up an ankle that has bothered him for years.
“My whole approach has changed dramatically,” White said. “I’ve kind of revamped everything from business to all sorts of things. I feel like I’m at a better place than I ever was before.”
It showed at the March 2016 Burton U.S. Open, where White launched 26 feet above the halfpipe, the highest of his career, en route to a victory.
However, neither White nor Kim won last week at Winter X Games. White placed 11th, his worst result since his event debut in 2000. Kim was third, beaten by two-time Olympian Elena Hight, after taking gold in 2015 and 2016.
Richards said not to worry due to a combination of the halfpipe’s condition and that, with their normal runs, White and Kim would have won. Both had uncharacteristic off-days.
“Since 2006, Shaun has been the guy to beat,” Richards said. “And I still think that Shaun is the guy to beat. If he’s on it. When he’s feeling it, and you can tell when he’s feeling it, because he’s going about 25 feet [above the halfpipe] off the first hit [of his run]. He’s going eight feet higher than the next best guy. When he’s doing that, it doesn’t matter. Shaun doesn’t have to put together the most technical run, because he’s doing his best tricks eight feet higher than anybody else. It really is easy to reward that when you’re a judge.”
Kim’s loss snapped a seven-contest winning streak dating back more than one year.
How dominant is she? Take this example. In 2011, Clark became the first woman to land a 1080 in competition. Last year, Kim became the first woman to land back-to-back 1080s and the second rider of either gender to score a 100 in a top-level contest. The first? White.
“People like Kelly Clark paved the way for her,” Richards said. “They showed her what is possible, and Chloe is now basically taking it to another level of perfection.”
Once this season is over, White said he and Kim plan to ride together at Mammoth.
“Man I should just teach her one or two of my tricks,” he said, laughing. “Take it to the limits.”
NBC Olympic researcher Rachel Thompson contributed to this report.Follow @nzaccardi