By Winni Zhou and Mari Saito
ZHANGJIAKOU, China (Reuters) -American Chloe Kim cemented her position as one of the greats of women’s snowboarding with a commanding performance on Thursday to win halfpipe gold at the Winter Games and successfully defend her 2018 Olympic title.
The 21-year-old set herself apart from rivals in the very first run, earning a top score of 94 by breezily landing 1080s. Spain’s Queralt Castellet could never catch up with Kim and had to settle for silver, while Sena Tomita of Japan won the bronze medal.
Kim, who at 17 became the youngest woman ever to win Olympic gold in snowboarding at the Pyeongchang Games in 2018, roared back in style after taking nearly two years off the slopes.
After landing her first run, Kim put her hands on her black helmet and dropped to her knees in the snow, overjoyed to have nailed what she called her “safety run”.
“I just was so proud of myself,” Kim said about her first run, adding she had a terrible practice session where she fell twice going into Thursday’s final that had initially put her in a “weird headspace”.
“I was just like overflowed with emotions when I was able to land it on the first go.”
Given her sizeable lead, Kim then attempted a cab 1260 in her second and third runs but fell both times.
After the last Games, she took time off to focus on her studies and her mental health.
“I think the biggest lesson I’ve learnt from the last Olympics was being as open as possible. It’s unfair to be expected to be perfect,” Kim told reporters at a packed news conference.
Suffering from frustration and burnout, she briefly threw out her gold medal as junk after the 2018 Games but said on Thursday she had no intention of repeating that this time.
After Kim’s high run, Castellet received the next highest score of 90.25 and Tomita earned 88.25.
“I am extremely happy, to be honest. The second place in behind Chloe is incredible. She is an incredible athlete,” Castellet said after the final.
Tomita said she was happy to become the first Japanese woman to win a halfpipe medal.
“Everybody was very aggressive, and in that kind of competitive environment I got a medal. That has given me a lot of confidence,” she said.
Kim, or “golden girl” as TV commentators called her on Thursday, was joined at the snow park by her friend, Eileen Gu, the Chinese freestyle skier. Gu, wearing a Red Bull helmet and black puffer jacket, cheered Kim on from the finish line.
International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach also appeared on the sidelines and watched the event.
The course, officially called the Secret Garden Olympic Halfpipe, is more than 200 metres long and 22 metres wide. The inner height of the halfpipe walls is 7 metres.
(Reporting by Winni Zhou and Mari Saito; Editing by Michael Perry and Muralikumar Anantharaman)