ASPEN, Colo. -- The tale of how a 14-year-old snowboarder from South Korea turned into one of the world's rising halfpipe riders involves tears, tenacity and the encouragement of the best in the business, Chloe Kim.
High-soaring Gaon Choi won a gold medal at X Games Aspen last month during her inaugural pro-level contest, making her X Games Aspen's youngest women’s snowboard halfpipe winner — a title she took from Kim, the two-time reigning Olympic champion from California who's become equal parts mentor and fan.
Kim wrote in an Instagram story shortly after Choi's win: “She’s not so little anymore. I’ve known her for almost a decade, and now she’s doing big things. I feel like a proud Mom. The future of snowboarding's in good hands."
Choi's introduction to snowboarding began with tears. Her father, Inyoung, bought snowboards for her older sister and brother but skis for her. The basic reasoning: It might be easier for Choi — 7 at the time — to learn on them.
“I cried and asked him why he only gave me skis,” Choi wrote in an email to The Associated Press.
The next day, Choi's dad swapped the skis for a snowboard that was taller than her.
“I wanted to show him that I could ride better than my sister and brother,” wrote Choi, who's from Seoul. “So I got into riding snowboarding to prove (to) him that I could ride better.”
Soon after, she tried out the halfpipe. It was love at first drop.
That led her to search YouTube for videos of new tricks. Not unexpectedly, she happened upon footage of Kim's epic runs from X Games past.
“I thought she was so cool and I thought I wanted to be like her,” wrote Choi, who is scheduled to compete in the halfpipe event at the Dew Tour at Copper Mountain, Colorado, on Feb. 25.
Choi and Kim have some distinct parallels in their paths: Both are young prodigies with roots in South Korea. Kim's mom and dad immigrated to the United States and, as coincidence would have it, Kim made her Olympic debut in the country where her family was from. She won her first of two straight halfpipe gold medals at the 2018 Pyeongchang Games.
Choi said her father struck up a friendship with Kim's dad in the build-up to the Winter Games in South Korea. He was simply looking for tips to help nurture Choi's talent.
To launch his own daughter's career, Jong Jin Kim famously bought Chloe a snowboard on eBay. She took lessons, and by the time she was 7, she was winning contests. The rest is history.
“Chloe’s dad did a lot of mentoring to my dad,” wrote Choi, who was approximately six months younger (14 years, 2 months) when she captured gold at X Games Aspen on Jan. 28 than when Kim won in 2015. “I didn’t know much because I was young, but Chloe’s dad gave my dad a lot of advice. It made me who I am today.”
The biggest piece of guidance: Perfect the basics.
Choi spent most of her time working on the tiniest of details. It's a recipe that's worked for the 22-year-old Kim, who's graced magazine covers (Sports Illustrated) and cereal boxes (Kellogg’s Corn Flakes).
Choi vividly remembers the times she and Kim crossed paths while training in New Zealand and Switzerland. The words Kim once uttered to Choi stay with her.
“She said, ‘You’ll have a good ride,’” recalled Choi, who has picked up sponsors like Monster Energy, Lotte and Mammoth Mountain in California, where she trains. “She was already (a) superstar when I trained with her, and I was just a little girl who dreamed of snowboarding.
“She even took pictures of me and her.”
Picture this: Choi competing next to Kim at the 2026 Winter Games in Italy, or even sooner at another contest or an X Games event.
“It is my dream, that I’ve always dreamed of it,” Choi wrote. “I’m excited just to participate in the same contest as her.”
AP Winter Olympics: https://apnews.com/hub/winter-olympics and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports