COPPER MOUNTAIN, Colo. — Unlikely friends and unparalleled talents, Kelly Clark and Chloe Kim squared off yet again in Saturday’s Grand Prix finals. The snowboarders will see each other again at this week’s Dew Tour event and nearly a half-dozen more times in the next eight weeks. If all goes as planned, the 34-year-old Clark and 17-year-old Kim will face each other perhaps for a final time in the halfpipe finals at the PyeongChang Olympics in February.
But that first time the two met, they both remember fondly.
“I was 8, at my home mountain in Mammoth, [Calif.],” Kim recalled recently. “She was standing right in front of me in the lift line. I was just like, ‘I don’t know what to do.’ ”
“She tugged on my sleeve,” Clark interjected, “and asked to go up the lift with me. It was pretty cute.”
Clark already was an Olympic champion by then, and in the nine years since, her stature in the sport has only grown. She’s aiming for her fifth Winter Games and fourth Olympic medal and should be one of the biggest American stars in PyeongChang.
Kim, on the other hand, has a blank Olympic résumé. Though she was widely regarded as one of the world’s best riders four years ago, she was too young to compete at the Sochi Games. At these Olympics, Clark might be the snowboarding legend, but Kim could blossom into its biggest star. Her parents are from South Korea, and she will have plenty of fans in both PyeongChang and the United States rooting her on.
Clark certainly will be trying to best the young rider, but she also counts herself as a major supporter of Kim. At this stage of Clark’s career, these Olympics aren’t exclusively about medals or podiums. In four Olympic appearances, she has never finished worse than fourth — with a gold and a pair of bronze medals in her trophy case (not to mention 10 medals from the Winter X Games). After her third-place finish at the 2010 Vancouver Games, Clark said she began reflecting and tackling some big-picture questions.
“I started asking myself, what sort of impact was I going to leave on the sport besides just competition results?” she explained. “I didn’t want to get done with my career and say, ‘Wow, I had a string of great results.’ ”
In the years that followed, many from Clark’s pioneering generation of riders decided to hang up their snowboards, and Clark started noticing an age gap at events.
“All of a sudden, it seemed like everybody around me was 16 years old,” she said.
At one event last summer, she realized both Kim and Maddie Mastro, another promising young snowboarder, were exactly half her age. Seeing the future of the sport all around her, Clark also saw opportunity.
“I kind of transitioned,” Clark said. “I used to be kind of a peer, and now I’m more of a mentor. I love that. I love the idea that I’ll get to invest in this next generation of women that will take over the sport when I’m done. I guess at the end of the day, if your dream only involves you, it’s too small of a dream.”
So she has befriended the young riders, especially Kim. She encouraged her own sponsors to meet with the teenage phenom. She prepped Kim for her first news conference and calmed her nerves before big competitions. The two talk about tricks and snowboarding but also life off the mountain.
“She’s very strong mentally, too, which I admire very much,” Kim said. “Me being a teenager, I’m always breaking down — ‘I don’t know what to do with my life, this boy doesn’t like me!’ — there’s just a lot going on. It’s nice to have someone like Kelly always giving me advice.”
In the halfpipe, they’re still fierce competitors. Clark took gold at the 2014 Winter X Games, and Kim took silver. The next year, Kim took first and Clark second. Kim won the 2016 version and then last year finished in third, one spot ahead of Clark.
They kicked off the push for PyeongChang on Saturday, where Kim won the Grand Prix at Copper Mountain and Clark finished third.
“With Chloe, she’s one of the most talented young riders I’ve ever seen,” Clark said last week, “and I’m really excited to see where she pushes herself to and where she takes the sport to.”
As Kim prepares for her first Olympics, Clark will never be too far away, and that 17-year age gap won’t get in the way of their friendship — or their competitive rivalry.
“The shared passion that they have for snowboarding, for competing, for really pushing themselves to be an elite athlete, that’s what they share,” said Mike Jankowski,coach of the U.S. Snowboarding and U.S. Freeskiing team. “There’s not a lot of people that share those attributes. . . . It’s a unique situation, and we’re fortunate to have that sort of legacy and interaction going on.”
Clark isn’t ready to cede the top of the Olympic podium to the young riders quite yet. She knows PyeongChang likely will be her last Winter Games, but she should be competitive even as young riders such as Kim keep pushing the limits.
“I honestly don’t think I’ve hit my potential,” Clark said. “So I’m looking to do that this season. I wouldn’t be here still if I didn’t have something left to give.”
No female rider has enjoyed a career quite like hers, and in these next two months, as she prepares to pass the torch, Clark will try to set the bar as high as possible for the generation that follows, which will be led by Kim.
“Hopefully my ceiling will become her floor,” Clark says.