The Gatekeeper: Craig Kelly (April 1, 1966-January 20, 2003)By Eric Blehm
February 12, 2000: “Powder, sunshine, and six-dollar lift tickets,” said Craig Kelly as we slogged upstairs to our hotel room at the end of a perfect day of riding in Iran. “Who should we be thanking for that storm? Allah?” Craig commandeered the foot of our room’s narrow beds for yoga. While I read, he balanced casually on his shoulder blades, chin to his chest, legs straight like a totem pole, toes pointing at the ceiling. Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds” played quietly from a mini disc player on the nightstand, and I buried my nose in the first half of James Clavell’s epic novel, Whirlwind. Craig had found the historical novel based in Iran at a second-hand store somewhere in the States. When I expressed interest in it, he tore the book in half-right down the spine-and said, “Here, I’ve already read this, I’ll give you the rest before the end of the trip.”
After dinner that night, Craig asked if I thought the world was ready for a book about a snowboarder, and I replied, “You want to write a memoir?”
“Maybe,” he said, “I’ve been journaling, keeping track of my dreams, and I’ve been thinking maybe it’s time to tell some of my stories.” I lay there in the darkness nodding my head in silence. Then he said, “Maybe you could help me out?” I was flattered, because not only was Craig a longtime snowboarding hero of mine, he was also one of the few snowboarders I felt really had something to say.
“When you’re ready,” I told him, “I’d be honored to help out in any way you’d like.” He said he’d dream about it. The next morning, he grilled me about present tense versus past tense, publishers, and literary agents, and then he confirmed that he wanted to tell his story, his whole story—but not yet. He said he wasn’t sure if there would be enough interest in the life of a snowboarder to warrant a book. “Timing,” he said, “is everything.” As we walked down a marbled staircase to the dining room, he continued musing, “The problem with memoirs and biographies is that you have to die before anybody wants to read about you.” He paused for effect, lifted his chin, then said, “Screw that.” And we both laughed.
The morbidity of that statement didn’t occur to me at the time, because the thought of snowboarding’s superhero dying was incomprehensible. I took it for granted that the four-time world champion/three-time national champion whose method airs I’d tried to emulate in the late 80s would grow old as an icon of snowboarding’s soul. He’d be the living legend I’d introduce my kids to some day, and they’d know immediately who he was because I’d have already told them his story:
Craig Elmer Kelly was born on April Fool’s Day—April 1, 1966. He was the first child born to Pat Kelly and Janet Hansen; they considered him their “practice kid.” Soon enough, Craig confirmed that his parents were doing something right. In kindergarten, coloring and the ABCs were boring to Craig because he could already read. Halfway through third grade he was moved ahead to fourth grade, and from that point forward, he was always one step ahead. Craig was the first in his school to ride ramps on his skateboard, to race BMX bikes, to surf, and eventually, to snowboard. “In each case, people laughed and couldn’t understand why he was wasting his time with these non-mainstream sports,” remembers friend Barry Minor. “He was a great example of not being a sheep in life.”
Craig’s father Pat recalls, “Craig was popular in all circles. He had no enemies.” These circles included baseball, football, and soccer-early foreshadowing to the well-rounded life Craig would lead.When Craig first moved to Mount Vernon, Washington in 1979, a local kid named Dan Donnelly rode his bicycle past Craig’s house to check out “the new kid.”
Dan and Craig lifelong friendship was subsequently forged over BMX races (they were both sponsored by Fulton’s Schwinn, a shop in Mount Vernon) and jumps, and then, one day during the winter of 1981, their friend Jeff Fulton, whose father owned the Schwinn shop, invited them to try snowboarding. The store had ordered a few all-wood Burton Backhills. Jeff figured Craig and Dan would be a good gauge of the toy’s potential. “If Craig got into it,” says Fulton, “all the kids would get into it.”
Jeff took them up to Mount Baker, and they rode powder off the side of the road because Mount Baker Ski Area didn’t allow snowboarding in 1981. Craig, fourteen at the time, was instantly hooked and talked his dad into fronting the money for his own Burton Backhill. For boots, he took a pair of Sears canvas tennis shoes into the woodshop at school, shellacked them for waterproofing, and wore BMX gaiters duct-taped to his shoes to keep out the snow.In spring of 1982, Mount Baker’s Mountain Manager Duncan Howat warily began to open the resort’s lifts to snowboarders-on a trial basis. Says Gail Howat about her husband’s early reaction to snowboarders and snowboarding, “Duncan and Mount Baker did not embrace snowboarding in the beginning. But when Duncan saw what Craig could do on a snowboard, it changed his whole outlook.”
