David Wise stood on deck at the top of the superpipe in Aspen, Colo. Before him stretched the perfectly groomed ice and snow tube carved 567 feet long into the mountainside. As he mentally prepared, Wise watched competitor Justin Dorey smash into the lip in what ESPN called “one of the gnarliest crashes in years.” (Thankfully, Dorey walked away with only an injured shoulder.) It wasn’t the kind of precursor you want before beginning your own high-speed attempt at defying gravity in a giant geographic playground.
Wise was already nervous about one trick in his run—the first trick in his run—the same trick that had just crumpled Dorey. The 21-year-old freeskier from Reno, Nev., paused to refocus. He said a prayer and told himself, It’s just another run.
But it wasn’t just another run. This was the 2012 Winter X Games finals, the snowy epicenter of the action sports world. And Wise was poised to claim the biggest victory of his freeskiing career. He pointed his skis, picked up speed and dropped into the pipe—backwards. He rocketed down one 22-foot wall, across the floor of the superpipe and up the other near-vertical wall, launching himself into three end-over-end rotations—think flips turned on a diagonal axis. In other words, picture throwing a coffee mug into the air and watching it wobble around rather than flip straight over. Wise was the human coffee mug with fiberglass skis on both feet, spinning around and around 20 feet in the air over the top of the pipe, 42 feet above its bottom. His landing target was the vertical wall. His switch double flip was flawless.
And that was only the beginning. Wise’s height out of the pipe, or amplitude in X-speak, was three feet higher than the other skiers’ average. And he capped his stellar run with a huge double cork 1260 with a mute grab—three and a half diagonal flips while holding a ski with one hand.
The impressive performance secured X Games gold. The victory was the beginning of a breakout 2012 season that also included wins at the next two major contests: the Dew Tour in Snowbasin, Utah, and the U.S. Grand Prix in Mammoth, Calif. And the season positioned Wise as a favorite heading into the Olympic qualifying year before the 2014 Games in Sochi, Russia.
But before America starts chanting his name in unison, there’s something you need to know about David Wise: He’s not your typical action sports star.
Yes, he loves amplitude and hucking big tricks—he was the first skier to land a double cork 1260 in the halfpipe. Yes, he’s young—though at 21 he was the oldest on the Winter X Games podium in 2012. And yes, he is sponsored by an energy food and drink company.
But Wise is also a husband and father who eschews any of the industry’s arrogant swagger. His image is bouncing his toddler, Nayeli, and leading the youth group at his church back home in Reno rather than partying with the snow sports elite. It’s a difference that the action sports media has quickly noted. Wise humbly views it all as part of who God has and continues to make him.
“Skiing is my art,” Wise says. “It’s the skill, the talents and opportunities that God has given me to show the world what I think skiing should look like and what I think beauty is. Skiing is my way of worshiping.”
David and Lexi met in high school at a church leadership camp at Hume Lake. They shared a camp crush; then went their separate ways. Wise was focused on pursuing his career and becoming the best skier possible. He figured he might get married around 30 if that was what it took to pursue his goals. But when he ran into Lexi at church several years after that camp. Things clicked. The couple was married within a year. Another year later, Nayeli was born.
Others have noted that Wise didn’t win any platinum level contests like the X Games until after his marriage and the birth of his daughter. He doesn’t dismiss the insight.
“Being a pro athlete is a selfish trade,” he says.
It’s easy to be consumed with fine tuning every movement, every trick, every morsel of nutrition or every edge to become fitter and better. But Wise has found that his family relationships have turned his focus outside of himself.
“Having a family and being a father figure and supporter of a family instead of just skiing for myself has changed my whole outlook on life,” Wise says. “When I finally stopped worrying about succeeding and making money, then I started winning. There are things that are hard, but you learn you’re no longer living for yourself; you’re living for your wife and family.”
Lexi and Nayeli are with Wise at as many contests as possible. He calls it “so cool and unexpected and different and at the same time so normal.”
Wise also stays grounded by meeting weekly with two friends, including his former youth pastor, Mike Koudreit. He credits those guys with helping him grow spiritually and keeping him from feeling like a spiritual island in his sport.
Koudreit remembers Wise as an energetic middleschooler launching flips and gainers off boulders into Lake Tahoe on church retreats. Now he describes his friend as “passionate, resolute and persistent.”
