About the time the rest of us were learning how to jump rope at recess, 7-year-old Kelly Clark was already mastering the cutthroat sport of snowboarding.
The Newport, Rhode Island native started competing in 1999 and became an Olympic gold medalist for the women’s halfpipe in the 2002 Winter Olympics.
Now, 16 years later, Clark heads into the 2018 Winter Games in Pyeongchang as snowboarding’s most decorated Olympian.
The 34-year-old’s long list of accomplishments include 5-time World Snowboard Tour season champion, 8-time Burton U.S. Open halfpipe champion, 7-time X Games halfpipe gold medalist, and 2-time Olympic halfpipe bronze medalist. She’s basically the Michael Phelps of snowboarding.
But as it goes with all accolades, their sense of fulfillment faded with time.
Clark particularly recalls her Olympic victory in 2002, which marked a symbolic win for the nation when she took the first American gold after the 9/11 attacks.
“I hit the peak, the pinnacle,” said Clark. “It was unbelievable.”
But just a few months later, after the news interviews, hometown parades, and worldwide praise died down, she found herself feeling empty once again.
“In all those external successes, I was really looking for that sense of significance,” said Clark. “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.”
The following year, she began asking herself one unsettling question repeatedly: “Now what?”
It was that simple yet gnawing question that would lead her down a path of self-reflection and pursuit of her savior Jesus Christ.
Her coach that following season, Rick Bower, noticed a distinct change in Clark after her big Olympic win. They were now both faced with the challenge of making the best snowboarder in the world even better, and it was a daunting task that clearly weighed on the athlete.
Clark felt herself crumbling under the weight of her own expectation and the gold-standard she had set for herself.
“She was not feeling connected to anything,” Bower said. “She was really struggling. You could see that struggle.”
Feeling incredibly depressed before her first event of the season that year (and once the site of her biggest career accomplishment), Clark poured her heartache out in her journal.
“I don’t care if I wake up tomorrow, and I don’t think anybody else cares,” she wrote.
Even in her state of despair, she managed to qualify for finals, but it just didn’t carry the same meaning that it did before. It was during this low point that Clark overheard something that would change the course of her spiritual journey.
After one girl failed to qualify, she heard another high-profile snowboarder whisper these words to her: “Hey, it’s all right. God still loves you. You don’t need to cry.”
Those words sank deep into Clark’s soul. Outside of seeing the occasional “Jesus loves you” plastered on billboards and bumper stickers, she really didn’t know what this Christianity thing was all about—but she had a newfound burning desire to find out.
That same night, she dug a Bible out of her hotel room drawer and began to seek out answers for herself.
“I was like, ‘Uh, I don’t even know how to read this,” admitted Clark.
Lucky for her, her competitor who was disqualified from the finals just so happened to be in the same hotel.
In a leap of faith, Clark knocked on her door and said, “I think you might be a Christian, and I think you need to tell me about God.”
Nearly 15 years later, Clark is still grateful for that encounter clearly orchestrated by the hand of God.
“I knocked on the right door,” she said.
Through diving into Scripture, getting support from other Christian snowboarders, and reading Rick Warren’s Purpose Driven Life, Clark came to the unshakeable conclusion that Jesus Christ is Lord—and her life has been radically changed ever since.
“He was very real, very present in my life,” said Clark. “I gave my heart to the Lord that day.”
For years, the snowboarding legend has ridden with a 6-word message boldly stamped on the topside of her board: “Jesus, I cannot hide my love.”
After receiving the great revelation of God’s love for her and Jesus’ ultimate sacrifice, Clark wants nothing more than to use her platform to make Christ’s love known to the rest of the world.
The totally transformed athlete can even process failure now in a way that she never could before, as she knows Jesus already bore her guilt and shame on the cross so she wouldn’t have to.
Coach Bower took notice of her renewed mental approach “by trusting God’s plan for her before each run,” particularly when she took an upsetting fourth-place finish in the 2006 Olympics after a fall. Instead of wallowing in self-pity, Clark was grateful and got back up again.
Her falls and her failures no longer define her. Christ does.
“[Her faith] helped her focus,” said Bower. “It gave her some perspective that was beyond just herself. She found a purpose in life.”