By Craig’s senior year in high school, he was already an ambassador to the sport-spreading the word to his friends—but he still didn’t see any career potential. He was going to college, and in preparation he loaded up his schedule with six academic classes, taking computer science, advanced chemistry, fifth-year math, German, American government, and physics. His GPA at Mount Vernon High School was a 4.0, and the only student in his computer science class with a higher grade was his younger brother Brian, who was a freshman.
By the end of that winter, Craig was sponsored by another local bike shop, The Bike Factory, which also carried snowboards made by Burton and the other top brand at the time, Sims. The Bike Factory Owner Bob Barci told Sims Founder Tom Sims that he should check out Mount Baker for all its natural gullies (which would be perfect for a natural halfpipe, or perhaps a banked slalom) and a talented local snowboarder named Craig Kelly. Tom Sims, renowned for recognizing snowboarding talent, rode with Craig that winter. “In 1983,” says Tom, “there were only about a dozen really good riders in the entire country. When I saw Craig snowboard, I knew he was special. When I left, I gave Craig my personal board, a 1500 FE, and shook his hand.
Craig asked Tom, “What do I do now that I’m on the team?” Tom replied, “Keep doing what you’re doing. We’ll get you into some contests later on.” Contests were just starting to be organized on the East Coast and in Tahoe, and Washington had yet to host a snowboarding event. At age seventeen, Craig was accepted into the University of Washington as a chemical engineering major. He met a longhaired guy named Mark Thomas at the Delta Upsilon fraternity house—like Craig, Mark liked heavy metal. Although Craig was quiet and analytical, he was an amazing athlete and quickly became known as the house “snowboarder.” During “Hell Half Hour” (the house’s nightly stress-release study break), Craig would crank up The Scorpions or Judas Priest and jump on his bed with his snowboard. He blew out dozens of mattresses and broke boards monthly.
On weekends, Craig would go home to Mount Vernon, raid the refrigerator on Friday night, then hang out at Mount Baker until Sunday, when he’d drive back to Mount Vernon, raid the refrigerator again, and return to the university. According to fraternity brother Mark Thomas, “It wasn’t just Mount Baker’s insane terrain that kept him going back, it was his affection for a girl named Kelly Jo Legaz who worked on the mountain.” Craig and Kelly Jo would become one of snowboarding’s first publicized romances. Back at school during the week, Craig would set bamboo gates and train two or three nights under the lights at Ski Acres, outside of Seattle.
Vision (a corporation that had a licensing agreement to distribute Sims snowboards) eventually sent Craig a contract to sign on as an official team member. The legal aspects of this contract would be debated in court later in his career, but at the time, he sought counsel from one of his older/wiser Delta Upsilon brothers, who told him, “Sure you can sign it. You’re a minor, it’s not legally binding.”
By 1985, Craig had started competing and was one of the founding members of the notorious Mount Baker Hard Core, a group of talented riders that included his longtime pal Dan Donnelly, Baker legends Carter Turk and Eric Janco, Amy Howat (the mountain manager’s daughter), and eventually, a young skate-rat-come-snowboarder named Mike Ranquet. Ranquet remembers how Craig nurtured his riding: “Craig would call me up and say, ‘Mikey, wanna go to Baker this weekend?’ And I’d say, ‘I don’t know, man, I gotta ask my mom.’ My mom told me years later that Craig had always called her first and asked permission before he got my hopes up. I had no idea all those times that he’d talked my mom into letting me go. He always made me feel like I was figuring things out on my own, but really I was following Craig’s lead.”
Craig appeared in Absolutely Radical, the world’s first snowboarding magazine, which came out in winter of 1985. His first published photos—one racing, and one in a halfpipe doing a “tabletop” (method) air-appeared on pages fourteen and fifteen. On page eleven were the results of his first contest, which was also the first Mount Baker Banked Slalom, where Craig took fourth place behind Tom Sims, Terry Kidwell, and Ken Achenbach. On page 21 were the results of his second competition, the Sierra Snowboarding Championships, where Craig placed third in the halfpipe event behind Terry Kidwell and Tom Sims. By the end of his first season of competition, Craig had taken second place in two additional events and was itching for a win that came the following March at a Hyak, Washington banked slalom and then again in a slalom at the soon-to-be prestigious World Snowboarding Championships in Breckenridge, Colorado. Having tasted victory, Craig fell into a focused regimen of school and snowboard training, an almost Zen-like technique that his mother Janet likened to the BMX days when “he’d take his entire bike apart and put it back together the night before a race. If I’d come in and bother him, he’d shhhh me because he was so focused.”
