Every year my family and I go to the Winter X Games. We had watched them for years as we lived all over the country, and once we moved to a mountain town just a few hours away from Aspen, we knew it would be an annual trek.
This year, one of my favorite moments happened on the very first day. On Wednesday afternoon there was a press event, where a row of X Games athletes, representing a wide range of events, sat in front of reporters and answered questions.
There was the usual barrage of questions fired at Shaun White, one of the most famous of the X Games athletes. There were questions about the Olympics last year, where many of these athletes competed just weeks after last year’s X Games events. And then there was a question that touched my heart.
The reporter directed the question at Kelly Clark, about her relationship with Chloe Kim. If you’ve seen any of the press about X Games, you know that Chloe Kim, at 14, is the youngest person to win a gold medal at X Games. She won the silver medal in the same event last year, at the age of 13. She’s the real deal. She is pretty much destined to be the women’s version of Shaun White in years to come. That is, if the women stopped being overlooked.
The current women’s version of Shaun White is Kelly Clark. She began competing back in 1999, at the age of 16 and in the years since has racked up an impressive list of medals, including medaling in two Olympic Games, twelve years apart. She’s been around a long time and has been at the top of her game for a long time. Yet no one knows the name Kelly Clark like they do Shaun White. I’m hoping that thinking changes in the years to come. Maybe with Chloe Kim’s generation, it will.
The reporter asked Kelly to describe her relationship with Chloe. The athlete who has been in the trenches literally longer than the athlete who is chasing her tail has been alive. Snowboarding is a small world. The athletes are thrown together, through travel and competitions, all year long. There is a fine line to be balanced between being friendly and staying competitive. The answer Kelly gave was refreshing (you can see a video clip of it here).
She talked about how talented Chloe is. She talked about how much she loves the sport and how it’s all about building a legacy, building up a sport to be all it can be.
“Knowing there are people like Chloe coming up, who will take what I’ve built and do things on snowboard that I never could, I’ll be able to look at women’s snowboarding and know that not only is it in good hands but in the hands of somebody that I built up.”
Chloe, who continuously grinned under her floppy hat, returned the affection when she got the microphone. Earlier in the session she had remarked about how Kelly was like big sister to her, always helping her navigate the world of extreme sports. “I always feel so much more comfortable with Kelly and I’m so thankful for her.”
Wait. Where’s the cutthroat competition? Where’s the “cut you off at the knees so I can have an advantage”? Where is the older athlete who refuses to be replaced by some younger, possibly faster athlete? That attitude was nowhere in sight at this press event.
I don’t know if the men’s athletes in the same events have similar sentiments. But it was so refreshing to hear a young woman gushing about the love and support she regularly receives from the woman she grew up watching, her idol becoming her mentor. Kelly not only accepts that she will be replaced some day, she is honored to be the one who is shaping the next generation.
How amazing would it be if that attitude could survive in other areas of competition and life? Every woman secure enough in her own abilities that there was no need to knock down the woman coming up behind her. Every woman recognizing that the lessons she could pass on to a protégé could mean building a legacy, not negating her own self-built kingdom.
This press event took place three days before the Super Pipe Snowboard event that decided the medals for 2015. After earning the gold medal in the event for the last four years in a row (and in 2006), this year Kelly took the silver. Standing next to her on the podium, with that bright gold medal around her neck, was the young woman she’s been grooming. I’m sure it must hurt at least a little bit, to give up that spot, at least for this year, but Kelly held up her medal and smiled. Just like the classy athlete that she has proven to be. A valuable example not just to a young woman named Chloe, who is paving her own way, but to all of us who have something worth passing along.