“I appreciate his level of humility,” Koudreit says. “It’s refreshing to see a world-class athlete hang out just completely as a friend. There’s no hierarchy, just friendship based on history and common belief.”
Of course, a shared practical joke is fairly common as well—like several Christmases ago when the three friends captured a duck late at night. They placed the bird in a box in the living room of a friend. “They found the box, picked it up and ended up with a duck flying around in their house,” Koudreit says.
That sense of humor makes Wise a natural for leading the youth group at his Reno church. Lexi takes point while David travels to competitions during the winter, but the couple serves as youth pastors for the group. “If I can give back, I want to be involved,” he says.
“He genuinely enjoys the kids,” Koudreit says. “He has a good ability of not trying to come from above them or impress them—he jumps into wherever they are with different maturity levels and beliefs. He’d probably work with the group even if he wasn’t skiing.”
Wise knows how vulnerable the teen years can be. He struggled in high school when his parents divorced, and he rebelled against his family’s Christian faith at that time. He was a top national skier then, too, and wanted badly to be the best of the best. He says he would have bought into the whole self-centered lifestyle to reach the top. He could land the tricks the X Games athletes were doing. But his perfect practice runs kept turning to frustration in contests. It fueled his anger at God, and he tried to fill his emptiness with skiing. It didn’t work.
“Some of the ugliness of the world drew me away from God for a little while, but that experience brought me back tenfold,” he says. “Coming back was like Wow, now I can see for myself that this faith is worthwhile. It’s true; it’s real; it’s raw; it’s powerful.”
As for the current youth group kids, Wise thinks most of them don’t comprehend the level he competes at. A few do, and some hound him for the ubiquitous action sports energy drinks. Some are clueless, he says. And that’s fine with him.
Wise’s approach to expressing his faith in the ski world is similarly low-key. His style is not Tim Tebow’s. You won’t hear Wise invoking God in most interviews. But you will hear him talking about serving others and placing his wife and daughter’s needs above his own. Those are radical concepts in the circles of individual action athletes and the industry built on promoting image.
As Wise’s performance and profile have soared, a common media angle is “Who is this humble guy who would rather hang out with his wife and kid than party?” The answers are respectful and admiring. They should be. Wise comes across as thoughtful and well-spoken, whether he’s discussing designing and testing new ski prototypes, being a family man or living out his faith. It’s easy to forget he’s still only 22.
Wise says he would rather consistently live out his faith before talking a lot about it. The style matches his personality—not loud and in your face.
“I don’t tell my Christian friends I’m a pro skier. I don’t tell my skier friends I’m a Christian,” Wise says. “But you’re going to find out if you spend enough time with me either way.”
Still he’s been criticized by some Christians for not preaching more.
“He tries to be sincere and honest to himself and to his beliefs and faith,” Koudreit says.
“Sometimes I’m a little too quiet. Sometimes I could be more outspoken,” Wise says. “At the same time, I do enjoy when people come up and say, ‘You’re really different. What’s the deal with that?’”
With Wise’s star continuing to rise, that question will pop up more and more.
By Jeremy V. Jones
Jeremy V. Jones is a freelance writer based in Colorado. His books include Toward the Goal: The Kaká Story and Triple Dog Dare.
Thanks to your help, Sports Spectrum Global recently produced its second Christian sports magazine for Russia. Our friends in Russia are distributing the magazine through our digital platform, social media, street evangelism through trading cards, and through the local church. This magazine was created specifically as a tool for sports ministers to use in Russia during the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi.
We are building other international magazines, as well, including a special World Cup magazine that will be used in Brazil and translated for other countries.
Click here to view SS Global’s first Russia issue.
Click here to view SS Global’s second Russia issue.
Click here to learn more about Sports Spectrum Global.
Kelly Clark sat alone in a Utah hotel room, writing in her journal. It was another contest beginning another season: 2004, two years past the pinnacle of her stellar career when she became the first American female to win an Olympic snowboarding gold medal.
That same year, 2002, she also won every other event, including the Winter X Games, and attained all her professional goals—at age 18. Clark was the queen of snowboarding and had everything: fame, money, travel, the ability to dictate her career. It was incredible—for a little while.
