Kelly Clark was 15 years old the first time she competed at the Burton U.S. Open of Snowboarding. Back then, the contest was held at Stratton Mountain, a ski resort located up the road from where Clark grew up in southern Vermont. Twenty years later — and one month after announcing her retirement from competitive snowboarding at X Games Aspen — Clark arrived at the 37th Burton U.S. Open in Vail, Colorado (the event’s home since 2012), with a new role within the sport and a fresh perspective on her future.
“Competition has occupied every free moment, every passion and all of my heart and mind for the last 20 years,” Clark said. “I decided I wanted my heart back and I wanted my brain back and I wanted to give myself the time and space to develop as a person for perhaps the first time since I was 15.”
In the two decades since her first U.S. Open in 1999, Clark, 35, became the winningest snowboarder of all time, qualified for a record five winter Olympic halfpipe teams, became the first woman to land a 1080 in competition, wrote a book and found her voice as an in-demand public speaker. But of her many accomplishments, Clark is particularly proud that she “hung up the contest bib” on her own terms, on her own timeline and after preparing herself for life after the only life she’s ever known.
One month into the next chapter of her career, Clark opened up to ESPN.com about life after competition, learning to be comfortable being uncomfortable and why she plans to spend a lot more time at the dog park.
Alyssa Roenigk: How and when did you start processing the idea that it was time, as you say, to “hang up the bib” and stop competing?
Kelly Clark: My snowboard career has been marked in four-year increments around my Olympic journey. I knew I wouldn’t be content staying on for just one more year. In the fall leading up to the last Olympics [in 2018], I started talking the idea over with my sponsors and coaches, anticipating that PyeongChang would be my last Olympics. I think starting that process so early caused me to make sure I didn’t leave anything on the table. As I approached the Olympics, I took more time than I would have to look around and enjoy the process.
AR: Once you made the decision that 2018 would be your last as a competitor, what gave you the confidence that you could step away?
KC: Working on my identity outside of my performance as a professional snowboarder has been a huge anchor point for me as I make this transition. If you only know yourself as a professional athlete and get your identity and significance from your performance and what people think of you, how many likes you get on Instagram and what kind of comments people leave for you, this transition will be earth-shattering. I’ve learned to value what goes on inside me more than what goes on around me. That helped me stomach and navigate missing the podium at my last Olympics. I learned to have a value for what nobody sees.
AR: A lot of athletes talk about struggling to find their footing in the months and years after retiring from competition. What has been the toughest part of the past few months?
KC: Even given everything I’ve said so far, this has been one of the most difficult seasons of my life. I wrote a book on identity and measuring success in a healthy way — and this is still very, very difficult. I knew this was coming, I got ready, had great support from my friends and family, and at times, it still feels earth-shattering. My days are no longer filled with purpose and direction — and I have to be OK with that. It’s uncomfortable. You feel very vulnerable. That’s why I’m being careful not to say ‘yes’ to everything that comes my way just to fill the void. If I have any advice for athletes going through this, that would be it: Don’t jump into something just to feel comfortable. Make sure you continue to grow as a human.
AR: What were those conversations like with your sponsors when you told them you were planning to retire from competition, but wanted to continue your career as a professional snowboarder?
KC: I’ve never been one to rest on my accomplishments. I’ve continued to invest in my relationships and in the companies I work with. When I went to Donna [Carpenter, Burton CEO] I didn’t say, “I’m not going to be a pro snowboarder anymore.” I said, “I’m not going to compete. How can I continue to contribute and be a part of the brand?” Donna said, “The word ‘retirement’ has a negative connotation. Let’s not make this negative. Why don’t we celebrate 20 years together and talk about the future?” Working on that video project gave me something to focus on and filled a very real void. When we debuted the video at X Games, I was overwhelmed at the response. Since then, I spent a few weeks in Europe with Donna on a mini speaking tour and spoke to the company at their European headquarters. I like having the bandwidth to invite people into my process.
