Pyeongchang (South Korea) (AFP) – Chloe Kim is the California beach girl with the bubblegum smile and bleach-blonde hair who shredded to Olympic snowboarding gold — and became the twinkly-eyed face of the Pyeongchang Games.
The bubbly 17-year-old with Korean parents and a mischievous wit triggered ‘Chloe-mania’ as swooning locals adopted her as one of their own in the absence of a truly transcendent athlete such as retired figure skater Kim Yuna.
With Lady Gaga’s “Paparazzi” playing in her earphones, Kim set a blistering pace in Tuesday’s halfpipe final, storming to gold with a charm and grace that will leave a lasting impression long after the Olympic flame has gone out.
“There are plenty of examples of people who transcend their sport –- one big example in Chloe’s own sport: Shaun White — the comparisons between the two are uncanny,” Elizabeth Lindsey, of LA-based marketing agency Wasserman, told AFP.
“Someone has to be snowboarding’s face and an icon — I think they just got it in her.”
Tales of how Kim’s biggest fan — her Seoul-based grandmother — boasts about Chloe’s exploits over tea to her fellow church-goers melted hearts.
Proud dad, Jong Jin Kim, went viral after he was spotted waving a hand-made sign which read “Go, Chloe!”
Smitten fans, many of them Korean, chanted: “Chloe Kim, Chloe Kim!”
There were also constant reminders that despite her fame and rapidly growing fortune, the American sensation is a typical teenager.
After qualifying, Kim craved ice cream — vanilla Swiss almond, or at a push a mango sorbet. Once the final ended, the munchies struck again.
“I’d really like a burger and some fries,” said Kim, puffing out her cheeks. “Or some Hawaiian pizza.”
But the serious business of chasing a gold medal took an emotional toll.
With victory assured before her final run, the enormity of her achievement suddenly hit her.
“I was tearing up, I wanted to cry,” admitted the four-time X Games champion, who was so good at 13 she might have won gold in Sochi.
– Born this way –
Two years under the minimum age requirement then, fate decreed she would get her chance in Pyeongchang, meaning grandma could cheer her on for the first time.
“It’s so good doing it in front of my parents,” said Kim, the first woman to nail back-to-back 1080 degree spins at the Games.
“It means a lot just being able to do it where my family is from.”
Online reaction to Kim’s success in South Korea was largely positive, some likening her effortless brilliance to Kim Yuna, who won figure skating gold at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics.
Others noted Kim would be cramming for college entrance exams had she grown up in Seoul instead of California, while a small minority blasted local media for trying to claim the athlete as “Korean”.
What is clear is that life will never be the same for Chloe Kim, snowboarding’s new rock star.
Nike, Toyota, and Visa are among companies that already sponsor Kim, and her marketing appeal is set to explode.
“She was definitely a name going into the Olympics, and now she’s an even bigger one,” said Lindsey.
“Brands will want to capitalise on her gold.”
Kim, whose followers on Instagram and Twitter doubled to 500,000 and 220,000 since the start of the Games, left the Phoenix snowboard park in a daze.
“I need to go home and process everything,” she said.
“I’ll probably bawl my eyes out some more but this has been a dream of mine since I was a little girl, so to be able to do it when it mattered feels amazing.”