Olympic Snowboarder Chloe Kim on Princeton, Mental Health and Defending Her Gold in Beijing

"Who cares about defending a title? As an athlete, I don't really care about that. I care more about how I can ride," Chloe Kim tells PEOPLE with 100 days to go until the Beijing Olympics

Chloe Kim
Photo: Sean M. Haffey/Getty

For most of her life, Chloe Kim only had snowboarding at the top of her priorities list.

As a teen, her focus and determination took her to the heights of her sport, winning countless titles and quickly becoming the new face of women's snowboarding in the U.S. and worldwide. At 17, she won her first gold medal in halfpipe at the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympics, which further catapulted her into international stardom.

Reflecting on her rapid rise in the sport, Kim, now 21, tells PEOPLE about the "really crazy" post-Games period in her life as she prepares for another Olympic bid for Beijing 2022 — which, as of Wednesday, are 100 days away.

"I was used to getting recognized on the mountain. Everyone there knows the story, but it never happened when I wasn't on the mountain. Then after the Olympics, it was happening all the time everywhere. And it got really, really overwhelming. No one really prepared me for that," the athlete recalls. "I'm better at it now and it's also gotten better. ... But at that point in time, at the apex, it sucked for sure."

A month after Pyeongchang, Kim was accepted into Princeton University but deferred enrollment until 2019, the same year she was recovering from an injury. The star, who was homeschooled most of her life to snowboard, says she initially couldn't escape being recognized at the Ivy League school.

"I think it's a thing where if you know someone that accomplished something or famous that goes to your school, it's going to be a hot topic," she says.

"In the beginning, I was super uncomfortable and I think a lot of [students talking about her] were also fans of mine," Kim continues. "I just wanted a normal college experience. I don't want to be Chloe Kim. I just want to be Chloe, the student, your peer who does the same classes. But honestly, that only lasted for a couple of months. And then it was good to go."

David Ramos/Getty.

Kim says she eventually found a close group of friends who weren't familiar with her accolades or her sport, which was refreshing. But, like for so many, the COVID pandemic interfered with her plans. "I finished school online from home until May [2020], but also, I had to do my offseason training," she shares. "Then, when we got through [lockdown], we had to get really creative figuring out ways to work out and be as athlete-y as possible. When we finally started training on snow, it was so weird because I hadn't seen my friends in a year, in person."

After spending 22 months away from her sport, Kim returned to competition in January 2021 and came out the gate with a win at the Laax Open, claiming her sixth halfpipe title at the X Games.

In the midst of another round of Olympic prep, Kim is back to being tunnel-visioned on her sport again. "I'm on a leave of absence [from Princeton]. It'd be impossible to do that," she says when asked about training and being a full-time college student.

"I went to school because I wanted to get myself a break mentally from all of it," she says of fame. "I think I want to keep honoring that and just ease my way back into it."

Kim credits post-Games life lessons for keeping her grounded this second go-around.

"We've been proactively slowly weaning back into things because if I went back into full force how I used to, I wouldn't be able to handle it. I would pop," she says of dealing with the media and fans online. "I need to be more respectful of my mental health and my time. I think I wasn't able to. I didn't give myself enough personal time and was just going straight into work, work, work, work, work. It just made me go crazy. So I was like, 'I can't do it anymore.' I definitely have anxiety."

Kim continues, "And so I think some days I feel more comfortable, others I feel a little off. But I've learned that that's okay. I can have those days where you just can't do it."

Chloe Kim
Tom Pennington/Getty

The pressure will undoubtedly continue as the Beijing Winter Games approach, with talks of Kim defending her Pyeongchang gold medal.

"I don't like the whole defending title thing. I don't like it because it's been four years since the last Olympics. People change. And I think every Olympics, because of the gap between the two Olympics, you become a whole new person," she explains.

"It's not like you defending the title. It's like, 'Let's see how you've improved. Let's see how you better yourself.' Who cares about defending a title? It's cool and all, it's cool if someone wins two gold medals. As an athlete, I don't really care about that. I care more about how I can ride," Kim says.

"Also, I feel like that's what adds a lot of pressure to athletes. It's those types of things that people say. I'm not defending anything. I just want to go have fun, do my best and feel good about my riding. That's what I want," the Togethxr co-founder shares.

All in all, Kim says she still finds the most joy when she's on the mountain doing what she loves.

"I'm here to have fun. It's purely having fun and pushing my own limits. I have fun pushing myself. I enjoy that. I think that's why a lot of people in the action sports industry do it. It's because that adrenaline rush comes with doing something you've never done before with your body. And it's really exciting," she explains.

As for being called the GOAT (greatest of all time) in snowboarding, Kim remains humble — and hungry for personal growth.

"I'm never going to think of myself as the best. I feel like there's so much I can do and I don't think I deserve to be called the best," she says.

"I think I want to continue progressing as an athlete, as a person. Then I'll be comfortable with that, I guess," Kim notes of the G.O.A.T. consideration.

To learn more about all the Olympic hopefuls, visit TeamUSA.org. Watch the Winter Olympics, beginning February 3 on NBC.

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