AR: You also now have the bandwidth to explore new opportunities and experiences. What are a few you’re excited about?
KC: I’ve been careful not to throw myself back into being busy just because not having a clear direction or my schedule mapped out for me makes me uncomfortable. I’ve been busy my entire life. And on some level, I don’t even know what I enjoy doing. Since I was 15, competitive snowboarding is all I’ve known. But I realize what has motivated and fulfilled me is progressing and learning new things. I believe I’m going to learn and grow on my snowboard in the backcountry. I’ve gotten more pow days this year than I can count. It’s been a good year to retire.
AR: What was it like to be at the U.S. Open, a contest you’ve competed at for 20 years, and not be a competitor?
KC: I didn’t know if I would enjoy being around snowboard competitions so soon after I stopped competing. But at X Games [Aspen in January], I was surprised at how happy and comfortable I was and that gave me hope that I would be able to go to the U.S. Open and be happy with my decision. It was kind of a relief heading there knowing I didn’t have to perform. I was geared down the whole week, when usually, I’m geared up watching the weather, planning my practice schedule, putting everything else on the backburner so I can focus 100 percent on the contest.
AR: Even though you weren’t competing, you had a packed schedule that included making your debut on the U.S. Open broadcast as a color commentator during women’s halfpipe. How did you prepare for the job?
KC: The commentators I worked with will tell you I cornered them many times over the course of the week. “How did you get better?” There was a part of me that knew exactly what I was doing and a part of me that felt so foreign in that environment. I was grateful to be with such experienced commentators, and I knew they could carry me when I felt uncomfortable. It’s been a long time since a competitor went straight into commentating, and I looked at it as an opportunity to tell the story behind women’s snowboarding instead of just calling tricks. I found that by the time finals came around, I felt much more comfortable stating my opinion.
AR: On the surface, that sounds easy: Just give your opinion! But it’s scary to put yourself out there in such a different way than you did as a competitor. How did you find that confidence throughout the week?
KC: It was very intimidating at first to say, “OK, I’m going to have an opinion and some people are going to like it and some are not.” But I realized that’s what I am there for. There are people who can call tricks and others who can carry the show as entertainers, but I am there for my intimate knowledge and to give my opinion. I had to really grasp that. But honestly, the women made it easy to be in the booth because of how exciting the contest was.
AR: What were a few highlights?
KC: I really enjoyed watching Chloe [Kim’s] new, creative run. She’s had the back-to-back 1080s for a while, but this time she split them up into a new run: frontside 1080 into a Cab 900 into a switch backside 540 into a Cab 1080 and she starts it all off with a huge backside air. I love watching that run. And of course, the biggest story of the contest was Maddie Mastro shocking the world and being the first woman to land a double crippler in a contest. It was pretty incredible for women’s snowboarding progression.
AR: In the same way you are finding your voice as a commentator, you’ve really found your comfort zone as a public speaker, something you’ve said at first you struggled with. How were you able to become comfortable sharing so intimately on stage in front of huge crowds?
KC: When you’re young, it’s easy to think you have to be something you’re not. I’m not a huge personality, but if you sit next to me on the chairlift or at dinner, I will talk your ear off. I’m an introvert and I discounted my ability to have an influence because I am not a big personality. But as I got older, I got comfortable with who I am, and the more I shared my story, the more I realized people don’t want me to entertain them. They want a snapshot into my life and my process. I realized I didn’t need to be someone I’m not. So I play to my strengths. I’m not an entertainer. I’m a storyteller. I find myself filling some of the competitive void with public speaking. I prepare and plan and then have that intense moment of having to execute in a high-risk moment.
AR: As you look ahead, what makes you happy about this next chapter?
KC: I’m looking forward to gardening more, being home with my Golden Retriever, Iris, and just enjoying life. She’s thrilled. We’ll be taking a lot more trips to the dog park.