|espnW.com: Athlete's Life|
Whatever stereotypes may exist about snowboarders, one of the sport's greatest female riders in history blows most of them up faster and higher than her signature 1080.
The winner of 16 straight on the event circuit last year, Kelly Clark is neither cocky nor a self-promoter. She doesn't pepper every sentence with snowboard lingo. And at 29, she's certainly not interested in being a rebel.
"I am part of an industry and a sport that does have that image, but I'm not going to change who I am to fit into that," Clark said. "I'm going to be comfortable with my values and what I believe in, and I'm going to represent those values and hopefully inspire others to show them they can be part of this culture too."
Describing herself as "more introverted, calm and collected," the 2002 Olympic gold medalist and 2010 bronze-medal winner in the halfpipe is something of an old-timer in a sport where the average age is closer to 21. But she is also still at the top of her game and one of the superpipe favorites heading into her 14th career X Games in Aspen, Jan. 24-27 (ESPN, ABC and WatchESPN).
"The women's field has gotten a lot more competitive over the last two years and Kelly has really pioneered a lot of that," said Clark's coach Ricky Bower. "To be honest, this coming Olympics [in Sochi, which would be a U.S. record fourth appearance], she has as good a shot as anybody to win it all. And down the road, she is so motivated I would not count her out. There was a Japanese rider competing at age 37. Kelly would be 34 for the next Olympics [in 2018] and it's entirely possible she can keep going if she wanted to."
Clark has a longer-term vision than that, however.
The Kelly Clark Foundation, established in 2010, has awarded $42,000 worth of scholarships to young athletes with financial need, and is dedicated, Clark explained, to helping kids with athletic potential have access to the sort of training and education she received growing up in Vermont and attending Mount Snow Academy.
"To be an athlete on [a world-class level], you have to be out for yourself, and you have to make goals and sacrifices to see your dream and your career move forward," Clark said. "But at some point, I thought it would be better if I wasn't the focal point of my life. I looked around and realized I've had this incredible snowboarding career and basically, I don't want to look back some day and just see good results. I want to make the industry and the culture better because I was a part of it."
Clark explained it was only because her grandfather invested in her snowboard training that she was able to get the necessary coaching and attend school at the same time.
"It's no secret that it's an expensive sport," she said. "I knew how much my family invested and I knew that was something I could do and a difference I could make, that there was something bigger than me that I could invest in that would last longer than my ability to compete. And I thought, what better way to leave a legacy than to impact and create opportunities for other kids to enjoy the same sport I love?"
But Clark's goal is not simply to make successful snowboarders but successful people.
"Sports in general has been proven to improve school attendance, self-esteem and help develop and mature young adults," she said. "The things that sports can teach are what we want to create access to."
It has not escaped others in the sport.
"What I love about Kelly is that, over the years, she's gotten to a place where she has found her niche in life and in snowboarding and I think that's why she's riding better than ever," said veteran rider Gretchen Bleiler, Olympic silver medalist in the halfpipe in 2006.
"She's passionate, she's dedicated, she's supportive and now she's taking her success and turning it into attention and support toward the next generation. I always think that attaching what we do to a higher cause brings us even more joy, and that's what I'm seeing in Kelly in many different aspects, from her foundation, to her faith, to just being happy being Kelly."
While snowboarders are not among the highest-endorsed athletes in sports or even winter sports, a September 2012 Forbes story on two-time Olympic gold-medal snowboarder Shaun White's arrest on charges of vandalism and public intoxication reported his net worth at an estimated $20 million with at least six major endorsement deals earning him a reported $2 million per deal.
As for Clark, "For me, it has always been about snowboarding, that's what motivates me," she said. "That's what I love and what I'm passionate about. You can promote yourself, you can endorse things you don't believe in, but I'd rather do things I do believe in and invest in things I see value in. Those are the things I want to represent and want to spend my time building.
"I started my foundation because it's not about me. I could cash out, sure, but it's far more valuable to me to build something not based on image."
Bower said Clark's unbending principles apply both on and off the snow.
"She's gotten to be where she is in this sport from that kind of ability to take a step back and look at what she's done and where she wants to go," Bower said. "Kelly is very good at setting goals, not necessarily just performance-based, and has had a lot of success as a result of doing that.
"I bet she could [make more money and be a bigger celebrity] if she were willing to be more flexible to other people's wishes for her, but she's very much on her own path and she has 100 percent control over what she's doing right now, which is pretty cool."
Bower said Clark's adherence to following her own instincts was demonstrated at the 2006 Torino Olympics, where "she could have easily won with a less difficult trick on the last hit, but she wanted to try for the 900 and went bigger than any other female snowboarder had at the time and fell and ended up in fourth place.
"I think she learned a lot from that experience, but looking back, she said she wouldn't change a thing and would have gone for the same trick again, which speaks a lot to who Kelly is and what her motivation is for doing what she does," Bower added. "It's not necessarily about pleasing sponsors or fame or glory; she wants to do snowboarding and make people happy."
The first woman to perform a 1080 in competition when she did the trick in 2011, Clark said she will continue to push the boundaries with her high-flying tricks, sad but undeterred by the accident to close friend Kevin Pearce, who sustained a traumatic brain injury during a halfpipe training run in 2009, and the death of friend and competitor Sarah Burke, the four-time Winter X Games superpipe gold medalist and world champion in halfpipe, who died in January 2012 following a training accident in Utah.
"We look like risk-takers and I would say we are," Clark said of those in her sport, "but I would also say we're perhaps more calculated than people would guess in our risk-taking. We're trained professionals who have taken baby steps to get all the way to the technical level we're at in the sport right now.
"There is a reality when I look at [what happened to] Kevin and Sarah and at the dangers in the sport. But I have never believed in making decisions based on what is going on around me. I'd rather form values and goals that are a vision and a testament to those people, and nothing would do them greater honor than to continue to progress our sport like they did."
As the face of women's snowboarding, Clark said she now finds herself to be a mentor to many of her young competitors and feels less of "the tension when you have peers competing against each other." But any plans for her retirement would be premature.
"I'm stronger and healthier and more motivated than I've ever been with my riding, really at an all-time high," she said. "I couldn't have told you five to 10 years ago that this would be the best part of my career, in my late 20s. I wouldn't have guessed that. But I'm just going with it right now.
"No one in the U.S. [in snowboarding] has been to three Olympics, which seems impossible, so why not go for four? Beyond that, I won't be going anywhere away from the industry for a long while."