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Olympian Chloe Kim Is Learning to Cope with the 'Pressure to Be Perfect All the Time'

As the snowboarding phenom is poised to reign again at the Winter Games in Beijing, Chloe Kim shares it all — the thrill of defying gravity, feeling at peace and in charge, and her energized approach to soaking up life.

Behold Chloe Kim in her element. It's in Southern California, the flip side of the snow-packed half-pipes she rules, where this Olympian refuels her body and brain. In fact, right now she's trying not to obsess about the white stuff too much. Just days before this late-summer cover shoot, Chloe had done a big press event for the 2022 Winter Olympics, its February takeover fast approaching. "It made me realize how soon it was, and it kind of freaked me out," she says.

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Credit: Photographed by Djeneba Aduayom; Styling by Brit + Kara Elkin; Hair by Jenny Cho; Makeup by Mai Quynh; Manicure by Shigeko Taylor

You may have figured her for being holed up at a ski resort throughout quarantine, but Chloe has been training near her Venice home, interspersing beach days with her miniature Australian shepherd, Reese, with big wins in Laax, Switzerland (a World Cup event), and Aspen, Colorado (Winter X Games, world championships, and U.S. Grand Prix). "I spend so much time in the mountains in the cold, but when I come home, it's warm and sunny and perfect," she says. "It's my favorite place."

There's something that happens to her at altitude, standing in the hut where snowboarders wait their turn to do vertiginous tricks with cutesy code names that belie just how much they push the laws of physics. (In Chloe's case, that's doing back-to-back 1080s: three full midair spins apiece. Five years ago she became the only female snowboarder to land the combo in competition.) "I definitely think I switch mentally," she says. "I completely tune out, and I become a different person. I'm Chloe Kim, the snowboarder. But when I'm home, I'm Chloe Kim, the Cali girl. There's a different Chloe when I'm on snow, and I love her. She's the best."

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Left: Credit: Photographed by Djeneba Aduayom; Styling by Brit + Kara Elkin; Hair by Jenny Cho; Makeup by Mai Quynh; Manicure by Shigeko Taylor
Right: Credit: Photographed by Djeneba Aduayom; Styling by Brit + Kara Elkin; Hair by Jenny Cho; Makeup by Mai Quynh; Manicure by Shigeko Taylor

The transformation truly does seem to be like a finger snap. As competitors do visualization drills and retreat into their playlists, "I like to chill and find a snack," says Chloe. Exhibit A: Just before her winning run at the 2018 Winter Games, which made her the youngest female snowboarder ever to win a medal, she mused to the Twitterverse: "I could really go for some ice cream right now." (There she was, killing time on social media when a post of someone eating ice cream popped up.) "Next thing you know, everyone at the bottom has a pint of ice cream for me," she says.

What both Chloes have in common is that they're at peak fitness thanks to a new, take-no-prisoners daily training routine. "That hour and a half is hell. I hate every second of it," she says. "But I feel so good at the end." The onslaught of squats and for-superheroes-only exercises has built leg muscles that are challenging the seams of her jeans. "My thighs are humongous right now," she says, in pure appreciation.

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Credit: Photographed by Djeneba Aduayom; Styling by Brit + Kara Elkin; Hair by Jenny Cho; Makeup by Mai Quynh; Manicure by Shigeko Taylor

This is Chloe 2.0, or rather Chloe at 21, the champion who has come out the other side of the crucible of Insta fame at age 17 that saw her beaming on boxes of Kellogg's Corn Flakes. She unclipped from her board for a year of college at Princeton and a stint as the Jellyfish on The Masked Singer.

Born to Korean immigrants, she also gave a look into a dark side of that megawatt spotlight last spring, when she posted on Instagram one of the anti-Asian messages she says she gets by the hundreds each month. She told ESPN that the fear had caused her to walk around with a Taser, pepper spray, and a knife in her fanny pack. And the growing weight of expectation that she speak out — as hate crimes targeting Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders mounted — only compounded her anxiety. "In my everyday life, if something bothers me, I have to be really comfortable with a certain person to share my discomfort. So you could imagine how I felt when everyone was pressuring me to do it on social media," says Chloe. (Related: Anti-Asian Hate Isn't New, But the Pandemic Made It Much Worse)

