When the women of the U.S. Snowboard team, including prior gold medalist Chloe Kim, hit the slopes for the Olympic Games in Beijing this month, they will be following in the grooves laid down by dozens of women who came before them. These are the athletes who carved out their own achievements and identities in a sport that many might only associate with male aggression.
This was no single-gendered sport. Boys and girls were both attracted to the excitement of the new and different activity; this seemed more like a fun thing to do than a sport to excel in. As snowboarding gained more followers in the 1980s and 1990s, enthusiasts were viewed as disrupters, and, were usually not welcome on ski mountains. They carved huge paths back and forth across groomed slopes where skiers were trying to quietly schuss, and tried to “catch air” off bumps and landed with thuds on their backsides.
It was as if the largely-testosterone-fueled skateboard culture had come to the mountains. When the first professional snowboarding event—the U.S. Open—was held in 1982 in Vermont, it featured only men. And, initially, at least, the contest aped skiing, with downhill and slalom events. But just two years later, the first women would join the event and the halfpipe contest, which involves boarding back and forth to get up the walls, executing tricks at the top, and has come to be most closely associated with snowboarding, was added. The sponsor, snowboarding pioneer, Jake Burton, decided to offer equal prize money from the start.
Four female pioneers—Shannon Dunn-Downing, Kelly Clark, Amy Purdy and Hannah Teter—now have their career accolades preserved at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. All have donated gear or clothing to the museum, most of it from their Olympics participation. None are currently on display, but may be at some point, says curator Jane Rogers, a scholar in the history of American sport.
Rogers, who urged the women to make these donations, got interested in snowboarding’s lively history a decade ago and has been trying to add to the collections ever since. She sees the sport as quintessentially American.
Americans are “always kind of the outsider,” she says. Collecting ephemera from snowboarding is a natural for the museum because “it really shows how our culture is progressing, and experimenting, and innovating in sports,” she says.
Recognition of female athletes is critical to the history, Rogers says. Among the items held in the collections are:
- Dunn-Downing’s jackets and pants that she wore in the 1998 games in Nagano, Japan, and an outfit from the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics, where she placed fifth in the halfpipe as her pro career was coming to an end;
- Clark’s Burton Feelgood snowboard she used at the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, where she won bronze;
- Teter’s boots from the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics where she won silver;
- Purdy’s race bib, and a synthetic and metal foot prosthetic she used at the Sochi Paralympics, along with medals won in 2013 at the Europa Cup Snowboard Cross Championships and the IPC Snowboard Cross World Cup, as well as a trophy from the 2013 IPC Para-Snowboard World Cup.
Three of the four women spoke with Smithsonian about their experiences growing up around, and evolving with, the sport.
Shannon Dunn-Downing, 49, is the first-ever American Olympic snowboarding medalist—male or female. From her home in San Diego, she recalls snowboarding’s early days.
As a youngster in Colorado’s Steamboat Springs, she became fascinated with “this new, exciting sport,” especially when she compared it with skiing, which had become routine since she’d been doing that since the age of three. When her older brother started snowboarding, she followed his path.
In 1988, Steamboat became one of the first American ski areas to allow snowboarding. The sport was freeing, says Dunn-Downing. She and her best female friend, along with her brother, connected with the tight-knit boarding community. There weren’t many girls, but she never felt like she didn’t belong, Dunn-Downing says.
Soon, she was entering contests while still in high school. Despite being an amateur, she circled “pro” on an entry form for a 1990 event and came in third. Now she was hooked. A trip to the World Cup in Val D’Isere, France—and another third-place finish—pushed her further towards a pro career. College was quickly in the rearview mirror, and by the 1990s, Dunn-Downing was tearing up the halfpipe, racking up first place medals at the World Cup in 1992, the U.S. Open in 1993 and 1994 and at the first-ever Winter X Games in 1997.
Word came in 1996 that snowboarding would be a new sport at the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano. Dunn-Downing, who had represented snowboarders at the International Ski Federation, said that boarders had mixed feelings about the Olympics. As mostly individualists who basically bucked the rules, they viewed Olympics officials as establishment types trying to piggyback onto their success. “Snowboarding was blowing up in the 90s,” says Dunn-Downing. “It felt like people were taking advantage of our sport, what we’d built, for financial gain,” she says.
She ultimately decided to go to Nagano in 1998, where she won a bronze medal in the halfpipe and became the first American to medal in snowboarding. “I don’t regret any bit of it—what an experience,” she says.
Dunn-Downing was also a pioneer in helping to design a snowboard and clothing specifically for women. As the sport took off, she was restricted to wearing the baggy men’s jackets and pants and riding boards that were geared for taller and heavier riders with bigger feet. In 1994, Dunn-Downing collaborated with Gaylene Nagel, marketing director at Sims, her sponsor, to make a lighter board that was festooned with female-friendly graphics designed by Dunn-Downing.
Sims’ male sales reps refused to sell the board with its intertwined sunflowers on a bright red background, calling it too “girly.” When one retailer agreed to take it on consignment, that “girly” board flew off the shelves, says Dunn-Downing. “It just opened the floodgates to women’s products,” she says.
The Sims Sunflower board found its way to the Smithsonian’s collections, too, along with the Dolphin 44, a board Dunn helped design in 1995 at her next sponsor, Burton. Around the same time, Dunn-Downing and another pro boarder, Tina Basich, created their own clothing line, Prom. “We wanted to be glam with an attitude,” says Dunn-Downing, adding that the outfits said, “we can go off cliffs and wear pink.”
