Kelly Clark poses for a portrait on April 28, 2017 in West Hollywood, Calif.
PYEONGCHANG, South Korea – Chloe Kim was just a little girl the first time she met Kelly Clark.
“She tugged on my sleeve,” Clark said. “It was pretty cute.”
Kim, destined to become the 2018 Olympic halfpipe snowboarding gold medalist, told Clark, the 2002 Olympic champion, “I really, really look up to you.”
“I was completely fan-girling out,” added Kim, “and my parents are behind me like ‘Ohmygosh, she touched Kelly Clark’s jacket.’”
In the years since, Clark, 34, took Kim, now 17, under her wing to the point that both are wearing the same Team USA jackets – Kim at her first Olympics and Clark at her fifth and potentially last Games.
“She’s been nothing but a huge inspiration to me, being a good person in general and being a hardworking athlete,” Kim said. “It’s nice to have someone like Kelly always giving me advice. She’s helped me out with so many tricks, even at contests when I’m nervous.
“My first press conference ever was at the U.S. Open, and she’s like ‘You’ll be fine. If you’re uncomfortable, just pass it on to me.’ She’s really helped me out a lot, so I’ll be forever thankful for everything’s she’s done.”
Kim expressed her gratitude after winning gold at the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018. The United States Olympic Committee allows every Olympic medalist to award the Order of Ikkos medal to someone who has influenced them and helped them in their journey. Usually the athlete selects a coach.
Kim chose Clark. So even though Clark just missed the podium in the halfpipe competition, placing fourth behind teammate Arielle Gold, she has a medal from 2018 to go along with her gold from Salt Lake City and bronze medals from Vancouver 2010 and Sochi 2014.
“Not many athletes get to stick around long enough to see what their legacy will look like,” Clark said after the competition. “This U.S. women’s team is an incredible group of talented young women and I’m so proud of them. I think my Olympic career could end today, but theirs is just getting started.”
Tough Halfpipe Competition Brings Out The Best
Clark said all of the women were riding at a very high level in the halfpipe final and she put down a last run at Phoenix Snow Park that was her best of the day.
“So much of the time the Olympics can be something that you can survive and just make it through,” Clark said. “Today I was calling the shots and was in the driver's seat. I enjoyed myself, managed myself well and rode well. I think it’s so easy to measure success by winning a medal, but for me this was an extremely successful day in the midst of it.”
She’s in her element at the Games.
“I love the Olympics perhaps more than anyone here,” she said at a pre-Games press conference. “I love the competition because we get to see what we’ve built. We get to work toward something and it really causes all of our greatness to come out of us at these events.
“But you don’t need to treat it as something that should define your career or just a destination. It should be part of your journey. Not the end of your journey.”
Clark’s journey started at age 2 when she learned to ski. By the third grade, she began losing interest in ski racing and got her first snowboard. Clark was 14 when the sport made its Olympic debut.
“I recorded the ’98 Olympics on a VHS tape if anybody has any idea what those are,” said Clark, who grew up in Vermont and now lives in Mammoth Lakes, California. “I watched it after school and I said, ‘This is what I want to do with my life.’”
Clark added, “I always say I started snowboarding before it was cool.”
Winning Her First Medal
She made her first Olympic team in 2002. During a practice run at the Salt Lake City Games, Clark bruised her tailbone and broke her wrist on a fall, but still competed.
Clark became the first Team USA rider, male or female, to win Olympic gold in snowboarding.
“You know, four years later I found myself standing on the Olympic podium in Park City,” Clark said. “It’s the most overwhelming, incredible, emotional, proudest moment of my life. It’s hard to describe the sort of emotion and intensity that comes along with it.”
No other U.S. Olympic snowboarding athlete has competed in five Olympic Games. Shaun White, who won his third Olympic gold medal Wednesday, is only on his fourth.
Besides her three medals, Clark has two fourth-place finishes: 2006 and Tuesday in PyeongChang, where she was in podium position until Gold bumped her on the third and last run.
“I think sudden success is much easier than sustained success,” Clark said, “so if I end up top-five at every single Olympics that I’ve been to, I think that’s something to hang my hat on.”
