Five-ring Circus

In Praise of America’s Action Teens

Chloe Kim, Red Gerard, and the birth of a new kind of Olympic hero.

PYEONGCHANG-GUN, SOUTH KOREA - FEBRUARY 13:  Gold medalist Chloe Kim of the United States celebrates winning the Snowboard Ladies' Halfpipe Final on day four of the PyeongChang 2018 Winter Olympic Games at Phoenix Snow Park on February 13, 2018 in Pyeongchang-gun, South Korea.  (Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images)
Gold medalist Chloe Kim of the United States celebrates winning the snowboard women’s halfpipe final of the Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympic Games at Phoenix Snow Park on Feb. 13, 2018 in Pyeongchang-gun, South Korea. Clive Rose/Getty Images

On Tuesday morning in Pyeongchang, Chloe Kim was feeling some remorse about a life decision.

Kim, who won her first Olympic gold medal by skying and twisting and stomping all over the field in the women’s halfpipe, will dominate her sport for however long she feels like strapping a snowboard to her feet. The 17-year-old American also appears poised to redefine how we think about Olympic stardom. Chloe Kim is a hero for our times, a young woman who centers herself by posting about hangriness. She sent that breakfast sandwich tweet in the middle of today’s competition, in the minutes between her second and third runs. Fifteen minutes after her food-based rumination, she corkscrewed her way to the day’s best score.

Getting anointed one of the faces of the Winter Games is a lot of pressure for anyone to bear, much less a teenager.

Thankfully, she found a coping mechanism.

Tweeting during competition, it seems like, is the best way for the teenager from Long Beach to maintain a sense of normalcy during the most abnormal event in the world.

Young athletes have taken center stage at the Winter Olympics for a very long time. Peggy Fleming was 19 years old when she topped the podium in Grenoble in 1968, and Tara Lipinski was just 15 when she won gold in women’s figure skating in 1998. More recently, skier Mikaela Shiffrin took gold at the 2014 Sochi Games as an 18-year-old, setting herself up for what looks like a record-setting career on the slopes.

The rise of extreme sports at the Winter Games, though, has birthed a new kind of star: the action teen. The importation of events from the X Games and other extreme sports competitions has made the games more fun to watch and just a little more chill. It’s not fair to describe Chloe Kim as too cool for school—she desperately wanted to win in Pyeongchang, and she felt the need to please the crowd that came out to watch her soar. She did not, however, feel the need to put her phone in airplane mode.

Kim’s fellow teenager Red Gerard, who won Team USA its first gold medal of these Winter Olympics in men’s slopestyle snowboarding, is just as competitive as his snowboarding counterpart, though seemingly less fixated on churros. Gerard is a different species of action teen—a couple notches more deadpan, and delightfully indifferent to the notion that this one event is supposed to be the defining moment of his very young life. The Colorado native told reporters before the games that he didn’t know what the Olympics were. (Do any of us really know what the Olympics are, man?) This weekend, when asked by the press what he planned to do with his gold medal, he replied: “Look at it for quite some time? I don’t know.”

Gerard, like Kim, is 17 years old. He’s been snowboarding since he was two, and has been known on the big-deal snowboarding circuit since he was 12 or 13. For as long as Gerard has been a teen, he’s been an action teen, putting out action-packed snowboarding tapes, traveling the world, and getting featured in snowboard magazines. His Instagram feed is a record of an action-packed teenage life: lots of mid-air shots, family photos, and occasional product placement. Sometimes, action teens are dapper—but only when they’re repping action eyewear brands.

Throughout his young career, Gerard has drawn praise from well-known action adults. Last year, 2014 men’s slopestyle gold medalist Sage Kotsenburg told NBC Sports he hoped Gerard would win gold in Pyeongchang. “He’s got such awesome style and really respects the background of snowboarding,” said Kotsenburg. Gerard landed a championship run on a day when the winds were kicking up, and non-teenage snowboarders seemed to be holding themselves back. Action teens don’t hold back.

With the success they’ve had in Pyeongchang, Kim and Gerard—young, talented, and extremely entertaining—conjure long-forgotten memories of Shaun White, the original lovable action teen. White was 19 when he won his first gold at the 2006 Turin Olympics and captured America’s heart with his flowing red hair and exuberant demeanor. At his inaugural gold-medal press conference, White announced he was hoping to snag a date with American figure skater Sasha Cohen, and even gave everyone a preview of his pickup line: “You do a 1080? So do I.” Today, White is 31 and attending his fourth and possibly final Olympics. He is unpopular with his peers, and last year settled a sexual harassment suit that had been brought against him by the drummer of his band.

Chloe Kim and Red Gerard will hopefully carve a different path. But no matter what they do after 2018, they’ll never again be this young or this delightful. Enjoy them while you can. The churros likely won’t taste as good in 2022.

Read the rest of Slate’s coverage of the Pyeongchang Olympics.

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