Dunn-Downing and Basich also in 1996 were among the co-founders of Boarding for Breast Cancer, a nonprofit organization that continues to offer education, outreach and survivor retreats.
The pink clothing thing didn’t last, but women flocked to the sport and began executing ever-more-difficult tricks, just like their male counterparts. Dunn-Downing was considered gutsy for being the first woman to pull off a 540 (a 360-degree turn plus a half turn, forwards or backwards), and then, later, a 720.
In 2011, Kelly Clark executed a 1080—three full rotations—at the Winter X Games, becoming the first woman to do so. It took seven years to learn, she says. Clark credits Dunn-Downing and the other women who came before her for igniting her desire to go bigger. “I really wanted to take the sport forward,” she says. “I knew I was capable of doing it and I believed it was possible for women to do it.”
Like Dunn-Downing, Clark, 38, started skiing very early, at age two, in Vermont, where her parents owned, and which her family still runs, a pizzeria in Dover. When local Mt. Snow first allowed snowboarding, in 1990, Clark, by then age seven, saw the new sport as a relief from the competitiveness of her ski racing program. “Snowboarding looked cool,” says Clark. “And it looked a lot more fun than what I was doing.”
As a persuasive, quick-thinking ten-year-old, Clark managed to convince her elementary school principal to start offering snowboarding alongside skiing as a choice as part of the school’s special winter program. She threw herself into snowboarding and by high school, was living and breathing the sport at the snow sports-specific Mt. Snow Academy (which she partially paid for by working shifts at the family restaurant).
Just a year after she graduated, Clark was at the top of the podium in Salt Lake City for her 2002 halfpipe performance. She became the first American, male or female, to win snowboarding Gold. For her getting to the top of the heap by the age of 18, led to a reckoning of sorts, she says. She realized that “performance wasn’t going to bring me fulfillment.” Instead, she came to find that “true greatness is an inside job.”
She went on to participate in four more Olympics, bringing home another two medals, both bronze. Clark is the most-decorated American snowboarder of all-time, male or female, with five World Snowboard Tour wins, six U.S. Grand Prix and eight U.S. Open wins. She owns the most X Games medals of any woman, having secured in 19 consecutive contests seven gold, six silver and one bronze.
After her victory, the media pestered her with questions about whether she would retire. The thought hadn’t entered her head. “I hadn’t hit my own ceiling,” she says, adding that she also felt a responsibility to lead the other women boarders.
Four years later, after the PyeongChang Games, it was time. She knew, then, that the up and coming women would “stand on my shoulders and go further than I could,” she says.
Clark announced her retirement in 2019. “I didn’t go out on top but pretty close to on top and I went out on my terms.” Clark continues to snowboard, often at her home Mammoth Mountain in California. Today, she says, she does not miss the intensity of competition.
The Las Vegas native Amy Purdy, 42, began snowboarding when she was 15. But In 1999, a case of bacterial meningitis led to septic shock, the loss of her kidney and spleen, and the amputations of both her legs just below the knees.
After working with her doctor to design prosthetics that would let her get back to snowboarding, she began competing again a year after the amputations. A kidney transplant from her father in 2001 helped with her recovery, and she continued to compete around the world, including in the Paralympics, starting in 2014. But multiple surgeries since 2020 have interfered with her competitive career. The operations have been part of a long history of trying to adapt to her 1999 illness.
Purdy has long determined to show that she could achieve greatness despite her losses. In 2005, she and her then-boyfriend (now husband) Daniel Gale founded Adaptive Action Sports to foster interest and ability in adaptive snowboarding. They organized adaptive skateboarding and snowboarding events, brought them to the X Games, and began developing athletes who might one day participate in the Paralympics—if Purdy and Gale could convince the U.S. Paralympic and Olympic committees to bite on the idea.
And they did. Approval of the sport’s addition to the Paralympics came in 2012. The first competition was slated for Sochi in 2014.
Meanwhile, Purdy was chasing after her own medals. In 2012, she snagged silver at the World Para-Snowboard Championship in France. She took home a bronze at the World Championship in 2017. At the Sochi Paralympic Games, Purdy won the bronze in the Snowboard Cross. Four years later, at the Games in PyeongChang, she won a silver in the Snowboard Cross and a bronze in the Banked Slalom.
The Paralympian’s career has been marked by ups and downs that have made her a popular speaker and all-around inspiration. In 2012, she and her husband were contestants on “The Amazing Race” television show. While Purdy was training in Sochi, she practiced dance moves at night with Derek Hough, a member of the “Dancing with the Stars” television cast who had flown in to get her up to speed. According to Purdy’s website, just three days after winning the bronze medal, she was on the dance floor in Hollywood for the show’s opening night. A ten-week run led to a finish as the runner-up for the season.
Purdy went on a speaking tour with Oprah Winfrey in 2015. She has written a book, has a podcast and a jewelry line. Her travails and triumphs are shared with her 424,000 Instagram followers.
Like Purdy, Clark also has been a popular motivational speaker, and has written a book about her methods for success. She hopes to bring other snowboarders along through her Kelly Clark Foundation, which aims to increase diversity in the sport.
Being in the Smithsonian is a capstone to her career, says Clark. “If you told me in the 90s that my board would be in a Smithsonian museum that would sound outlandish,” she says. “That it gets to live on at a museum, it’s just an honor.”