By Rachel Axon, USA TODAY Sports March 7, 2016
Kelly Clark hasn’t done it by herself, but the veteran snowboarder has had a lot to do with snowboarding’s progression from ski resort outcasts to one of the most popular in the Olympics.
To be sure, her wins have helped. At 32, she is the winningest snowboarder ever with more than 70 trips atop the podium. That includes an Olympic gold medal she won in Salt Lake City in 2002 when she was 18. She followed that up with bronze in 2010 and 2014. Clark also has 13 X Games medals.
And in a sport that values progression, Clark has helped lead the way. She was the first woman to land a 1080 when she did it in 2011.
Hoping her ceiling can be the next generation’s floor, the four-time Olympian is still competing at a high level while mentoring other riders informally and through the Kelly Clark Foundation. Coming off a Grand Prix win in Mammoth in January, she spoke with USA TODAY Sports before the X Games.
As part of USA TODAY High School Sports’ ongoing coverage of Girls Sports Month, Clark reflected on how snowboarding has changed for girls and how she helped get the sport to where it is today.
USAT: When you were first starting in the sport, what was it like for girls?
Kelly Clark: It wasn’t accepted for really anyone, much less women. The first year snowboarding was even allowed at my home resort, snowboarding, I like to say, wasn’t cool then, wasn’t as widely accepted. You were like the outlier of the outlier as a woman, and I was a 7-year-old. I just grew up snowboarding is pretty much how it was.
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USAT: You’ve certainly been part of it, but how have you seen that change since then?
KC: I think there was women who went before me, and myself along with my peers – like Hannah (Teter) and Gretchen (Bleiler) and Torah (Bright) and Elena (Hight) – those were a lot of the names that I really ran with in the competitive world. We saw the biggest surge forward in the acceptance of snowboarding at the 2002 Olympics. Between the Olympics and the X Games, it brought snowboarding into people’s living rooms all across the U.S., all across the world for that matter. And that’s when it kind of became, I don’t want to say accepted, but that’s kind of when it became recognized as a legitimate activity, sport. It’s really grown from then.
I think having events showcase snowboarding really made an invitation to youth and to women. I think seeing the competitive sports world really was the cornerstone of that invitation, for sure. I think it’s just grown in popularity as a result.
USAT: It’s not often that you have a sport change so much in the career of an athlete. Why do you think it went from, ‘We don’t even want you on our mountain’ when you were starting to now that they can’t add enough of these events in the Olympics?
KC: Nobody likes change in the first place, so regardless if something was good or bad I think the idea of change in the ski industry was intimidating. But I think snowboarding, and action sports for that matter, are really relatable. They’re called lifestyle sports.
If you go out and play baseball, play catch with your dad, you don’t call yourself a baseball player. But if you go snowboarding with your friends on the weekend, you call yourself a snowboarder. So there’s this sort of inclusion and this identity that comes along with this sport specifically that I think is what made it so successful. It’s not something you do. It’s something you’re a part of. That’s really what makes action sports different than traditional sports. It’s the culture and the lifestyle that goes along with it, and that’s, I believe, what’s made it so successful.
USAT: At what point did you recognize or accept your place as a role model?
KC: When I was 18 and I deferring from college and I had one year to show my dad that I could make snowboarding a career because it was not something you tell your dad that you’re gonna not go to school. And I remember that was really the year that I realized I had made it or I could call this a career. I won the X Games, the U.S. Open and the Olympics all in the same season, and that was really the moment where I realized that I could do this.
But at the same time, I was young. I was 18 years old. I don’t think it was until, honestly, until my 2010 Olympics where I really had matured enough as a person and grown up enough to really realize that not only was I a leader in this sport, but I was an influencer and I had the opportunity to shape it and contribute. And I think that just comes with experience and maturity. It’s when I finally stopped thinking about myself so much and considering others. You do that right around when you’re 25, 26. You realize you’re not the center of the universe.