During an interview in the late 80s, Craig told Wiley Asher, an editor at International Snowboard Magazine, about his seriousness: “When I train I’m very analytical, and I constantly think about working a certain muscle group or perfecting a particular technique. If my riding doesn’t feel technically perfect, exactly the way it should, I concentrate completely on the problem. If I chatter out on a heel turn, I think, ‘Why did that happen? Okay, next time put more weight on your rear foot.'”
But between school and training, Craig took off his game face and reveled in the art of the prank. He was notorious for his practical jokes and sense of humor. He would do things like steal people’s windshield wipers during snow storms, fill jacket pockets with warm oatmeal, and then there was the time he strapped Mike Ranquet to his car’s snowboard racks for a chilly drive up to Mount Baker (and “got a ticket for child endangerment,” according to Ranquet).
“Craig eventually became known as the sport’s first truly professional athlete, but don’t mistake that for being a saint,” says longtime friend Ken Achenbach. “Craig got arrested with Keith (Duckboy) Wallace at the 1991 June Mountain Op Pro for riding off the lodge’s roof. They were just following me, my brother Dave, Don Schwartz, and Doug Lundgren, but they were the ones who got busted, and they never ratted us out.” Craig and Keith, subsequently got banned from June Mountain “for life,” but that didn’t last. “Craig didn’t like the publicity from that stunt,” says Ken. “After that, he was way more careful with his pranks. His go-with-the-flow attitude made him the perfect travel companion who always kept you on your toes. He was never malicious, he was just Craig.”
As Craig worked his way through college, he set lofty goals for himself. He wanted to attend medical school and become an overall world champion snowboarder. “He wanted to do it all,” says photographer and friend Mark Gallup. “The difference between Craig and others was that he could actually do it all. I never doubted anything Craig said he would do, even off-the-wall comments like, ‘I think I might drive from Alaska to Chile.’ He told me that years before he actually did it.”
TransWorld SNOWboarding debuted in 1987. In 1988, the magazine devoted an entire issue to The Performers, riders who were considered leaders of the sport. In his interview, Craig showed the first signs of his upcoming switch from overall racer/freestyle guy to dedicated freestyle champion. “If I had to choose between the disciplines, it would be the halfpipe,” he said. “But it’s hard to concentrate on riding halfpipes because they aren’t at every ski area. Last year (1987) the only training I got in the halfpipe was when I went to a contest two or three days early.”
That winter, Craig became frustrated with Vision and switched over from Sims to Burton snowboards, a decision that led to a lengthy, groundbreaking legal battle, which also was the impetus that made Tom Sims rethink his relationship with Vision. Despite Tom’s obvious disappointment in losing Craig Kelly to Burton, he was unhappy about Vision’s decision to sue Craig and Burton.
Years later, Craig served as a guest editor for the short-lived freeriding magazine, Snowboard Life. One of Craig’s conditions to taking on the guest editorship was to have the opportunity to pay tribute to a few of the people who had meant a lot to his snowboarding. Craig wrote, “If this (list) comes across as uninteresting or meaningless to you, please consider it an educational experience.” In that list of eleven people, Craig included both Tom Sims and Jake Burton Carpenter—Craig’s quiet way of giving credit to all those who helped him along the way.
But back in 1988 during the court battle, Craig was mentally drained. While the case was pending, a judge required Craig to ride his Burton boards without graphics, which spawned the genius marketing of his first pro model, “The Mystery Air,” which became one of Burton’s all time best-selling boards. Everybody knew the “Mystery” was “Craig Kelly.”
Only a few snowboarders were making a living at the time, and six-figure salaries were unheard of. This court case gave notice to other pro snowboarders that snowboarding was a viable career option, not just a renegade fad. There was money to be made. With that in mind, Craig talked to his parents about quitting school and committing himself to professional snowboarding. He had only fifteen units remaining to graduate, but traveling to contests around the world was tough to juggle with a full-time education. His parents supported his decision wholeheartedly, and he went on to earn world titles in every aspect of the sport (racing, moguls, and freestyle). Then he retired from racing and concentrated on the halfpipe (thus giving up his overall title). Jake Burton and many of his friends thought this was a bad decision, but Craig said, “Trust me.” And sure enough, freestyle snowboarding became the new rage. After dominating the freestyle titles for three years, Craig tired of the “negative energy and stress” associated with competition and decided freeriding was his next focus.