Photo courtesy of Mark Kelly.
To be successful at the Paralympic level, snowboarders must train hard, stay in shape and receive expert coaching. But all of those elements would be to no avail without a properly working board.
That’s where the U.S. Para snowboard team’s service techs come in. Whether checking snow conditions and temperatures on the hill or setting up a board for competition, Mark Kelly and Cameron Fule have one of the most important jobs on the team: making sure all snowboards are at their peak before a race.
“They’re behind the curtain,” explained Jessica Smith, associate director of U.S. Paralympics Snowboarding and U.S. Paralympics Alpine Skiing. “They’re putting in the long hours and they’re on the journey with the athletes. … It’s not one of the most glamorous jobs in the fact they are on the hill during the day and having to do all those boards at night.”
Kelly, a native of Oregon who now lives in Stevenson, Washington, has served as a contractor with the U.S. team since the 2002 Games in Salt Lake City. He started as a service technician scraping downhill skis before working his way to the Para snowboard team as its head service tech. He’s also worked with the able-bodied PGS team for several seasons.
Kelly grew up skiing and climbing in the Cascades, and later attended Blue Mountain Community College and the University of Michigan before joining the professional rodeo circuit for a number of years. However, he was eventually drawn back to his childhood sport, which is how he got involved in skiing and snowboarding.
“That was our fun,” recalled Kelly, who goes by the nickname “Skiddy.” “We were back-country skiing before we knew what (that) was. I never raced or anything like that.”
From there, he developed an interest in the equipment. No licensing or special training is required to become a service tech, as all the work is hands-on. Most job referrals come by word-of-mouth.
On big race days, shifts can often run over 20 hours.
“It’s labor-intensive, and you gotta be tough,” Kelly said. “You do that for 30 days in a row sometimes on big trips, or two to three weeks at a time. You haul (a lot of) bags. I fly with seven pieces of luggage and only one of them is my clothes.”
A typical day at a competition may start with breakfast at around 6 a.m., then to the wax room to go over final details. Packing is usually done the night before to save time when leaving for the hill. Kelly likes to be at the course about an hour before qualifications to map out plans for the day. Weather and course conditions determine how wax will be applied to each snowboard. Not surprisingly, it’s a meticulous process that’s subject to change on the fly.
“We have a plan and it’s very well thought-out,” Kelly explained. “It’s usually best-laid plans are done the night before and then changed immediately prior to (race time). We race, then we go to awards, get all the snowboards back to the wax tent or cabin, take an hour for lunch, then back in the wax cabin until finished.”
As grueling as the work can be, it does have its rewards. Kelly remembers a race at the 2018 Paralympic Winter Games in PyeongChang when one of Brenna Huckaby’s favorite boards broke during qualifications. To fix it, Kelly needed a syringe but didn’t have one. He had to call the team surgeon to get it and then did a complete sidewall repair right on the hill before the semifinals. Huckaby went on to win gold medals in both snowboardcross and banked slalom.
“My heart rate went down to about 110 when she won gold,” Kelly recalled. “The whole day I was like, ‘Please, please hold together.’ We made it happen. It was one of my proudest moments of all time.”
Moments like those illustrate the importance of trust between an athlete and service tech, a relationship that often takes a considerable amount of time to develop. It’s not easy handing over equipment worth thousands of dollars to a service tech and not seeing what goes on behind the scenes.
“But when we put it on their feet, they can lock into an edge and know it’s there and not have to worry about it,” Kelly said.
The highest honor an Olympic or Paralympic athlete can give a coach or staff member is to acknowledge them with the USOPC Order of Ikkos, a medallion that represents a symbol of excellence by an athlete’s achievement as a medalist. Kelly has received three and Fule one. As proud as he is of his own accomplishments, Kelly was especially moved when Fule received one from Huckaby.
“Cameron called me up while I was on my way to Hawaii,” Kelly recalled. “He tells me that he won the Medal of Ikkos. I started crying. It’s the biggest honor a staff member can get.”
The Para snowboard team is like a second family to Kelly, who has a disability of his own. Following the 2014 Sochi Games, he learned he had contracted tuberculosis. This led to a spinal condition left him paralyzed below his waist. The support he received to come back to the team following seven surgeries renewed his outlook.
“Being brought back into the fold after Sochi, that helped save my life, just being able to work again on my terms,” Kelly said.
When he’s not repairing and maintaining snowboards, Kelly enjoys spending time with his wife Gretchen, a race director and hill coordinator for Timberline Lodge in Oregon. The couple has a 13-year-old daughter, Maycen Emilie, who took up skiing as a toddler.
Like a Paralympic snowboarder who wins gold, there is no greater feeling for Kelly then when he knows he has completed a successful event.
“When you’re at the top as far as our job and you know you’ve nailed the wax and you put (the snowboarders) in the best position to be successful equipment-wise, it’s so much fun,” Kelly said.