This story appears in FCA Magazine’s January/February 2018 issue. Subscribe today!
Imagine meeting a prodigy, a person so blessed and talented they would eventually transform the sport you love. Imagine getting close to that person, having conversations with them, learning what led to their sudden success. And then imagine watching that person ascend to heights never before seen.
Natalie McLeod met Kelly Clark in 1999. Both were amateur snowboarders who competed in the halfpipe. They had the same goals: Become professionals and, ultimately, make the Olympics.
During her seven-year career, a litany of unfortunate injuries (surgery on both knees, two torn rotator cuffs, a broken arm, several broken fingers and a concussion) ultimately cost McLeod her dreams.
But she could still watch Clark.
In her career, Kelly Clark has amassed more than 70 victories, including three Olympic medals and seven X Games gold medals.
“She was so good then,” McLeod said of Clark. “I still remember my brother coming home saying, ‘Oh my gosh! This girl is super young now, but she’s amazing.”
Clark’s swift rise made her a legend. She joined the U.S. Snowboarding Team in 2000, at the age of 16. Soon, in her hometown of Dover, Vermont, she graduated from Mount Snow Academy. And then she began winning everything — X Games gold, U.S. Open gold, the overall Grand Prix tour title.
In February 2002, Clark arrived in Park City, Utah, for the Olympics. She was 18, the youngest rider ever to reach the finals.
From her home in Mammoth Lakes, California, McLeod watched it all. In front of millions, Clark executed seven tricks with near flawlessness on her final run to win the Olympic gold.
A star was coronated.
“I remember watching and just crying,” McLeod said. “It was so exciting.”
Now at age 34, Clark’s goal is the same as it was in 1999: Reach the Olympics. A trip this year would be an unprecedented fifth, something no snowboarder has ever done. McLeod feels the same about Clark now as she did back when they were teenagers, but what they both understand now is that what has transpired is part inspirational and part miraculous.
• • •
Imagine setting a goal. Imagine dreaming about it, working for it, yearning for it. Imagine believing in yourself and then accomplishing that goal. Imagine taking the final step to reach the top of the podium, tears of joy in your eyes. Imagine an Olympic gold medal being placed around your neck.
In the beginning, Kelly Clark just wanted to convince her parents, Terry and Cathy, that she could make a career in snowboarding despite the risks.
Snowboarders and their fans love the sport because of its inherent risk. At the highest level, it forces riders to attempt and complete high-flying tricks and land in a window-tight safe space. Some aspects of snowboarding came naturally to Clark. She was powerful in generating enough speed, force and courage to fly higher off the halfpipe than any other woman. She could glide across the snow in and out of tricks as if it were effortless.
She was also a quick learner. Two months before the 2002 Olympics, Clark learned the McTwist, an inverted aerial move involving a 540-degree rotating flip off the heelside wall. In her winning run, Clark stuck the McTwist; for good measure, she followed it with a frontside 720, a pioneering feat for women at the time.
“I hit the peak, the pinnacle,” she said. “It was unbelievable.”
Clark’s victory was a symbolic moment for the country, the first gold won by an American in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks. It was also huge for the sport, which was adopted by the Olympics in 1998. Clark helped validate snowboarding and carry it to new heights in terms of popularity and skill.
After the Olympics, Clark was universally praised. She went on TV interviews, marketing campaigns and a hometown parade. Her parents, owners of TC’s Family Restaurant in West Dover, Vermont, displayed her medal in a glass-enclosed case on the wall for everyone to see.
For a few months, the euphoria carried Clark. But then that feeling left.
“In all those external successes, I was really looking for that sense of significance,” she said. “I think our greatest need as humans is to be significant, and we’ll look for that everywhere. That’s just what I did with my snowboarding.”
By December 2003, Clark started asking herself a jarring question over and over again: “Now what?”
• • •
Imagine God putting someone on your heart. Imagine praying to God, and this person enters your thoughts. Imagine knowing that person’s backstory, the state of their soul, and praying for God to do His mighty work.
Around this same time, in 2003, McLeod spent time writing in her journal and praying for her friends, some of whom were Christians and others who didn’t know Jesus. McLeod had grown up in a Christian family, but she knew many in the snowboarding culture had not.
She wrote Kelly Clark’s name on her list. From their conversations over the years, McLeod knew Clark had likely never even been to a church.
