Kelly Clark returns to Aspen for one final run through the X Games superpipe
Kelly Clark took one final ride through the X Games Aspen superpipe Saturday. It was the ultimate victory lap for a woman who left a mark on snowboarding few could.
“It means a lot to me to get to do this here,” Clark told The Aspen Times. “Because last year, crashing out of the event like I did, I realized leaving that it would be my last X Games, most likely. That wasn’t the way I wanted it to end, so this feels very redemptive.”
Clark finished fourth at X Games Aspen last winter, but crashed on her second run and did not come back for a third. That proved to be the final competitive run of her unbelievable X Games career, but it won’t be her final memory of the Buttermilk superpipe.
It will be one of high fives, hugs, smiles and tears. There is no way to adequately say goodbye to the greatest female halfpipe snowboarder of all time, nor is there a way to sum up the influence she has had on women’s snowboarding.
And sometimes, words aren’t needed. Prior to Saturday’s women’s snowboard superpipe contest at X Games Aspen, Clark sent it through the pipe one final time. It wasn’t flashy and didn’t include a 1080, the trick she landed in this same pipe in 2011 to become the first woman to do so. But it was memorable.
Clark, 35, is now retired from competitive halfpipe snowboarding. She went public with her decision earlier in the week. It’s a significant flip of the page for women’s snowboarding, which is seeing one of its greatest pioneers step away from the game.
“I’m excited for her. It’s a really exciting, new chapter to close this door and see what else she can do,” said Tahoe’s Elena Hight, who won X Games Aspen gold in 2017. Hight also recently announced she was leaving the world of halfpipe snowboarding behind. “When I started snowboarding, Kelly was a huge inspiration and continues to be a huge inspiration throughout my career and has really taught me a lot as a snowboarder and as a person and has become a really good friend. I think she has achieved so much and really helped grow the sport and has obviously had an amazing career.”
In two decades as a professional, there isn’t much the five-time Olympian Clark hasn’t accomplished. In 2002, she became the first American woman to win Olympic halfpipe gold. She also won Olympic bronze twice. She has seven X Games gold medals, six of those coming in Aspen. Her total X Games medal count is 14.
Clark’s influence on snowboarding has few parallels.
“I’m going to miss them so much. It’s going to be so weird not having them around. I met Kelly when I was 8 years old,” said reigning Olympic gold medalist Chloe Kim about Clark and Hight. “I would always go to her for support and advice. It’s definitely going to be kind of weird, but I’m really excited for them. Kelly has been riding a lot of pow and I’m super jealous. She is having the time of her life. I’m stoked they are doing things they are passionate about and moving forward.”
Clark hasn’t competed since the Burton U.S. Open in Vail last year. She finished fourth at the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea, and was asked often at that time about her future. As time went on, the answer became obvious.
“I have hit my potential and I think I’ve contributed all I can to the progression of women’s snowboarding,” Clark said. “It’s been pretty emotional the last few days. Seeing my peers and getting the feedback from people and all of the support — I’ve just been in it for so long you don’t necessarily see the impact that you’ve made.”
But she has undoubtedly made a huge impact, and you’d be hard pressed to find a young snowboarder who hasn’t felt her influence. After winning Saturday’s contest, Kim went on to say Clark is basically a sister to her. After the 2018 contest, Arielle Gold, who also competed Saturday but struggled to put down a run, said Clark “is the reason we are all here.”
Clark feels good about the legacy she is leaving behind, and feels good about the future of women’s snowboarding. With Kim seemingly having already taken the reins of the sport from Clark, the veteran can just sit back and watch what she helped start.
“I’m excited to see where the sport goes,” Clark said. “They are pushing themselves, and I think that is the most impressive part for me when talking about progression, because the people who are doing it are doing it because they want to and not because they have to.”
So what’s next for Clark? She’ll continue to work with Burton and will continue to ride, but mostly in the backcountry. She plans to write, speak and continue to share her story. Other than that, it’s about exploring what’s possible.
“I know I’m happiest when I’m progressing and when I’m challenged in building something. So I would imagine those attributes will carry over into the next phase of life,” Clark said. “I haven’t even had room to think about what else there could be and how intense competition was for me and what it required of me to be at my best. I think the sky is kind of the limit. I’m not in a rush to move on or figure something else out.”
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