Chloe Kim celebrates a first place finish with Kelly Clark at the 2016 U.S Snowboarding Grand Prix on Feb. 6, 2016 in Park City, Utah.
Chloe Kim was 8 years old when she first met snowboarding legend Kelly Clark. It was 2009, and Clark was in the lift line with Kim at Mammoth Mountain Resort — the home ski area of both snowboarders in California.
“She was standing right in front of me in the lift line, and I was just like, I don’t know what to do,” said Kim, with a laugh.
Completely “fan-girling out,” Kim meekly asked, “Are you Kelly Clark?”
“She tugged on my sleeve and asked to go up the lift with me,” recalled Clark. “It was pretty cute.”
Nine years later, Kim — now 17 — is a snowboarding star in her own right. Flying high above the halfpipe in a compact, confident crouch over her snowboard, with a smoothness to her tricks that defies her age, Kim has become the snowboarder to beat. She was the first athlete in X Games history to win three gold medals before age 16. And she was the first female to land back-to-back 1080s and score a perfect 100 in competition (she accomplished this feat in only her second world cup event).
Kim has also won two of four Olympic qualifiers to date (she was second at the third) and was the first female snowboarder to qualify for the 2018 U.S. Olympic Team.
But three-time Olympic medalist Clark — who was the first female snowboarder to land a 1080 in halfpipe competition, back when Kim was in grade school — is still competing and at age 34, and is winning as well. She has fully recovered from major hip surgery that she had in March 2016 and claims that she is stronger than ever. She won the PyeongChang test event last February (with Kim in fourth).
With second-, third- and fourth-place finishes in the first three Olympic qualifiers, Clark is likely to be named to the women’s halfpipe team competing in PyeongChang. She is currently ranked third in the standings behind 17-year-old Maddie Mastro.
Should she be named to the team after the Toyota U.S. Grand Prix in Mammoth this weekend, it will be Clark’s fifth Olympic Games and Kim’s first. Two of the best snowboarders in the world, they are both favored to win medals in PyeongChang.
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Rather than see each other as the enemy — the veteran versus the teenage phenom — the two maintain a friendly we’re-all-in-this-together relationship that is snowboarding’s gestalt.
“It’s pretty funny how a lot of people think we have this insane rivalry,” said Kim via email. “But in reality, we just want to do the best we can and want all the other girls to land their best runs possible. At the end of the day, we all love snowboarding and are very supportive of each other.”
In fact, the two women have learned from each other. Which may be surprising, given that Clark is twice Kim’s age (Clark recently joked that Kim’s and Mastro’s ages added together equal her age).
“Chloe has one of the best work ethics I’ve ever seen,” said Clark, who’s also known for her own hard work. “She rides longer than anyone. She takes more runs than anyone, maybe it’s because she’s 17 and I’m 34. I love that. For me, that has been a core value, and I love seeing that in her.”
“Talent can only get you so far,” added Clark, who, like Kim, was a teenager when she qualified for her first Olympics in 2002. “It’s about putting in that hard work and that extra effort that makes a difference.”
Kim is equally inspired by Clark’s work ethic and how well the she takes care of herself. And occasionally, she relies on advice from the veteran.
“Just me, being a teenager, I’m always breaking down, I don’t know what to do with my life, this boy doesn’t like me,” said Kim with a laugh earlier this fall. “There’s just a lot going on. So it’s nice to have someone like Kelly giving me advice.”
For example, at her first big press conference ever — at the U.S. Open in 2014 — Kim was nervous (she was 13), and Clark helped calm her down. Kim had just finished third at the event, while for Clark, it was her seventh U.S. Open title.
“She was like, ‘You’ll be fine,’” said Kim. “If you’re uncomfortable, just pass it on to me, so she’s helped me out a lot. I’ll be forever thankful for everything she’s done.”
Kim is also inspired by how Clark acts both in competition and outside the halfpipe.
“I loved watching her snowboard growing up but was always amazed at how humble and nice she was,” Kim said via email. “She showed me that no matter how successful you are, staying grounded and being kind to everyone is important.”
When the two have a conversation, they talk about snowboarding — and their dogs. And the two women do push each other in the pipe.
“Kelly has inspired me to try new things and new tricks,” said Kim. “And I know that I can always talk to her if I’m feeling nervous or scared to try something new.”
In PyeongChang, Clark will be going for her fourth Olympic medal. She won gold at the 2002 Games, bronze in 2010 and another bronze in 2014, finishing fourth in 2006. In the latter two Olympic Games, she gave her best performance, but it was not her best snowboarding, she said.
“I’m looking to put my best snowboarding out there [in Korea],” said Clark.
Kim is Korean American and will perform in PyeongChang in front of relatives who have never seen her snowboard. Although she finished fourth at the PyeongChang test event last February, she has won almost every contest that she has entered this season.
“Chloe is one of the most talented young riders I’ve ever seen,” Clark said. “I’m really excited to see where she pushes herself to and where she takes the sport to. … Hopefully, my ceiling will become her floor.”
A freelance writer based in Vermont, Peggy Shinn has covered four Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since its inception in 2008.