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After years of steady progression, women’s halfpipe snowboarding has kicked into overdrive—and the charge is being led by two pint-sized shredders who are topping podiums left and right.
At January’s X Games, 14-year-old Gaon Choi burst onto the scene when she became the youngest X Games snowboard halfpipe gold medalist, breaking a record previously set by halfpipe queen Chloe Kim.
Then, at February’s Dew Tour, 11-year-old Patti Zhou, in her Dew Tour debut, took second in the women’s snowboard superpipe final—becoming the youngest athlete to land on a winter Dew Tour podium. In the winner’s circle, Zhou joined Choi, who took first.
Both girls have pushed the envelope in women’s halfpipe, throwing down big, technical tricks that will force the rest of the (considerably older) field to progress quickly or else be left behind.
At Dew Tour, Zhou’s second-place run featured a switch backside 900 (two and a half full rotations), Cab 720, frontside 540 and backside 540. And that isn’t even the best run she’s capable of; the goofy-footed rider told me she had hoped to put down a switch back 900, Cab 720, front 540, back 900 and crippler 720.
Meanwhile, Choi’s eye-popping winning run included a switch backside 900 Indy, Cab 720 melon, frontside 1080 melon and Cab 900—and we know that she’s capable of landing two 1080s in a single run. (Kim is first woman to ever land back-to-back 1080s in a run, something no other rider has yet matched.)
What’s going on? Is it something in the water?
A big reason we’re seeing such rapid women’s pipe progression in 2022-23 is because two-time Olympic gold medalist Kim opted to take this season off from competitive snowboarding. For years, no one in the field could really challenge Kim, who won every event she entered in the lead-up to the 2022 Beijing Games.
But now, Choi and Zhou have arrived.
Zhou is something of a hometown hero in Summit County, Colorado, where Dew Tour has been held at Copper Mountain since 2020. Zhou is a Copper Mountain–sponsored athlete (she’s also supported by Burton Snowboards, Oakley and Sun Bum) and has trained for years at the resort’s Woodward progression camp.
Zhou and her family traveled to Colorado from their home in China when she was eight years old so she could train with Ski & Snowboard Club Vail. She competed in the Burton US Open Junior Jam in February 2020, wowing pro athletes and spectators alike with her already obvious talent.
When Covid-19 hit in early 2020, Zhou’s family struggled to return to China; every flight they tried to book was either canceled or soared in price to thousands of dollars.
Pro snowboarder Torstein Horgmo, who is originally from Norway but owns a home in Silverthorne, Colorado, was able to step in and help Zhou and her family out. They moved into the lock-off unit of his house, their own space with a separate entrance. Zhou’s dad is an “amazing chef,” Horgmo says, and he often cooks dinner for everyone.
“Copper is my home mountain too, and every time I go there I see Patti riding the park or the pipe, with her dad always,” Horgmo told me. “I’ve seen her progress a lot in the last three years; it was definitely a pinnacle moment for her at Dew Tour. At 11 years old, seeing somebody find that new gear and go bigger than they ever had at an age that is before I even started snowboarding, it’s really cool.
“She’s got a good future ahead of her,” Horgmo added.
Zhou’s “crew” at Dew Tour—her mom, dad, coaches, sister and friends—were on hand for each of her three events and dubbed the “Patti Party” by commentators. Zhou is one of the rare riders who is proficient in halfpipe and slopestyle, and this year, for the first time, Dew Tour held a mixed superpipe jam featuring men and women, skiers and snowboarders alike.
“Woodward helped me progress a lot; it has so many combinations like the Woodward barn and the pipe and the park, and it really helped me bring everything together,” Zhou told me after the halfpipe jam at Dew Tour. “And I’m really thankful to all of these great people who helped me get here to this part of my life and to Dew Tour.”
“I still feel like we’re in a dream,” Zhou’s mom, Bolin, told me. “I cannot believe it’s all true!”
After the halfpipe jam, when we spoke, Zhou was positively buzzing with excitement. She had held her own with competitors twice her age, snowboarders who have been featured in major magazines and have won Olympic medals.
She was also feeling a bit starstruck; in the jam, she had the opportunity to ride alongside one of her idols, Japan’s Ayumu Hirano, who took men’s halfpipe gold at Beijing 2022.
“When he’s riding in front of me and showing off his style, it’s a great chance to learn for me,” Zhou said.
When asked if she thinks she’ll still be holding her own and landing on the podium when Kim returns to halfpipe competition, Zhou answers confidently in the affirmative.
“I feel like I’m growing up so fast and sometimes I just want it to stop, but then again, this experience helped me a lot and I learned that I just need to study more and try harder and get more experience, and I think I can still hold my spot next year,” Zhou said.
But she’s not just aiming to repeat her second-place finish at next year’s Dew Tour. “To be honest, I want to win next time,” she said.
And she’s putting in the work to get there. Zhou can already spin all four directions—frontside, backside, switch frontside (Cab) and switch backside—a must these days for halfpipe podium potential.
She’s also working on double cork 1080s—for now, in the foam pit at the Woodward Copper barn; then, she’ll move to airbags; and finally, she’ll attempt to put them down on snow. (Kim was the first woman to ever land a frontside double 1080; since then, the bar has been raised.)
In the interest of not growing up too fast, Zhou is trying to live a well-rounded life outside of competitive snowboarding. She loves surfing—without an ocean nearby, she mostly hits the wave pool in Waco, Texas— and if she has enough time, she likes to skate, too.
“These things are really fun,” she says—but also, given her natural athletic talent and competitive drive, she’s looking to turn pro in surfing down the line and eventually compete in both sports in the Olympics.
“Also, studying to keep my mind at work,” Zhou said. “I like pretty much all the subjects; I like math, literature, history, science and Chinese, because I’m Chinese.”
Wise beyond her years, Zhou shares a pearl of wisdom she’s gleaned from surfing, which she says taught her to be “more aggressive” when contrasted with the relatively “peaceful” environment of snowboarding, where competitors know they have an equal number of runs.
“In a surfing competition, it’s like somebody gets one wave and the other person gets 20 waves, but sometimes the person with only one wave wins straightaway, and then the other person who gets 20 waves wasted all his waves,” Zhou said.
“Sometimes you paddle out into the ocean and you wait two hours and a wave doesn’t come, so when you catch one, you keep it—you cannot waste it, you know?”