“Jesus,” she prayed, “I just ask that you would save this person.”
• • •
Imagine attaining your ultimate goal, but still somehow feeling hollow. Imagine receiving everything you’ve ever wanted — the championships, the fame, the money — and it all suffocating you, leaving you feeling disillusioned and trapped.
Rick Bower became Kelly Clark’s coach before the start of the 2003-04 season. He had known her before she turned professional, so he knew everything about her had changed. Since Clark was already the best snowboarder in the world, he had a difficult task: Help her improve her body control while in the air, so she could perform tricks with more efficiency.
That challenge became even harder when he realized Clark was succumbing to the pressures athletes encounter after reaching the top of their sport, when the expectation to win sets in.
“She was not feeling connected to anything,” Bower said. “She was really struggling. You could see that struggle.”
When Clark arrived in Park City — the site of her highest accomplishment two years earlier — for the first event of the season, she was depressed. Before the event, she wrote a sentence in her journal that revealed the state of her despair: “I don’t care if I wake up tomorrow, and I don’t think anybody else cares.”
At the root of it all, Clark felt like no one knew her outside of the label, “Kelly Clark, snowboarding champion”—including herself. She had no idea what her purpose was in life.
Even in such a mental state, Clark qualified for the finals. Later, another woman finished her run after falling and didn’t qualify. The woman was crushed by the result. Her friend, a high-profile snowboarder at the time, came over to console her.
“Hey, it’s all right,” the friend said. “God still loves you. You don’t need to cry.”
Clark listened to the short exchange and was stunned. She wanted to know more. She had seen bumper stickers on cars saying, “Jesus loves you,” but had never given them much thought. But on that day, that simple sentence — “God still loves you” — couldn’t be ignored. That night, she went back to her hotel room, knowing a Bible would be there.
“I was like, ‘Uh, I don’t even know how to read this,” Clark said.
Fortunately, the woman who had fallen at the event was staying at the same hotel. Clark knocked on her door.
“I think you might be a Christian,” she said, “and I think you need to tell me about God.”
Years later, Clark still feels forever grateful for that moment.
“I knocked on the right door,” she said.
• • •
Imagine God answering your prayer. Imagine the joy of seeing a friend be saved. Imagine being called to help that person, and your friendship reaching new depths through God. Imagine the gift of being part of that person’s journey with Jesus Christ.
In May 2004, McLeod’s brother told her the news: Kelly Clark had asked Jesus into her heart.
“I was like, ‘What!’” McLeod said. “We were so excited, especially in an industry that can be totally crazy.”
McLeod invited Clark to Mammoth Lighthouse Church, which her parents had started in Mammoth Lakes in 1998. A few months later, McLeod showed Clark the journal entry from the previous year.
“Thank you,” Clark told her, “for praying.”
After four months of exploring Christianity, Kelly Clark became a believer in 2004.
• • •
Imagine being transformed.
McLeod tells people Clark is the boldest person she’s ever met. It’s what led her to never-before-seen heights in snowboarding, and it was necessary in her salvation story.
“Everything with Kelly is an adventure,” McLeod said. “On one side, you have the athletic adventure. On the other side, you have the identity adventure. She is just not afraid at all to go ‘full-on.’ She’s so brave, not only in the halfpipe, but even with figuring out who she is as a person, who she is in God, everything. She just goes for it.”
For four months during the 2004 snowboarding season, Clark explored everything she could about Christianity. A self-described “calculated risk-taker,” she questioned as much as she could about life. Through this journey, she had a number of other Christians there to support her and help guide her; not only McLeod and her brother, but other Christian snowboarders such as Tommy Czeschin, Andy Finch and Luke Wynen.
“They loved me because of who I was and not what I did,” Clark said of those snowboarders and the people she met through Lighthouse. “I hadn’t met a lot of people who did that with me until that point in my life.”
Clark read a devotional Bible to learn how to read Scripture and apply it to her life. She studied how Jesus, through His Word, gives people hope through faith. She also read The Purpose Driven Life by pastor and Christian author Rick Warren.
“That book laid one of the best foundations I ever could have hoped for,” Clark said.
Once Clark understood Jesus Christ’s sacrifice and death on the cross and His resurrection for humanity’s salvation, she reflected on what she read, learned and experienced. She asked herself two questions: Could she wake up another day and not think about God? And could she wake up another day and pretend He wasn’t real?
