Craig Kelly’s loss felt hard in Aspen
Aspen Times Staff Writer
When an avalanche swept down a mountainside in the Selkirk Mountains on Monday, it claimed Craig Kelly, 36, a man idolized in the still-young world of snowboarding.
“He was a real pioneer in the sport and a legend,” said Aspenite Chris Klug, who won a bronze medal in alpine snowboarding at the 2002 Winter Olympics. “It’s a big loss for the snowboard community.”
Kelly was both a mentor and an inspiration to Klug.
“I wouldn’t be doing what I am doing today if it wasn’t for Craig,” he said Tuesday night. “Not only for his inspiration and mentorship to me personally, but he created the job of professional snowboarder. He was the first one to really do it.”
Kelly was a four-time world champion at a time when competitors had to demonstrate their skills on both the race course and in the halfpipe, which are today seen as vastly different disciplines.
“Craig did it all,” said Chris Karol, snowboard program director at the Aspen Valley Ski and Snowboard Club. “He did the racing and the halfpipe and won in both events. As a competitor, the guy was just so dialed in and so in tune. And he had such a smooth, graceful style.”
Karol remembers the first time he met Kelly.
“It was at the World Championships at Breckenridge,” Karol said. “Craig came out of the Northwest and schooled all of us.”
Klug, 30, got to know Kelly in the early 1980s. They were both from the Pacific Northwest and met in the formative years of the sport.
“I met him at Timberline [a lodge in Mount Hood, Ore.],” said Klug. “And I dreamed of being Craig Kelly. He ended up moving down to Bend, and I would follow him all over the mountain. When he set courses to train, he would let me jump in the courses and train. He really mentored me.
“He lived just a few blocks from where my parents’ house was. I was in high school and the sport was still in its infancy. There wasn’t any talk of Olympics. But he’d come over and talk to my parents and help provide some guidance with my career. He knew the industry really well and would help answer a lot of my parents’ questions. At that time, it was either college football or snowboarding.”
Kelly was one of the original riders for Sims snowboards. Then he made the switch to Burton and helped Klug follow along to what would become the industry’s powerhouse brand. And while Klug stuck to racing, Kelly went out and boosted halfpipe riding to a new level.
“When he made the switch to Burton, it was huge,” Klug said. “He helped develop all the Burton products.”
While Kelly is seen as a pioneering legend within the snowboard industry, he is not a household name.
“He never went looking for media and publicity,” Karol said. “It was all just based on performance.”
And Karol got to know Kelly better after they both stopped competing. “He told me a story about all his trophies and his medals. He gave them away to all the local kids in town.”
For the past two years, Kelly was living in Nelson, British Columbia, where he was a partner in a powder skiing operation. And he had recently taken 18 months and driven from Oregon to Chile, surfing along the way.
“He is one of the best athletes I have ever seen,” Klug said. “He was a tremendous surfer and snowboarder. And he was extremely fit and very strong in the mountains. He is someone you would never think this would happen to. It’s tough.”
[Brent Gardner-Smith’s e-mail address is email@example.com]
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