Kelly Clark's quick rise in the world of snowboarding has made her a legend in the sport. But as she literally soars to incredible heights in the snow, it took getting grounded in her faith for Clark to really know herself.
The most recent issue of Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA, fca.org) Magazine profiles Clark, now one of the best snowboarders in the world. And as she gears up for the Winter Olympic Games in PyeongChang, she'll take her faith in Christ with her.
Along with Clark, the January/February 2018 issue of FCA Magazine features several Olympic-caliber athletes who share about their faith journeys in advance of some of the biggest sports moments of their lives.
"It's been incredible to share the faith stories of these world-class athletes in FCA Magazine," said FCA Magazine Editor Clay Meyer. "Now, with the Winter Olympic Games under way in PyeongChang, we are cheering them on as they go for gold and glorify God in the process."
FCA's story on Kelly Clark, titled "Purpose Found," details how the snowboarder burst onto the scene and joined the U.S. Snowboarding Team in 2000 at the age of 16. After graduating from Mount Snow Academy in her hometown of Dover, Vermont, she began winning everything—X Games gold, U.S. Open gold and the overall Grand Prix tour title.
At 18, Clark arrived in Park City, Utah, for the 2002 Olympics as the youngest rider ever to reach the finals. A star was born and fans fell in love as Clark earned gold. Now, at the age of 34, Clark is preparing for an unprecedented fifth Olympics—something no snowboarder has ever done. What's transpired over the years has been part inspirational and part miraculous.
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 associated with the high-flying tricks and tight landings. But soon, she became a national symbol. Clark's victory in 2002 was an important moment for the country—the first gold medal 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. After her first Olympics, she was featured in TV interviews, marketing campaigns and a hometown parade. Everyone in town could see her Olympic medal, which was displayed in a glass case at her parents' pizza restaurant, for themselves.
But, for Clark, something was missing.
"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 was asking herself the same question over and over again: "Now what?"
Around the same time, one of Kelly's teenage confidants and fellow snowboarders, Natalie McLeod, was 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 in her journal with this prayer: "Jesus, I just ask that you would save this person."
Rick Bower became Kelly Clark's coach before the start of the 2003-04 season. She was already the best snowboarder in the world, and Bower could see that 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."
Arriving back at Park City, Clark was deep in despair. No one, including herself, knew her outside of the label of "Kelly Clark, snowboarding champion." She had no idea what her purpose was in life. Despite feelings of depression, Clark qualified for the finals. In this setting, Clark listened to an exchange between two women—one consoling her friend who didn't qualify after a fall. "Hey, it's all right," the friend said. "God still loves you."
Clark wanted to know more. She couldn't ignore that simple sentence—"God still loves you." That night, she went back to her hotel room, knowing a Bible would be there. Clark said she didn't even know how to begin reading. Fortunately, the woman from the event was staying at the same hotel. Clark knocked on her door.
"I think you might be a Christian," she told the woman, "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"
Several months later, McLeod's brother told her Clark had asked Jesus into her heart. "We were so excited, especially in an industry that can be totally crazy." McLeod invited Clark to her church and showed her friend her journal entry from the previous year. "Thank you," Clark told her, "for praying."
During the 2004 snowboarding season, Clark explored everything she could about Christianity—reading a devotional Bible, learning how to read Scripture and apply it to her life, studying how Jesus gives people hope through faith and reading "The Purpose Driven Life" by Rick Warren—which Clark says "laid one of the best foundations I ever could have hoped for." Several more Christian snowboarding friends supported her as well, 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 church. "I hadn't met a lot of people who did that with me until that point in my life."
Clark was also baptized, changed her habits when she competed on the road and began living what she calls now a "genuine life" as a Christian. Through it all, Coach Bower watched how Clark reinvented her mental approach by trusting God's plan for her life, even during a devastating fourth-place finish in the 2006 Olympics in Turin, Italy.
"[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. Along the way, she's amassed more than 70 career wins, three Olympic medals, a slew of X Games medals and five World Snowboard Tour titles. Today, even though she is the winningest athlete in snowboarding history, Clark finds her identity beyond the sport and receives the love and acceptance she'd always wanted—from her relationship with Jesus, from other Christians and from non-believers, too. They can all see the change in her.
"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.'"
Besides these changed ways, Clark demonstrates her commitment to Christ with a message printed on the topside of her snowboard: "Jesus, I cannot hide my love."
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—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."
And she is grateful her statement is no longer confined to what she does on her snowboard.
Read the rest of FCA's "Purpose Found" story here.
In PyeongChang, Clark's competition begins Feb. 12, with the ladies' halfpipe qualification run. For those who qualify, the final run is set for Feb. 13. This Olympics could bookend an incredible career for Clark; in 2002, she became the youngest Olympic snowboarding champion at 18, and in South Korea, could become the oldest Olympic snowboarding medalist.
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