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Credit: Photographed by Djeneba Aduayom; Styling by Brit + Kara Elkin; Hair by Jenny Cho; Makeup by Mai Quynh; Manicure by Shigeko Taylor

What's helped her cope privately is the therapy she started doing during lockdown. "It's been a big improvement in my mental health," she says. "I'm learning to open up more and communicate my feelings with people around me." Publicly, she's letting her actions speak for her to an extent. Earlier this year, she joined three other powerhouse athletes — soccer player Alex Morgan, basketball pro Sue Bird, and swimmer Simone Manuel — to start Togethxr, a media and commerce company. Its mission statement is to give women's sports their due through original content that "shatters the often narrow depictions of women in media," featuring a diverse and inclusive array of athletes. "Growing up, I didn't have anyone in the Asian American community to look up to in my sport," she says. "It's cool that we're solving that problem and advocating for diversity so we can reach more young women like me."

As her hotly anticipated Olympic encore draws near, Shape caught up with Chloe for a few of her lessons on seizing the everyday.

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Left: Credit: Photographed by Djeneba Aduayom; Styling by Brit + Kara Elkin; Hair by Jenny Cho; Makeup by Mai Quynh; Manicure by Shigeko Taylor
Right: Credit: Photographed by Djeneba Aduayom; Styling by Brit + Kara Elkin; Hair by Jenny Cho; Makeup by Mai Quynh; Manicure by Shigeko Taylor

Dare to Do Something That Scares You

"The Masked Singer comes from South Korea. I remember watching it with my family on the Korean network. So when it came to the U.S., I was like, 'Oh my gosh, I have to do that.' I went to my school gym so I could videotape myself singing. The next thing I know, I was cast for the show. It was so much fun. I love singing, but I'm super shy. When I'm home, I'll blast karaoke and sing my heart out — until my boyfriend [skateboarder Evan Berle] or someone comes in."

Embrace Plant Life

"I just moved into a new house, and I have a newfound love for plants. It's actually bad. I'll go to Lowe's to get something I need, like a hose, and I'll be stuck in the plant section for two hours. My boyfriend built me a planter box, so that's been fun. I have some bell peppers growing, some jalapeños, some tomatoes. I planted a watermelon. I'm really going at it. I planted asparagus. For that one, I have to wait five years to reap the benefits, but that's okay. They're like my children now, so I'll wait."

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Credit: Photographed by Djeneba Aduayom; Styling by Brit + Kara Elkin; Hair by Jenny Cho; Makeup by Mai Quynh; Manicure by Shigeko Taylor

Trust Your Kitchen-stincts

"I'm Korean, so I love me some Korean barbecue. I have this crazy workout, so I'm like, I deserve to eat. I love eating out, but I also love cooking. My boyfriend has celiac disease, so I'm into looking at recipes and then making them gluten-free. It's a challenge, but I can make anything. Really. If I have the recipe and a vision of what I think will taste better, I'll do it. The other day I made this orzo dish, and it was super good. It's like I have a superpower. I just know what to put in it."

Own Your Peace of Mind

"I felt pressured to be perfect all the time, and it drained me. I was genuinely angry for a while because I was so concerned about what everyone else would think about me. It became toxic. That's when I realized, I need to take better care of myself, and if I don't want to do something, I can't force myself to do it. It was very empowering for me, feeling like I finally had more control over my life. Right now I'm in a much better place.

I was really proud of Simone Biles, and Naomi Osaka as well, for prioritizing their mental health. I hope that people realize that as athletes and Olympians, we face a lot of pressure. It's important to slow down, take a step back, and validate your emotions. Respecting yourself is so important."

Photography: Djeneba Aduayom, @djeneba.aduayom // Styling: Brit & Kara Elkin/A-Frame Agency, @elkin // Hair: Jenny Cho/A-Frame Agency for R+Co, @jennychohair // Makeup: Mai Quynh/The Wall Group for Armani Beauty, @storyofmailife // Manicure: Shigeko Taylor/Star Touch Agency for CHANEL Le Vernis, @nailsbyshige // Set Styling: Chloe Park/Art Department, @chloeparkstudio // Lettering: Samantha Hahn, @samanthajhahn // Creative Director: Noah Dreier, @noahdreier // Photo Director: Toni Paciello Loggia, @toniloggia