“He was very real, very present in my life,” she said. “I gave my heart to the Lord that day.”
Over time, the conversations between Clark and McLeod became more frequent, more biblical and more significant. Clark wondered why God heals some people, but not everyone. She loved how God is always good, but she wanted to know the balance between God allowing certain events to happen to people, and people simply falling short by living in a fallen world.
“These were questions from someone who God was putting something on their heart really quickly,” said McLeod, who is a school director on Lighthouse’s pastoral staff. “It was the quickest, craziest discipleship I think I’ve ever seen. We were all thrilled to get to be a part of it. ‘Let’s pray, let’s ask God, and I think we’re growing with you.’”
Clark was baptized. She changed her habits when she competed on the road. She began living what she calls now a “genuine life” as a Christian.
Through it all, Bower watched how Clark reinvented her mental approach by trusting God’s plan for her before each run, even during a devastating fourth-place finish in the 2006 Olympics where she failed to land a frontside 900.
“[Her faith] helped her focus,” Bower said. “It gave her some perspective that was beyond just herself. She found a purpose in life.”
Clark believes her longevity in snowboarding is a result of God’s blessing. Without God, perhaps she would have already become a victim of burnout and retired from competition long ago.
Instead, she refined her form, culminating in a 16-contest winning streak. She became the first woman to land a 1080 in competition. She’s amassed more than 70 career wins, three Olympic medals, seven X Games gold medals and five World Snowboard Tour titles.
No longer depressed, Clark found an identity beyond snowboarding and received the love and acceptance she’d always wanted — from her relationship with Jesus, from other Christians, and even from non-believers like her parents.
Everyone who knew her noticed the change.
“They knew how much I partied, what kind of lifestyle I had, and how emotionally volatile I was,” she said. “After time, by watching me, they were able to come to the conclusion that, ‘Wow, this is a really, really great thing for Kelly.’”
For years now, Clark has ridden her snowboard with a message printed on its topside for everyone to see: Jesus, I cannot hide my love.
• • •
Imagine using the talents God gave you to be His witness. Imagine falling in love again with the sport that brought you fame. Imagine going from a prodigy to a luminary.
In May 2009, Clark was a guest speaker for Q Ideas, a nonprofit organization helping Christian leaders share ideas on how to express the gospel. She explained to the crowd when she knew she had become a leader.
“I was a leader,” she told the crowd, “when I started thinking about other people more than I thought about myself.”
Since giving her life to Christ, Bower has seen Clark become the most visible, outspoken Christian snowboarder. Clark wanted to build better relationships with people in the industry by focusing on how she could love and honor others the way God calls His followers to do.
“My ministry, and what God is doing in my life, is really found in my career in the marketplace,” she said. “I’m in an industry where it’s very foreign and it’s very counter-cultural. I get to love these people really well who would never step foot in a church.”
When not competing or training, Clark donates her time and money in fundraising to help the next generation of snowboarders through the Kelly Clark Foundation, which she established in 2010. The foundation has awarded more than $125,000 to young riders through resources such as equipment and scholarships.
"I was a leader when I started thinking about others more than I thought about myself." — Kelly ClarkWinning no longer drives Clark as it once did. She still wants to win, but she’s now motivated by continuing to help progress the sport by being a willing role model, especially for younger women.
“She’s an inspiration to me,” said Bower, who has now coached Clark for 13 years over two separate stints. “I have a 1-year-old daughter, and I hope she can have someone like Kelly Clark to look up to when she gets older.”
Despite her age, Clark is still one of the best snowboarders in the world. Last year, she won the Olympic test event in South Korea and a U.S. Grand Prix contest. When she finished second at an event in New Zealand, the combined age of the two younger riders with her on the podium (Chloe Kim and Maddie Mastro, both 17) equaled her age.
Clark has grown to cherish the steps it takes — both in training and in recovery from injury (she had hip surgery in 2016) — to remain competitive.
“I love sports because you get to see what you’ve built, from physical to mental to emotional,” she said. “I believe I haven’t hit my potential.”
As odd as that might sound, Clark understands her next chapter of life is approaching.
Eighteen years after her career began, Clark fully appreciates the sweetness of her life — the workouts, the competition, the fellowship, the mentorship, the motivation.
“I just really want to hit my potential,” she said.
And she is grateful her statement is no longer confined to what she does on her snowboard.
Photos courtesy of Burton Snowboards.