Kelly Clark snowbarding

Kelly Clark is one of the greatest American snowboarders you have probably never heard of. The first female snowboarder to compete in five Olympics, Kelly Clark has won three Olympic medals and nine golds at the Winter X Games. Throughout her 18-year career as a professional snowboarder, she clinched more than 70 wins. To say that she is one of the best snowboarders period isn’t an understatement; she’s known as a trailblazer in women’s sports for a reason.

Raised on a Snowboard

Clark grew up in a what she describes as a “small mountain town” in southern Vermont, where she spent much of her time in the mountains. Clark was practically raised on a snowboard—she started skiing at two years old and was carving through the mountainside by the time she was seven.

When she was a young teenager, Clark was given an amazing opportunity that she calls a “turning point”—she was able to attend Mount Snow Academy, a snow sport academy in Vermont. This allowed her to hone her snowboarding skills every day while still completing her school studies.

“I started to compete in local events on the weekends,” she says, “which led to national events, and eventually to international competitions.”

Kick-Starting Her Snowboarding Career

Clark’s snowboarding skills increased exponentially, as evidenced by the fact that she joined the US snowboard team during her junior year of high school. In 2002, Clark won the US Open in both quarterpipe and halfpipe, won the Winter X Games halfpipe in Aspen, Colorado, and won three other US Grand Prix events in her sport. And to top it off, just a few months shy of her nineteenth birthday, Kelly competed in the 2002 Winter Olympics, held in Salt Lake City, Utah. She won the gold medal in the Women’s Halfpipe event and became the first American to win an Olympic gold medal in snowboarding. That huge win remains her favorite memory as an athlete.

But Kelly Cark is known for far more than just being a five-time Olympian with a gold medal. In her 18-year-long career, she participated in numerous competitions, including the Winter X Games, from which she won gold nine times.

Trailblazing—even without the Gold

Clark competed in the winter Olympics four more times, winning bronze in the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver and the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. Her final run in Sochi was marked by a hard fall that likely cost her the silver medal. Some might see her third-place victories as some kind of failure. After all, she placed first back in 2002. But Kelly had a more optimistic perspective.

“I was pleased how the Olympic qualifiers went,” she said, speaking of the 2014 Winter Olympics at Sochi. “It’s one thing to do well at all those events, but it’s another to enjoy the process, and I really did. … Sochi was one of the most challenging things I’ve ever done in terms of the contest conditions and a real pressure cooker situation, but it was one of my greatest victories. People want to see gold, but for me, getting bronze was a huge achievement to overcome those challenges.”

Despite being a three-time Olympic medalist, Clark hasn’t stood on a podium after every competition, but being a trailblazer is about more than a medal around your neck. It’s about proving what is possible for those who come after you. Clark became the first female snowboarder to compete in five Olympic games. And in 2011, she became the first female snowboarder to land a 1080 in a competition (that’s three full rotations, if you’re wondering).

In 2016, and at the age of 15, Chloe Kim became the first female snowboarder to land two back-to-back 1080s in a competition. Kim is a big fan of Kelly Clark and was very influenced by Clark’s success. “I’ve learned a lot from her,” Kim once said of Clark. “She has helped me so much throughout my career.” Chloe Kim has participated in two Olympic games, winning gold both times. Now that is trailblazing!

Making Others’ Dreams Come True

Clark knows that the opportunity to go to Mount Snow Academy was a huge blessing and was the catalyst for her professional career. So in 2010, Clark established the Kelly Clark Foundation to give young aspiring snowboarders the same kind of opportunity that she had. The foundation gives these young athletes needed resources and opportunities to achieve their potential within the sport of snowboarding.

The foundation’s goals are to “(1) make snowboarding more financially accessible, (2) increase and diversify participation in the snowboard industry, and (3) facilitate opportunities for the widespread use of snowboarding as tool for personal success.” The Kelly Clark Foundation has awarded over $100,000 in scholarships young athletes across the United States.

“It is my intention with the Kelly Clark Foundation to give back,” Clark says, “and see others have the same opportunities that I have had, and I am looking forward to watching their dreams come true.”

Whether those dreams involve Olympic games, the X Games, or just good old-fashioned snowboarding at Mammoth Lakes, California, Clark is ensuring that those dreams will become reality, and she continues to inspire new dreams all the time. To a watching audience, these dreams seem to consist of thirty-second intervals on a halfpipe, a quick moment of glory.

“I measure my life in intervals of thirty seconds,” Clark once said, referring to the intervals of a typical snowboarding competition. “Everything hinges on these sets of thirty seconds. Thirty seconds will determine whether I am seen as a ‘winner’ or just another athlete who missed the mark that day. What most people don’t see is that for every thirty seconds of my life put on display before hundreds of thousands of people, there are years of preparation behind the scenes. It’s those years of hard work, motivation, and preparation that determine how these thirty seconds will go.”

Much more thirty-second intervals is needed to make an American Dream come true. Through her foundation and mentorship, Clark gives young athletes the opportunities they need. Although she retired back in 2019, she is continuing her own dream and helping others after her create their own.