She’s the most decorated athlete in men’s and women’s snowboarding history, with a half-pipe resume that includes 60 career top finishes — 16 in a row in 2012 — three Olympic appearances, four U.S. Grand Prix titles, three first-place finishes in the World Snowboard Tour Rankings — 2009, 2012 and 2013 — and 11 X Games medals.
But for two-time Olympic medalist Kelly Clark, it’s not so much about the wins as it is a love of the sport. Now at age 30, it’s about passing it on to another generation.
“I’ve had a really great successful snowboarding career,” she said, “but I wanted to make sure I didn’t just leave good competition results. I wouldn’t have done my job very well if I didn’t make the snowboarding community better because I was a part of it. I want to be able to look back and know that I built something bigger than my ability to perform.”
That’s why in 2010 she started the Kelly Clark Foundation, which includes programs to serve aspiring athletes and disadvantaged youth. To date the foundation has raised around $65,000 for its programs.
“I’m a product of people believing in me, people giving me opportunity,” Clark said. “I think some kids never have an opportunity to be great. Behind every great athlete there’s a team of great people.”
And now as a senior member of the U.S. snowboarding team — along with fellow Olympian Gretchen Bleiler — the soft-spoken Clark seems to have embraced a leadership roll.
“If there’s things that I’ve learned that can help someone else be successful, then I’m all in to help them out,” she said. “I think it’s no secret that some of the younger women coming up are going do things on a snowboard that Gretchen or me could never do.”
Clark has long been an embassador of the sport and continues to push its boundaries, narrowing the gap between men and women in competition. For her that’s what it’s always been about.
“It’s easy to look to a contest, to help progress your riding, but that’s never anything I wanted to do,” she said. “I wanted to set goals and I wanted to pursue them. I have trick goals that kind of steer my career.”
In 2011 she was the first woman to land a 1080 (three rotations) in competition. The drive to advance the sport is a big part of what has kept her on top of her game and motivated to improve for more than a decade.
Speaking to the evolution of the sport and the changes she’s seen, she said, “It’s just about the tricks; that’s how the sport’s changed. It’s grown in popularity and things like that, but the tricks are what has changed. The run that I did to win gold in Salt Lake (2002) may not make it into a final now. The tricks progress every year and I think that’s what keeps me coming back. It’s always changing. I’ll never be the best. I always have to get challenged daily. When I go out there. I love that.“
There’s a quiet sense of pride and satisfaction about Clark when she’s speaking about her passions as a mentor and about giving back to a community that helped her get to where she is. But in her heart she’s clearly still as much of a competitor as she was when she won the gold medal in 2002. She sounds as though she still has something left to prove after finishing fourth and just missing the Olympic podium in Vancouver in 2010. Her sights appear to be firmly set on another Olympic appearance. There’s a distinct sense of determination in her reserved tone.
“For me this journey started four years ago,” she said. “It’s not about cramming for a test at this point. I found that if my snowboarding is in order, if I’m prepared, I’m able to really enjoy it. I started working on this a long time ago. For me it’s about sticking to the plan, regardless of what happens.”
Finishing as the top American in half-pipe at the Dew Tour earlier this month — second behind Australia’s Torah Bright — that plan appears to be in order and could produce another Olympic appearance for her. With the first U.S. Olympic qualifier behind her, Clark heads into her second final Saturday night at the U.S. Grand Prix at Copper Mountain.
Describing the Olympic qualifiers, she said, “These events this year are more intense than anything else than we experience. Even once you get to the Olympics it’s often a lot mellower than trying to make the team. It’s an amazing field of athletes. It’s going to be a really good show. You’re going to see people laying it on the line in these next five events.”
However, she has the resume to deal with that pressure.
“I feel more prepared than I’ve ever been. I’m riding better than I’ve ever been. I’m more confident than I’ve ever been. And I’m having more fun than I’ve ever had. I’m in the best place that I can be,” she said in a soft tone that was somewhere just above a whisper, but quietly determined.
Editor’s Note: [UPDATE] Clark took first place in the women’s half-pipe at the Sprint U.S. Grand Prix, Saturday, Dec. 21. With the win she locked up spot on the 2014 U.S. Olympic Team and will make her fourth Olympic appearance when the winter games open in Sochi, Russia, in February.
“Tonight I made my fourth Olympic team, it’s an absolute privilege,” Clark said after the win. The full story on Clark’s win is available by clicking on this hyperlink.
“I want to be able to look back and know that I built something bigger than my ability to perform.”