Gold said it was bittersweet knowing that she and Clark were vying for the bronze medal.
“She’s someone I’ve looked up to ever since I started snowboarding – even more so when I got to spend time with her over the years and have gotten to know the kind of person she is,” Gold said. “She’s been a huge support system for me emotionally when things get challenging and I’m grateful to have her here for this experience.”
Pushing The Envelope
Clark had to evolve along with her sport, upping the ante on her runs. She was the first woman to land a 1080.
“Tricks have changed a lot,” Clark said. “If I did the run that I won with in Salt Lake, I wouldn’t even make a final today. I've had to constantly progress my riding, and I think that’s why I'm still able to be here 16 years later is because I'm constantly challenged, and I love that.”
Clark faced a challenge of a different sort when she tore her hamstring and hip labrum in February 2016 at X Games Norway, requiring major surgery. She was off the snow for 10 months and was tested mentally, emotionally and physically.
“It’s all encompassing really when your livelihood and your dreams and your career – everything – are all tied together there and your body doesn’t work,” she said.
But Clark said what the doctors and trainers say is true: “You will get better.”
She made a full recovery, and just as critically, Clark said, “After I am done competing I’ll have a good quality of life with a functional body as a retired professional athlete. I think it’s so important to put in the time to take care of ourselves, to make those efforts to not only do what we do well, but also be healthy when we’re done competing.”
Upon her return to the pipe, she won the Olympic test event last year in PyeongChang. To date, Clark has won more than 70 career events.
“I’ve had one of the most wonderful snowboard careers anyone could ever hope to have,” she said, “and I got to a point I think after the Vancouver Games and I kind of looked around and I started asking myself what sort of impact was I going to leave on the sport beyond just competition results?
“I started asking myself ‘What would actually make a difference?’ What I can I pour my efforts into that would outlast my ability to perform. And I started to transition as a lot of my peers started to retire and all of a sudden everybody was 16 years old. And I was actually at an event in New Zealand this summer and realized if you added up (Chloe Kim and Maddie Mastro’s) ages they equaled my age. I was like ‘How did this happen?’”
Helping The Next Generation
While Clark’s achievements are literally part of the foundation of the sport in the United States, in 2010, she went a step further. She created the Kelly Clark Foundation to provide kids an opportunity to “get out on the hill.” The foundation has awarded more than $150,000 in grants and scholarships.
“I think it’s so important to give back,” Clark said. “Snow sports can be expensive and so we look to break down some of those financial barriers and we fund high-level athletes.”
One of those was fellow 2018 Olympian Maddie Mastro, who received a scholarship from the foundation.
“Kelly Clark has been an amazing inspiration to the whole sport of women’s snowboarding,” Mastro said, “and it’s incredible how much she has pushed to progress the sport. The longevity of her career is another thing to look up to and be inspired by. We all respect her a lot.”
Clark also devotes time to partnering with other snow-related non-profits as well as Right to Play, which brings sports to children around the world. She even climbed Mount Kilimanjaro to raise money.
Another organization she supports is the High Fives Foundation, which helps injured action-sports athletes.
“I think that’s something that’s really overlooked,” Clark said. “We’re all out there giving everything we have to be athletes, and the second you get injured you’re off the team and you have no help anymore and no support. So that’s been really important to me to also give those athletes who have had really traumatic injuries, basically life-changing injuries, an opportunity to get back out there and do the things they love.”
And what Clark loves is sharing her passion for her sport and her knowledge.
“I have 16 years of Olympic experience,” she said, “and there’s just a lot of things that I’ve learned and I’ve tried to make myself available and approachable. I think snowboarding lends itself to that camaraderie, and being able to champion these young women and being able to call them friends at the same time is a huge, huge accomplishment.”
And now that little girl who once tugged at her sleeve has joined her as an Olympic champion.
“Chloe’s an outstanding snowboarder,” Clark said, “but I’m probably more proud of who she is as a person. She’s handled success and pressure with grace and class and it’s refreshing.”
So did the world just witness Clark passing the torch?
“Hard to say,” she said. “I think I’ve got a lot of reflecting to do. But I think these women are the future of snowboarding.”