When Chloe Kim returned to halfpipe training last October, 19 months since her last snowboard contest, she wasn’t quite sure what to expect.
Few who saw her feats at the PyeongChang Olympics would have predicted what happened on her first foray in Saas-Fee in the Swiss Alps.
“I actually caught my edge riding down to the mountain,” a beginner’s mistake, she joked last week, “which kind of was embarrassing.”
What happened next was astonishing.
In a three-day span, Kim, who in 2018 became the youngest Olympic halfpipe champ at age 17, then took the 2019-20 season off while attending Princeton, said she regained all of the tricks that propelled her to teen stardom.
“The whole situation surprised me,” longtime U.S. coach Rick Bower said. “She came and was riding, in some cases, better than she was when she left.
“I was expecting her to be successful and have a relatively easy time coming back, but what I witnessed first-hand was very impressive, to say the least.”
Kim, after training in the Alps and more recently Colorado, competes this week for the first time since March 2019. She headlines the Laax Open in Switzerland. Finals air live on Olympic Channel: Home of Team USA and Peacock Premium on Saturday (full TV and stream schedule here).
On that first day back in October, Kim felt anxious as she clipped into her snowboard. That’s because she spent the preceding 10 days in preventative quarantine after flying to Europe, unable to ride.
She was a bit nervous, too, wondering how her surgically repaired right ankle would handle the training. At her most recent contest, Kim broke the ankle at the 2019 Burton U.S. Open. She developed some pain those first few days in Saas-Fee, an obstacle she overcame.
Kim landed her patented back-to-back 1080s in the early stages of the two-and-half-week camp, Bower said. She is the only woman to perform the combination in competition, including on a victory-lap run in PyeongChang with the gold already assured.
Asked about the prospect of relearning tricks, the rider nonchalantly answered, “I got ‘em all back. They’re good. They’re chilling.”
“I’ve been doing this for so long,” said Kim, who started riding at 4 and competing at 6 and became a junior national champion at 7. “It was just all muscle memory.”
Bower helped coach Kim since the 2014-15 season, after she qualified for the Sochi Olympics at age 13 but was too young to compete. He has coached with the U.S. federation for a decade and a half. He labeled what Kim did in Saas-Fee unprecedented, from his experiences over the years.
“The progression into the tricks usually is limited by people’s fear and [lack of] confidence with throwing the more technical maneuvers,” he said. “She had none of that. It was pretty seamless how she just checked off her trick list. It was basically a best-case scenario. Go up there one day, and she would do more than I thought she would do, and the next day she would do even more.”
In 2019, Kim made the tough decision to barter bindings for textbooks, move from California to New Jersey and take her first break since she began competing at a pro level at age 12. She wanted to experience life outside of snowboarding.
Kim, who was home-schooled in middle school and took online classes throughout high school, has been open about the difficult transition into a campus and classroom setting as somebody who is globally recognized.
Reflecting last week, she cherished her freshman year. She plans to return to school, though she does not know when.
“I didn’t want to regret not doing certain things when I was older, so I thought that taking the season off was going to be really good for me mentally,” said Kim, whose classes included French (which she first learned spending third and fourth grade with her aunt in Geneva), biology and the history of music. “It definitely is nice to know that I made so many amazing friends who are so incredibly smart.”
The year away also put sport in perspective.
“I love snowboarding so much, and I love competing and pushing myself and learning all of these tricks, but I think when I went to school I realized that’s not the only thing I’m going to do for the rest of my life,” said Kim, who last year also competed and performed on “The Masked Singer.” “Realizing that has definitely taken a lot of pressure off of me, but I want to keep doing this for as long as I can.”
The competitive return starts in Laax, where Kim recorded an international breakthrough 11 years ago, winning the Burton European Open junior division at age 9. Her winning run then reportedly included back-to-back 540s.
“I’m completely aware that I haven’t competed in a full season, and I’ve taken a good amount of time off, so it’d be silly of me to kind of expect to be perfect again,” she said. “I’m really happy with where I’m at right now, definitely doing a lot better than I thought I was going to be.”
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