Kelly Clark’s dad once told her she could be anything she wanted to be.
When Clark said she wanted to be a professional snowboarder, he replied, “anything but that.”
Clark’s dad ultimately came around and watched his daughter become one of the sport’s most accomplished athletes, winning three Olympic medals and paving the way for others who would follow her. Clark, 35, announced her retirement plans Friday morning through Burton, her sponsor.
Born in Newport, Rhode Island, Clark grew up in West Dover, Vermont. Her father had her on skis at age two, and after some pestering, her mother bought Clark her first board when Clark was eight.
Ten years later, Clark was the youngest member of the U.S. snowboarding team at the 2002 Salt Lake Games. Despite a hard fall during practice that left her with a bruised tailbone and broken wrist, Clark scored a 47.9 out of 50 on her second run to win the first U.S. gold medal of the Salt Lake Games.
Clark fell short of a medal at the 2006 Torino Games after attempting a difficult trick, then won her second medal in Vancouver, a bronze. At the 2014 Sochi Games, her lead-up wasn’t ideal: Clark fell in all five runs in practice and in her first run in competition, but she successfully executed a 1080 in run two, which earned her a bronze medal. Clark later said, “I wouldn’t say it was my best snowboarding, [but] it’s probably one of my greatest achievements…it was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, but one of the most rewarding.”
In 2016, Clark suffered the first serious injury of her career, tearing her hamstring and the labrum in her hip at the X Games in Europe. After surgery, she was bedridden for a month, which left plenty of time for reflection. Clark adopted a golden retriever, started working on a book, and re-evaluated what she still wanted to accomplish on the pipe. Clark said later in 2016, “I guess a lot of people ask me, ‘what are you still doing here?’ If it was about winning things, I probably should have stopped a long time ago. I’m motivated by the potential that I have…I still feel like I’ve got some snowboarding to do that’s better than the snowboarding I’ve done.”
Clark missed a medal at her final Olympics, finishing fourth in PyeongChang. She watched one of the women she inspired win gold, just as she had done as a wide-eyed teenager in 2002. Years earlier, a pint-sized Chloe Kim tugged on Clark’s sleeve while waiting in line for the chairlift at Mammoth Mountain, asking if she could ride up with her. Clark obliged, and the two took a few runs together. The similarities between their snowboarding styles were easy to see: they shared an affinity for amplitude, speed, and a seemingly fearless approach to the pipe.
It’s safe to assume Clark won’t be taking it easy in retirement: she runs the Kelly Clark Foundation, which helps young snowboarders through scholarships and financial aid, and she’s launching a specialized women’s snowboard with Burton, her sponsor.
Clark’s career was full of milestones: she’s one of four snowboarders with three Olympic medals, the most of any athlete in the sport. She is one of only two American women to compete in five winter Olympics (along with cross-country skier Kikkan Randall), and she was the first female snowboarder to compete in five Games.
But Clark had more in mind for her legacy than contest results and podium finishes. Making the sport better – and inspiring the next generation – has always been her mission.
“There’s been a lot of women over the years that have progressed the sport, and I hope that I’ve been one of them,” she said in 2016. “To a place where there isn’t as big of a progression gap between men and women.”