Off the slopes, Olympians look up and out for a larger cause

Olympians’ intense focus and self-sacrifice is key to reaching the highest levels of their sport, but leaves some hungry for a bigger purpose. Many competitors in Pyeongchang have embraced causes or relationships beyond their performance, looking for an even deeper sense of fulfillment.

Gregory Bull/ AP
Arielle Gold, right, of the United States, embraces Kelly Clark, of the United States, during the women's halfpipe finals at Phoenix Snow Park at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, on Feb. 13, 2018.

Olympic gold-medalist snowboarder Kelly Clark was standing in a lift line when she felt a tug on her sleeve.

Chloe Kim, then age 8, had spotted her snowboarding hero and was asking to ride up together.

Clark said sure.

Today Kim won her own Olympic gold. And Clark was there to see it – because she is still competing.

When Clark stood at the top of the pipe on the third and final run today, she was up against not only the best snowboarders from other countries but also her own legacy: the strength of the US women’s halfpipe team, which she has helped to mentor. Her teammates – some just half her age – have pushed her to reach greater heights, but they’ve also become some of her toughest competitors.

Indeed, it was another young American, Arielle Gold, who edged Clark out of a medal with an outstanding final run.

“Kelly is a huge part of why I’m here today and that’s what was bittersweet today, about it being between Kell and I for that third spot,” said Gold, who captured bronze behind China’s Liu Jiayu. “But she’s always been a huge inspiration to me throughout my career, always been looking out for me every step of the way whenever I needed it.”

So while Clark wasn’t on the podium today, she had her footprint all over it.

“Kelly has defined the sport of women’s snowboarding through her pursuit of personal growth and self–awareness,” says Rick Bower, the head halfpipe coach, who has coached Clark for 15 years.

Despite her clear disappointment at not winning a medal in her fifth and possibly final Olympics Games, Clark was gracious even in defeat.

“I’ve had one of the most wonderful, successful snowboarding careers anyone could ever hope for, and I take great joy in seeing these young women succeed,” said Clark after her final run. “Where I finish, they get to start.”

Since winning gold in 2002, Clark has dramatically redefined how she thinks about success. And that stems in part from seeking a deeper purpose or sense of fulfillment that goes beyond medals – something a number of athletes at these Games have done through embracing causes, goals, or relationships beyond their immediate performance objectives, looking outward and upward.

Sense of gratitude

While Olympians’ intense focus and self-sacrifice is key to reaching the highest levels of their sport, it can also lead to a self-centeredness.

“Being an athlete is pretty selfish sometimes, and about me and my schedule, and from time to time I take a step back and realize how blessed I am and try to find ways to give back,” says slopestyle snowboarder Jamie Anderson, who won gold yesterday. Growing up in a large family, where hand-me-downs were the norm, she appreciates how hard it is for young athletes to get the equipment and travel opportunities they need to progress – and started a foundation to help.

“Being able to run my charity and help kids who want to get into sports and may not have the financial accessibility is such a privilege because I know how expensive life is, and I know it’s really hard for parents,” she says.

“Even if they’re little things, like … flying the kids out to Nationals [Championships] … that’s so fun and something I really needed help with when I was kid,” she adds.

Biathlete Susan Dunklee is part of the Craftsbury Green Racing Project in northern Vermont, which provides elite-level skiers and rowers with housing, meals, health insurance, and coaching. In exchange, the program requires them to help out around Craftsbury Outdoor Center and the surrounding community – with a particular focus on sustainability. Past skier work projects include producing local food on the property and analyzing heating systems. Dunklee, who last winter became the first American woman in history to medal at a biathlon World Championships, says the program has provided a community and sense of purpose beyond her daily training and competition goals. 

US Ski and Snowboard, recognizing the value of such perspective, has started offering summer trips to Tijuana, Mexico. Athletes build a home for local residents through Hope Sports, a nonprofit founded by former Olympic cyclist Guy East. 

“It’s one of those trips that every athlete should go on because it really humbles you,” says Devin Logan, a freestyle skier who has participated in the trip during two of the past three summers. Seeing “this family that doesn’t even have a foundation on their house … it’s just like, ‘How are they getting through?’ 

“It’s a short trip – you build a house in two days, but it stays with you.… The next year, you can have those down days but you’re like, I’m out skiing, I’m in Switzerland. I had a rough day, I crashed, but I can still walk, I can still talk, I’m healthy, I have a home to go back to – it’s the little things that I feel so much more grateful for,” she says.

“It’s not all about gold medals and winning – it’s about being a good person and being appreciative of what you have.” 

‘It’s no longer about me’

Other athletes cite religious faith as helping to ground them and give them a sense of purpose beyond medals.

If it weren’t for that, pairs figure skater Alexa Scimeca Knierim says, she never would have been able to come back from a long illness to win US Nationals with her husband, Chris Knierim, and be named to the Olympic team.

“I was so sick and didn’t really know where things would be going for me, whether [in] skating or life in general. So I finally just threw my hands up and said, You lead the way,” said Knierim, who won bronze in the figure skating team event. “Even here at the Games, it’s no longer about me…. I’m treating this competition [as a way] to glorify God.”

Clark, the snowboarder, also credits her faith as crucial to finding fulfillment in her career. After winning gold in 2002 as an 18-year-old, she felt strangely empty, which prompted her to search for a greater purpose.

“It is a noticeable shift for all of us who knew her,” Mr. Bower says of her faith. “She doesn’t flaunt it. She’s not judgmental, not obnoxious about going to find Jesus.”

But it’s part of what has grounded her as she has helped to build up the team – and her teammates.

“I think anyone who is in a leadership position, whether it’s sports or business, you want to create a culture that you can step back from and there’s no hole,” said Clark. “I would never take credit for how wonderfully talented these women are, but I feel like women’s snowboarding is in great hands.”

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