Callan Chythlook-Sifsof carries her snowboard at the 2010 Winter Olympics. (Photo: Getty Images)
The thrill of being outdoors is like a magnet, constantly beckoning toward a new adventure.
For Callan Chythlook-Sifsof, that force is as strong now as the first time she got on a snowboard. The Olympian and retired pro rider always feels most at home with nature, whether on a course or a sailboat.
“I have a passion for being outside,” explained Chythlook-Sifsof, who was named a coach for the U.S. Paralympics Snowboarding National Team this past summer. “I love learning new sports. I think that’s the hallmark of my career. I enjoy the experience of travel, meeting new people. Outdoor sports uniquely encompass all kinds of stuff like that.”
Chythlook-Sifsof grew up on the Bristol Bay, Alaska, coastline. It’s one of the most remote areas in North America, what Alaskans commonly refer to as the ‘bush.’ Known for its commercial fishing, Bristol Bay is accessible only by air or boat and is around 400 air miles from Anchorage. A Yupik/Inupiaq Eskimo, Chythlook-Sifsof is proud of the region and her culture.
“It was a beautiful experience to be (immersed) in that and contributes how I was able to make it to the Olympics,” she explained. “The cultural strength of my community was a huge part in my journey.”
Chythlook-Sifsof developed an interest in snowboarding at age 7. Her older brother collected mail-order snowboarding magazines and videos. The two would regularly walk up the hill behind their grandfather’s house and hike to mountains where snow machines were unable to go.
When she was 13, Chythlook-Sifsof’s family moved to Alyeska Ski Resort near Anchorage. As beautiful as the coastline was, it was also rife with discrimination and racism. The school near Bristol Bay had eliminated most of its extra-curricular activities, and Chythlook-Sifsof’s mom wanted better social and educational opportunities for her children.
“I’m blessed she had the foresight to take me out of that rural village school district for my high school and middle school experience,” Chythlook-Sifsof said. “If she hadn’t moved us, I likely would have never been on the United States snowboard team.”
The move opened Chythlook-Sifsof’s eyes to a new world. She was thrilled with having access to a chairlift instead of hiking up and down a mountain. She began training in Alyeska’s USASA program, but didn’t get into competition until she saw how much her friends enjoyed it.
Chythlook-Sifsof won her first USASA Nationals SBX championship in 2005, and a U.S. Junior National PGS championship the following year.
After earning a spot on the U.S. C Team in 2006, she made the A Team in 2007 after capturing the Visa U.S. Snowboardcross Championships and finishing third in her first world cup competition. She became the first native Alaskan to make the U.S. Olympic Team.
“Life was at the highest it could’ve ever been for me,” Chythlook-Sifsof recalled. “I was really lucky a lot of opportunities came my way.”
During the first world cup of 2009, Chythlook-Sifsof tore an ACL that sidelined her the rest of that season. But she worked hard to come back and returned to world cup competition in 2010, landing a spot on the Olympic team for the Olympic Winter Games Vancouver 2010. She placed 21st in the qualifying round and did not advance. In 2011, she won silver at the Winter X Games after first competing there in 2006.
But injuries continued to plague Chythlook-Sifsof’s progress. She failed to qualify for the 2014 Games in Sochi and retired later that year.
Something else happened during the Sochi Games that impacted Chythlook-Sifsof’s life and caught the world’s attention. In support of Olympic protests denouncing Russia’s anti-gay laws, she came out publicly during the Games. Never one to hide her sexuality, Chythlook-Sifsof has always considered herself a political person and has never been afraid to express her views on issues regarding race and gender.
“The U.S. team can testify to the fact that I have a zero-tolerance policy for racism,” she said. “I didn’t intend to come out publicly, but I was asked by ESPN if I would publicly state that I was gay.”
Chythlook-Sifsof believes vocalization is a crucial component in reinforcing equality.
“I think it’s important for all humans, whether you’re an athlete or you work a regular job, to take your own voice seriously and talk about the challenges we all face,” she said. “That’s what makes equality, when people have the freedom to vocalize their perspective.”
Following her retirement from competition, Chythlook-Sifsof took a couple years off to study at Westminster College. But her love of snowboarding beckoned once again, this time into coaching. She joined the Park City snowboard team for two years, took a break after moving to Berkeley, California, then came back as head coach for the 2018-19 season.
This past summer, Chythlook-Sifsof received a call from U.S. Para snowboard national team coach Alex Tuttle inviting her to work as a technical coach, an offer she heartily accepted.
“It was truly one of the best decisions of my entire life,” Chythlook-Sifsof said. “I could not be more grateful to work with these athletes, witness their drive and mental athletic strength.”
When not on the course, Chythlook-Sifsof enjoys spending time on her sailboat and is working toward acquiring her captain’s license. But snowboarding will always be her main passion, and she looks forward to helping other athletes navigate the same road she once traveled.