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Chloe Kim Shines Brighter Than Gold

Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images

How do you define greatness in an Olympic athlete? World records and gold medals are an easy shorthand, but not all records are equally hard to break, and the margin between a performance worthy of gold rather than silver can often be so thin as to be barely perceptible. Maybe true greatness is found in something more like inevitability. There are athletes who win, and then there are athletes who are good enough to turn what is supposed to be dramatic and uncertain into something procedural—a foregone conclusion.

Chloe Kim is an Olympian who belongs in that latter category. The 21-year-old American snowboarder won gold in the women's halfpipe competition on Thursday, making her the first woman in Olympic history to win back-to-back gold medals in that event. Kim scored a 94.00, which put her nearly four points ahead of the second-place finisher, Spaniard Queralt Castellet. More impressive than the victory itself was how Kim went about claiming it.

In halfpipe, competitors are given three opportunities to earn the highest possible score. With three runs to play with, it's not uncommon for competitors to treat their first time down as something of a safety run, which is usually built around tricks that are less likely to lead to a fall. The idea is to get a relatively strong score on the board early, see how it stacks up against everyone else's scores after the first runs are completed, and then use the final two runs to ramp up the difficulty as necessary in order to try and catch riders who had higher-scoring first runs.

Kim renders such strategic decisions entirely meaningless. That's because her safety run, the one that she can complete with ease, is so good that any other competitor would consider it the best run of her lifetime. Kim earned her 94.00 on her first run of the final, and did so by deploying a series of tricks that no other female snowboarder on earth is capable of packing into a single run.

That's a method air, a frontside 1080, a cab 900, a backside 540, and a cab 1080. Castellet won her silver medal by landing back-to-back 900s, and bronze medalist Sena Tomita of Japan earned her 88.25 score by landing a single 1080 during her best run.

Another marker of Kim's greatness is the fact that she spent nearly three years away from competitive snowboarding after winning her 2018 gold medal. She told The New York Times that she went 22 months without even strapping into a snowboard, choosing instead to recede from the public eye and try living as a normal college student. When Kim eventually started competing again in 2021, she won every event she entered. Imagine what it must feel like to be one of Kim's contemporaries, to spend four years grinding through training sessions in order to fine tune your runs in search of an extra tenth or hundredth of a point here and there, and then watch helplessly as Kim glides back into the circuit and wins everything in sight.

There's no question that Kim is the best female snowboarder on the planet by several orders of magnitude, but a sport like halfpipe is defined by its progression. Tricks that felt impossible to land 10 years ago are commonplace today, and it won't be long before landing multiple 1080s in a single run is a regular occurrence. The boundaries are always expanding, and the important question now, as it relates to Kim's career, is who will be driving that expansion going forward. Kim has set the bar extremely high, and could easily relax while she waits for the next generation of snowboarders to clear it. I wouldn't count on her being so passive, though. After she put up the 94.00 on her first run on Thursday, Kim dedicated the next two to pushing the sport even further along. She attempted a 1260 in each of her final two runs, and she came damn close to landing both of them. The rest of the world now has four years to try and catch Chloe Kim, but she's not standing still.

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