USAT: When you look at where things are now for a 7-year-old girl or someone like (15-year-old X Games champion) Chloe Kim or some of these younger pros, what challenges and opportunities are there for girls in this sport?
KC: I think there’s a lot more opportunity for young women than there was when I started in terms of access and maybe inspiration you can relate to. There’s women being profiled at the X Games that are relatable. I think it’s good having people both like Chloe and like myself. We both are relatable to different people. I think it’s great for the sport to have a young teenager in the mix and then someone who’s 30-something in the mix as well.
As far as challenges, we’ve come so far but even last week there was an event in Switzerland that didn’t have equal prize money for men and women which is just kind of amazing in this day and age. You look at that and you’re like, ‘Wait, that’s still happening? How is that even possible?’ We’re established, and we have each other to relate to, to encourage, to inspire, but I wouldn’t say that we’re free and clear of all the kind of gender inequalities.USAT: In your sport, what does it take to keep pushing that and make progress in areas where there might be some inequality?
KC: I think that as women in perhaps careers, other sports, in snowboarding, I think we can get into a position where we feel like we need to not be us and we just need to progress to where men are. And I don’t know if that’s always the answer as far as what kind of challenges we come up against right now as women in snowboarding. I don’t think we need to try to be the men. I think we need to be comfortable in where we’re at and be comfortable in who we are and what we bring to the table and who we’re supposed to be.
I think we spend a lot of time just chasing down men’s progression of snowboarding, and I don’t know if that’s realistic and I don’t know if that’s healthy. I think that’s relatable in business and a lot of different things. There’s aspects and elements that only women can bring to the table that need to be recognized and we need to be comfortable in and we need to be authentic in, not compromising who we are to get our needs met.
USAT: I know you take being a role model seriously, and your foundation’s a part of that. Either through what you do there or just trying to guide and be a good example for women in the sport, how do you think you’ve been able to do that and why has it been so important to you?
KC: In 2010 is really when I realized that I wanted to make sure that snowboarding was a better place because I was a part of it. I’d had a very long, successful career and I realized that I wanted to leave something more than just competition results. Those come and go, but there’s things that you can build that outlast your ability to perform, and that’s what I wanted to do. That’s what I aim to do through my foundation.
Just for example, one of the women that we support is competing here at X Games now. Maddie Mastro, she’s one of the young student-athletes we support through the Mammoth scholar program through my foundation. We supported her last year and this year, and so it’s really amazing to see when you give people opportunity what they can do with that. That’s just one of the success stories you can point out in the difference that I’m making.
And I’ve always wanted to lead by example, and I want to contribute but I also want to be an athlete that invests in other people. Even for my fellow athletes to see that it’s super important. Our jobs almost require us to prioritize ourselves and our goals and our schedule and our contests, and I just think it’s a bit healthier when we have the balance of pursuing our goals but also considering others along the way and investing into others.
It’s been a big important part of my career because caring about people and investing in others is something I believe in. If my actions didn’t support that, I might want to go back to the drawing board. If that’s something I say I believe in and I believe to be true and I believe is important, I should have a foundation. I should be out there helping people with their tricks. I should be encouraging the women around me. I want to lead by example.
Any time you see such a generation gap – last week, the two women I was on the podium with, if you added up their ages, I was still older. There’s a pretty big gap, and there really is a different generation and a different idea. But I want to make sure that the principles that was inspired by – as far as community and individualism and excellence and camaraderie – that those things remain intact.
Those are the kind of core values of snowboarding. For me, I want to pass those on to this generation of snowboarders. I don’t want that to be lost in the mix of a different generation, of an instant generation where we lose the value of hard work. Maybe it’s part of getting old, something my dad would say. But those are the things that you want to instill, but that’s my opportunity and my responsibility to pass on to the next generation. So not only am I want to do it from a trick perspective, I want to do it from a core value of our community perspective. And I think that’s part of what expires me to really think about others and contribute to the sport of snowboarding.