A Snowboarding Legend: How Kelly Clark Became the Most Dominant Athlete in the History of the Sport
By Jim Brown
Kelly Clark, all five feet, four inches of her, is already a snowboarding legend—a four-time Olympian with one gold and two bronze medals. She has seven X Games gold medals, five World Snowboard Tour titles, six Grand Prix titles, and eight U.S. championships.
In one year alone, she won an Olympic gold medal, an X Game gold, the U.S. Open championship, and the Overall Grand Prix title.
In short, she is the most dominant athlete in the history of snowboarding and the most “medaled” halfpipe specialist ever, male or female.
That’s not all. At age 33, she’s still at it—ranked second in the world—while three top-10 rivals are half her age.
This is a story of how Kelly Clark reached the top and how she plans to stay there, with the help of Steadman Clinic doctors and SPRI research, by overcoming a career-threatening injury.
RIGHT PLACE, EARLY START, SUPPORTIVE PARENTS
“I grew up in a small town in Vermont and my dad was a skier,” she explains. “He had me on skis when I was two, and I started snowboarding when I was seven.”
She was competing by the time she got to high school and enrolled in the Mount Snow Academy, a school that allowed students to attend classes half a day and snowboard the other half. By age 16 she had made the U.S. Snowboard Team. At 18, she won her Olympic gold medal in Salt Lake City.
“I started snowboarding before it was cool. It has elements of creativity and individuality. Two people can do the same trick, but it looks different because each one brings his or her own style to it. In that regard, snowboarding is unique.”
“I also had ‘a moment’ when I was 14,” she told CNN. “That was the first year the Olympics included snowboarding as a sport. I recorded the snowboarding events from Nagano, Japan, on VHS tape and watched them after school. I knew then that’s what I wanted to do with my life.”
Her parents were supportive, but she was on the clock. “Basically, I had one year after high school to show them I could make this a career, and that year turned out to be a breakout season when I started getting first place finishes. Even then, it wasn’t a sure thing until I had that Olympic experience and snowboarding kind of blew up around the world.”
FOUR YEARS FOR 30 SECONDS
“Basically, I train four years for a 30-second halfpipe run,” she says. “Snowboarders have a very small amount of time to be excellent. At the end of the day, no one can do what we try to do. My sports psychologist says it’s 95 percent physical and five percent mental, but that five percent can completely erase the 95 percent if you let it.”
“It may look like we’re making it up, but every single trick is pre-planned,” she continues. “I know the kind of run I want to make in the Olympics two years out and work toward that goal.”
Off the snow, Kelly trains six days a week, with a two-week break in the spring. “There are building weeks and recovery weeks,” she says, “with two days of agility drills, two strength days, four days of cardio, and five days of core and mobility training. Getting ready for the Olympics involves about 25 hours of training a week just on fitness, not snowboarding.”
“At my age, I tend to pace myself in practice at events more than before, and try to train smarter, not harder. I want my best runs of the day to be when the judges are watching.”
Clark’s remarkable success has led the U.S. Snowboard Team to study her as a possible prototype in order to gather data on what it takes to be successful in such a demanding sport.
“There really isn’t much data because snowboarding is still a relatively new sport,” she explains. “We don’t know what kind of body type, body composition, and mental makeup is best for us. Now, we’re trying to figure it out.”
“I KNEW IMMEDIATELY THAT SOMETHING WAS WRONG”
"I had been aware that I didn’t have the mobility in my hips that I had when I was younger, but it wasn’t really a concern. But about a year ago I started getting much more limited motion and discomfort in my glutes and lower back. It gradually got worse and I kind of limped my way through the season.”
“I crashed in Norway at the X Games and knew immediately that something was wrong with my hip. I returned to the U.S. and saw Dr. Hackett at The Steadman Clinic in Vail. He was our team doctor and familiar with my medical history. He sent images of my hip to Dr. Marc Philippon, and within days I was back in Vail for surgery on a hip labral tear (ring of cartilage around the hip joint socket), cam impingement (bone tissue overgrowth on the femur), and hamstring avulsion (tendon torn away from the bone).”
“I had a friend who had similar surgery a few years earlier,” says Clark. “I was amazed at how much development in the procedure and rehab protocol had taken place in that short amount of time. The doctors at The Clinic and SPRI are constantly finding better ways to perform the procedures and to speed up recovery.”
Her rehab exercises began at 7:00 am the morning after her surgery, a practice pioneered by SPRI’s Dr. Richard Steadman four decades ago. The recovery/rehabilitation protocols are constantly being refined as a result of research conducted at SPRI.
“Looking at my scars, it seems like Dr. Philippon gets in and out quickly and efficiently. No extra time on the operating table or moving instruments around unnecessarily that can lead to excessive scar tissue. That makes a big difference in the recovery process.”
SEVEN MONTHS, SURGERY TO SLOPES
Clark’s surgery was on March 14. She was cleared to resume all activities in late August and scheduled to return to snow in New Zealand on October 10. Seven months, surgery to slopes. Her goal is to make the Olympic team a year from now.
“I want to be able to enjoy my next two years and make another Olympic run,” she says. “My decision to go ahead with surgery was not only because I wanted to compete again, but to have a good quality of life when I’ve finished competing.”
“I would tell people who have similar injuries, whether or not they are athletes, that I wouldn’t go anywhere else in the world for treatment. You want to be in the best place with the best people who will do anything they can to help you get better, quicker.”
The Kelly Clark Foundation
Kelly Clark lives her message of inspiration through The Kelly Clark Foundation, which gives opportunities to young people and helps them reach their highest potential through snowboarding. Since the organization’s inception six years ago, her foundation has awarded more than $125,000 in grants and scholarships to eliminate financial barriers for talented young athletes across the country.
Click here to be taking to the full newsletter from SPRI