When Julia Marino drops in on the big air ramp today in PyeongChang, she’ll do so not just in front of her family, but also a friend from her childhood with a special connection to the Olympic host country.
It all began in kindergarten, where Julia befriended a young immigrant from South Korea named Chaihyun Kim. “Chai” was originally born in Seoul, but she and her parents had moved to Connecticut when she was just 5 years old. As a result, young Chai couldn’t speak English yet and was in completely unfamiliar territory.
The language barrier didn’t matter for the two children, who soon became the best of friends. There were the little things — Julia had to help Chai order lunch each day because she couldn’t yet decipher the alphabet — but their friendship achieved a lot more too.
“When we came to America, my parents were working so much,” Chai said. “So it was the Marino family that showed me and taught me what it was like to have an American childhood.”
The two girls did everything together — so much so that Chai was like another member of the family for several years. Some of the extracurricular activities, like soccer, were tame. But Chai also got to see Julia’s daredevil proclivities first-hand, even if it didn’t always match her own disposition.
“Julia was always jumping off of things,” her dad, John Marino, recalled.
She climbed trees frequently. She raced go-karts around the backyard. One time, she crafted a large mound of snow and jumped off the roof of her house into it.
Chai, however, wasn’t quite the risk-taker that Julia was. She mostly just watched.
“There was a tree in her backyard, and Julia would be like, ‘Chai, let’s go climb up this tree now!'” she said. “And I was just terrified. I’d be standing at the bottom, and Julia would already be at the top.”
As an active kid, it’s no surprise that Julia loved skiing and snowboarding. (Skiing was actually her primary passion before she switched to snowboarding around age 13.)
Julia was a fast learner and the opportunity for a pro snowboarding career soon presented itself. Over time, she and Chai lost contact — though in the modern Facebook era, they were never fully disconnected.
Eventually Julia ended up in Quebec, training with coach Max Henault. In February 2016, she showed up a big air World Cup event at Boston’s Fenway Park as an alternate but was able to compete after another athlete got injured. She ended up winning.
From there, Marino became one of the sport’s rising stars. She won slopestyle gold at X Games last year and became a much hyped prospect for the 2018 Olympic team.
“I knew she was a very successful snowboard athlete, because I remember hearing her name a lot in our local news,” Chai said, “but I wasn’t aware of the fact she was going to the Olympics.”
The two childhood friends ran into each other last year at a mutual friend’s holiday party in Westport, Connecticut. Upon discovering just how likely it was that Julia would end up at the Olympics, Chai and her father began working on a plan to help get the rest of the Marino family there too.
Born from a desire to repay Julia and her family for helping to give Chai a real American childhood, they were able to use their local connections in South Korea to help out Julia and her family.
Tickets for the PyeongChang Olympics were first made available to Korean residents through a lottery system. Chai’s father was able to enter the lottery and secure tickets for both slopestyle and big air for the entire Marino clan.
The next step was to find a place for the family to stay. The venues in PyeongChang are fairly spread out and it can be difficult to find places to rent, but Chai’s dad knew a friend with housing that fit their needs. So while Chai was in Seoul last summer, she and her father went out to Gangneung, checked out the place — a pair of three-bedroom apartments — and negotiated a rental contract. The family had never rented out their place before but considered it an honor to have the family of an Olympian in their home.
Because Julia is competing in two events in PyeongChang, her family came to PyeongChang in waves. There was a group that came in early for her first event, slopestyle, and a second group that arrived last week for her second event, big air.
Unfortunately the slopestyle final turned out to be a wind-marred affair where most riders struggled to land a run due to the challenging weather conditions. (Several athletes criticized the decision to run the event instead of postponing it to a later date.) Julia finished 11th out of 26 riders.
Julia and her family in the crowd will be hoping for a better result in the big air final, which will take place today.
With some of the most progressive tricks in the field, Julia is pegged as a medal contender in big air. She won a pair of X Games medals in this discipline in 2017 (bronze in Aspen, silver in Norway) and finished ninth in the qualifying round in PyeongChang.
And as it happens, Chai is spending a semester studying abroad in Seoul — she’s currently a pre-med student at Yale and hopes to ultimately become a heart surgeon — so she’s been able to attend the Olympics and watch her friend compete for the first time ever.
She’s also been helping show the Marino family around while they’re in South Korea. She hopes that Julia will stick around and explore Seoul with her once the Olympics are finished.
“[Julia] and her family were able to show me America,” Chai said, “but now I’ve been able to show them Korea.”