Even now — after the record-breaking, after three gold medals at the Winter X Games, after all the press coverage — 17-year-old snowboarder Chloe Kim still gets nervous before she drops into the half-pipe to compete.
“I’m shaking, my heart is pounding out of my chest, it’s like I’m freaking out,” she tells PEOPLE. “But once I’m moving, I feel fine and I feel relaxed.”
And it shows: Kim, who won’t turn 18 until two months after next year’s Winter Olympics, has dominated the women’s half-pipe in recent years, with back-to-back medals at the X Games every year since 2014.
On Dec. 15, she qualified for Team USA — the second time she’s made the cut (the first was in 2014) — but the first time she’s actually been old enough to compete in the Olympics.
“My parents are really excited about it, and it’s some crazy luck that my first Olympics are going to be in Korea where my parents are from,” says Kim, a California native. “And a lot of my relatives over there have never really seen me compete before, so I think it’s going to be pretty cool for everyone. It’s really exciting, my whole family is really excited about it, so that gets me even more stoked!”
Kim says she feels she can “represent both Korea and America,” given her heritage.
The teen says she first got on a snowboard at age 4, at her dad’s urging: “He took me there to bribe my mom to come snowboarding with him so I was like the bait.”
While she may be one of the youngest breakout stars on the snow in February, “hopefully I get to do more than one Olympics in my lifetime.”
“I feel like now is a cool time for me,” she says. “I’m going to turn 18 next year. I’m going to go off to college, and I just think having that experience and going through all of it before another big part of my life comes around is going to be really exciting for me.”
Kim’s prodigious physical prowess — she’s the only female snowboarder who can pull off two 1080s right after each other — as well as her youth and personality continue to draw headlines. (One Sports Illustrated article from last year labeled her the “queen of snow” and predicted she could “rule snowboarding for years to come.”)
“Luckily for me, snowboarding doesn’t really feel like work unless I’m actually doing stuff that’s like work-ish, but when I’m just snowboarding I’m having so much fun,” she explains, adding, “I always have fun on the mountain, so it’s always nice to go back out there and do what I love.”
Heading into the PyeongChang Games, she widely considered one of America’s best shots at gold. She’s aware of the hype, but it’s not a big burden.
“At the end of the day, obviously there is going to be some pressure that comes along with it, but at the same time it’s like, you know, ‘Wow, these people really believe in me and have all this confidence in me.’ I think that pushes me to be better and motivates me,” she says.
(And yes, she has searched for herself on the internet: “The first pictures that pop up of me are like when I was 12 and I’m just like, ‘I don’t look like that any more! Stop! Give your girl a chance.’ “)
Kim’s time competing is heavily regimented, with key support from her dad, a former engineer who “really understands the physics of things and how gravity works and all that crazy stuff.”
Outside of the spotlight, Kim is still a teenager, although she does admit her achievements in the sport meant “I had to grow up a little fast.” She travels with her parents — though she’ll “probably” start traveling alone after the Olympics — and is active on social media, where she often shares photos of her mini Australian shepherd, Reese.
“I have two amazing sisters, my mom and I are like best friends so we always go shopping together, we always take Reece to the park together, and I think just me living in the city, when I’m not on snow, just kind of helps a lot with my life and being normal,” Kim says.
“Like when I’m not snowboarding, I’m probably at the mall getting new clothes or at Petco.”
The Winter Olympics begin Feb. 8. To learn more, visit teamusa.org.