In the world of competitive snowboarding, Kelly Clark is one of the best. She’s won more than 60 career competitions, including three Olympic medals – gold in 2002 and bronze in 2010 and 2014. And she’s one of the only women in competitive snowboarding to successfully master a frontside 1080.
Clark lives and breathes snowboarding, and she’s sharing her love of the sport as brand ambassador for Burton. One of her many projects is working with the equipment company to help kids get into snowboarding. “Snow sports can be viewed as very expensive, and basically what we’re doing is creating product specifically to create access to the sport,” Clark says. “Our whole goal is that kids can have fun and kids can get out there on the mountain.”
But there’s more to her involvement than just pitching products. Clark also helped develop a program called Snowboarding as PE that takes the sport into schools where kids can learn the basics while also being encouraged to live a healthy lifestyle.
Recently, Sports Illustrated Kids spoke with Clark about Burton’s new snowboarding line for kids, what beginning snowboarders need to know to get started, and how she keeps challenging herself.
What are the essentials that a kid needs to start snowboarding?
[With Burton,] everything comes in a box: a little board, a pulley system, boots, bindings, and it actually comes in a little duffel bag. You buy it and it’s a one-stop shop, and a kid is set up for snowboarding. The nice thing about that is that you don’t even have to put the bindings on. Say you’re getting to the right age, and it’s the fall and there’s no snow on the ground yet. You can just get on the board and have someone tow you around to get used to that motion. So a kid doesn’t even have to be up on a hill to have an experience.
Why do you think it’s so important to create access for kids at such young ages?
When I started snowboarding, I’d say it wasn’t very cool yet. There were no X Games, there were no Olympics, and I think that’s why snowboarding has been so successful as a new Olympic sport – because it’s so relatable. Kids are watching it with their families and they’re like, “Let’s go snowboarding this weekend.” I don’t know how many people are going to be out there with their kids bobsledding on weekends, but they can be out there snowboarding with their kids on weekends. So, it’s really important that we have the product that will allow kids to continue to relate because they are seeing it in the mainstream now, they are seeing it on TV, they’re watching the X Games and the Olympics. Every kid dreams of becoming an Olympic athlete, and my life is a testament that it happens.
If you’re a young kid, what can you watch or study if you’re really getting into snowboarding?
I think the Ringlet program is really cool. They have parks that they set up on different mountains, where kids can go and go through obstacle courses and modified, smaller scale stuff. I think those sort of things are a good place to start, and I think getting out on the mountain with your friends and actually doing it is the best thing that you can do. The more times you can get on the hill to study snowboarding and get better, that’s probably the best thing to do is just spend more time snowboarding. That’s what it was for me. Even for the kids who are like, “I want to compete. I want to snowboard. I want to go to the X Games and the Olympics.” To get there, the common denominator for them and for me, is that we enjoy it. That’s the access point.
What’s your most important gear tip for kids?
I would say the whole goal is to have fun, so just make sure you dress warm. That’s probably the most important thing – set yourself up for a good day by getting ready for your day. Anytime you’re warm, you’re going to have a better day.
Do you have a favorite board?
The board that I specifically ride is called the Burton Feel Good. This is kind of a longstanding tradition. It’s been in the line the longest. There’s kind of a cool story behind the artwork, which was done by a breast cancer survivor. She does charcoal finger-paint. She came into the office and designed the artwork for this board in the office. It’s pretty cool. She used Facebook to get in touch with me after the Olympics and said, “I saw my board on TV, I never dreamt that I’d see something like that, it’s so cool to see my artwork out there like that.”
You seem totally fearless. Do you have any advice for a kid who wants to snowboard, but might not be completely fearless on the mountain?
I think we look like risk-takers when you watch us on TV, and you kind of wonder what we’re thinking. The reality is we’re really calculated risk takers. People see me doing 1080s on TV, but they didn’t see me building small jumps and learning 180s at my home resort. I would say go at your own pace, but get around people that inspire you as well. Snowboarding is such a unique sport that we’re all genuinely friends and we all inspire one another. We’re out there on any given day to do our best, but we’re there to see our friends do their best too. Sometimes when you’re in that environment with your friends you do things that you normally wouldn’t do - without stepping too far out of your comfort zone, and that’s kind of where progression happens. I think too, a good way to progress for kids is to learn one new thing every day, try one new thing every day. I’ve been snowboarding for the last 24 years and there isn’t a day that goes by where I don’t try something new.
What’s the best move for kids to try to master?
I think learning the ollie is the best thing you can do. It’s very simple. You can learn it on your skateboard or your after-school special board. An ollie… Basically, if this is the ground right here, (motions) you jump. You can jump with both legs, but you learn to pressure your tail, kick your legs forward to level your board, and that’s an ollie. You can work on it in place and then work your way up to doing it moving. The nice thing about that is that you don’t need a jump or anything to do it. You can learn it and then take it to a jump or a park. You can build on it. It’s the ultimate building block.
There might be some days where you don’t really want to get out on the mountain. What would your advice be to a kid on those days where they might not want to snowboard or train?
I’m a very goal-oriented person. If you can get some perspective, if you can dream, if you can have a good idea of where you want to go, and you have a good idea of what that looks like, it really helps with the day to day. If it’s too cold out and I don’t want to go snowboarding, I remember that I want to go to the Olympics next year. If I’m tired and I don’t want to go to the gym, I remember that I want to go to the Olympics next year. It doesn’t even have to be that grand of a goal. It can be, “I want to learn a 180 or I want to be able to link turns. Ok, I’m going to go out there even if it’s snowing and cold.”
What do you think one word is to describe your style besides “dominant?”
I would say I have more of an aggressive style, so maybe “powerful” would be the right word. When you watch some people snowboard, they make it look really easy and it looks like they aren’t trying. I’m more of, like, a power-through-it, make-it-happen type of person. It’s been fun to develop my own style and to change it. I’ve been doing this so long I’ve kind of had to go back to the drawing board and think about how I can do things better and how I can change.
How do you get that inspiration?
I look around at the people I snowboard with, and I get a lot of inspiration from watching my friends be creative. Snowboarding is so cool. We want to do our best, like I was saying, but we want to do our best when our opponents are bringing their A-game as well. It’s fun.
When I started snowboarding I was the one girl in a pack of guys. Now I go to the mountain and I see whole packs of little girls and I just think it’s awesome. I wish I had had that as a kid. I’ve seen the sport grow and change and it’s cool to see a company like Burton investing in the future. When I started snowboarding there was no women’s product or kids product, and thinking about where the sport is going to go, it’s amazing.
Photos: Cameron Spencer/Getty Images (Olympics), courtesy Burton (products, Clark in snow)