What does that amount of physical effort feel like? “Imagine going to the gym and trying to set a personal record on a dead lift,” Chen says, “and when you are just getting close to that P.R., I say to you, ‘Hey, you have 4 minutes and 10 seconds: Go do it eight times. And you have to do it perfectly.”
The half-pipe is more exposed than an indoor ice rink, which complicates the snowboarder’s trip to the top, especially if conditions are compromised—here come those Xiaohaituo winds again! It’s like a two-stage rocket launch: first, up the pipe, fighting the earth’s gravitational forces, and then over the rim and into the air, where the twists and rotations commence. “It’s pretty hard on your body,” says Chloe Kim, the youngest woman to win a gold medal in snowboarding (she was 17 when she won in Pyeongchang). “I mean, think about all the g-forces and just being able to maintain control—also dealing with weather and, like, little bumps in the pipe; everything is a factor. Being good in the half-pipe is about a lot more than just knowing how to do a spin, because at the end of the day, if you don’t know how to snowboard through those challenges, then you’re not going to even make it to the wall.”
Kim makes going up the wall look easy—whether she means to or not—as opposed to the spins, which look not just impossible but imaginary, the tail-grab magic of a superhero. If you have seen the home movies of her as a kid strapped to a board and doing tricks on a backyard trampoline, then you know this is all, for her, not just second nature but first. Her father took her to the San Gabriel Mountains when she was four, her snow pants stuffed with a cut-up yoga mat to break any falls, the father and daughter learning boarding together. “My dad was a mechanical engineer, and he really knew physics and how gravity works. But sometimes he would be a little…off.” She laughs. “In off-season training, we’d go to a park and he’d strap a snowboard on my feet, and I would go down the slide and learn how to do tricks.”
For third and fourth grade, Kim went to school in Switzerland, studying the Alps outside Geneva and learning French (she also speaks and writes Korean). When she returned, she was homeschooled, with her classroom the Sierra Nevadas, at Mammoth Lakes. In 2015, she won a gold medal at the X Games—at 14, the youngest woman ever to do so. By 2016, at the U.S. Snowboarding Grand Prix, she became the first woman to land back-to-back 1080s. She qualified for the 2014 Olympics but was too young to go, though when she finally did hit the pipe in Pyeongchang, the conditions were perfect.
“At that point it’s just down to the tricks and consistency,” she says. “I remember thinking, Okay, cool. Let’s just have some fun, you know?” That she did. “Not a single stress in the world—no anxiety, no nothing. I was chilling, doing my thing, and it worked out for me, oh my gosh!” Her grandmother, who lives in Korea, got to see her compete for the first time. Since Pyeongchang, Kim started at Princeton, nearly as far from the Sierras as you can go. Then came COVID and the lockdown. She sheltered in her L.A. apartment with her boyfriend, where she designed a capsule collection for Roxy, but though they had each other, Kim was suddenly not able to do everything she’d always done, which was tough. “I was basically spiraling,” she recalls. “I was overthinking everything. I was just such an odd version of myself.” A therapist helped her out, and in the end she came out of lockdown a homebody, a shift from her always-out life before. “It’s made me a lot more grateful for the moments I do get to share with friends and my family.”
It takes some time to get back into gear. Nathan Chen startled the skating world when, last October, he broke a 14-event winning streak that started at the last Olympics. “It happens,” he said at a press conference afterward. “Just learn from it, grow from it.” A week later, he found his rhythm at Skate Canada, winning easily with an out-of-the-park score. In January 2021, when Chloe Kim showed up at the World Cup in Laax, Switzerland, for her first competition after nearly two years, she found herself in the very unusual—for her—position of being very anxious. “It was so nerve-racking,” she says. “I was hyperventilating, and that’s never happened to me before. I was like, Why am I nervous?” Her remedy? She cut herself some slack. “I’m fine. I’m doing fine. I’ll be fine,” she told herself. In the end, she nailed it: “I won that event, somehow—and that really brought my confidence back.”
Maame Biney is a 21-year-old short-track speed skater who is studying psychology at the University of Utah. Born in Accra, Ghana, she moved to Virginia at age five and started skating when her father happened to pass a skating rink. In 2018, she became the first-ever Black woman named to the U.S. Olympic speed skating team and competed in Pyeongchang. She was 18 at the time and didn’t believe the hype about the Olympics, which, she reports, kept both her nerves and her focus diffused. Now, heading to China, she feels like a totally different skater. She’s still focused on the explosive starts that make her great in what looks (to the unschooled viewer at home) like a Roller Derby–like dash—but she’s also focused on mental preparation through meditation. “I think that’s the one thing that is different from me being 18 and now being 22: I feel more mentally prepared for the day ahead—not just physically prepared, but mentally prepared.”