Now it all felt empty. “I was writing about if I didn’t wake up tomorrow, I was fine with that,” says Clark in the Nations Foundation film One Year. “I didn’t think anybody would care if I didn’t wake up tomorrow. I was writing if this was what life was, then I was done with life.”
Fast forward to the present: Kelly Clark is still alive. She’s still pushing women’s halfpipe riding to new levels. She’s still a medal favorite going into Olympic qualifying for Vancouver. But the emptiness is gone. Now she’s filled with love—a love that she can’t contain. And that changes everything. “Basically when I came to the end of myself, God met me,” Clark says.
Back to Rock Bottom
Later that dark day in Utah during qualifying heats, Clark overheard another rider consoling a crying contestant who had fallen and been knocked out of the competition. “It’s all right, God still loves you,” the girl offered.
The simple statement lit a spark of hope. Maybe God loves me? Clark thought. It was something to hold on to. Clark tracked down the girl at their hotel, introduced herself and asked the girl to tell her about God.
Clark had never been to church and only knew stereotypes about Christianity. “It was about going to church. It was about being good and following rules. That was my understanding of God,” she says.
Her new friend explained that following Jesus was about relationship, not religion. Clark took it to heart and began questioning life, spirituality, God. She knew her conditioning coach was a Christian and asked if she could bounce questions off him as she sorted things out. “He was like, ‘Definitely, we’ve been praying for you,’ ” Clark says. “And I was like, ‘I don’t know what that means.’ ”
He gave her a Bible and The Purpose Driven Life. Clark began to read and pray, asking God, “Okay, if you’re real, show me that you’re real.” After about five months, she asked herself two questions: “‘Could I ever wake up another day and not think about God?’ And the answer was no because He was already so real and active. And I asked myself, ‘Could I ever run from Him?’ And I was like, ‘No, because I know that He loves me.’ So I was like, ‘Okay, that’s it, and then I gave my heart to the Lord.’”
With the winter season ending, Clark’s world travels slowed down, and she plugged into The Lighthouse, a snowboarder church in Mammoth Lakes, Calif. There she found community and a haven to grow in her new beliefs.
As the next winter drew closer, Clark felt some nervousness about how she would be received back on the snow scene. One day at church she was struck by the words of a worship song and sensed God speaking to her. “He was like, ‘Kelly, your love for me is going to be something that you can’t hide. It’s not going to be something you’re going to have to tell people about or put on display or prove. It’s just going to be something you cannot hide,’” she says.
It brought her peace and gave her an idea. She asked a friend to create a new sticker with the words Jesus I cannot hide my love. A snowboarder’s board is a place of importance, a place to display stickers of sponsors and allegiances and things of value. Kelly placed the new sticker prominently on the nose of her board.
“I basically figured honesty and openness are the best way to go,” she says. “Regardless of what was going to happen, I knew God was with me and that it was about love. It wasn’t about making a point or something.”
Some people didn’t understand the changes to Clark’s lifestyle, but most of her friends and sponsors embraced her for who she was. It was hard to argue with the fruit of her new life.
The biggest changes came internally as her identity shifted. Clark had been snowboarding since she was 7, structuring her life around the sport since her early teens and riding as a full-time pro straight out of high school. Snowboarding defined her, so it took a process of unlearning and relearning to separate who she is from the sport she loves.
“There came all sorts of freedom and joy with my snowboarding, with my competing, with my career,” Clark says. “I get to snowboard because I love to do it, and because God made me to do it. I don’t have to snowboard anymore to prove to people who I am.”
“That’s what’s rad about Kelly, she’s not trying to fit an image. She’s totally cool with how she is,” says J.J. Johnson, pro snowboarder and vice president of Nations Foundation, a snowboarding ministry. “She pushes the focus at Jesus and not at herself.”
Life didn’t become perfect after meeting Jesus, though. Clark experienced more injuries than ever in the two years after becoming a Christian. Her TK knee surgery took six months to heal, and she suffered a concussion and two broken wrists. Her return to the 2006 Olympics wasn’t sealed until the last possible qualifier.
Then at Turin, she missed a medal by one point after falling on the last trick of her final run—a frontside 900, or two and a half rotations. She describes it as “a heartbreak,” adding “But it’s not a life-shaking thing.”
Clark feels healthier than ever in all aspects of her life as she focuses on Vancouver 2010. “It’s so much more fun when you’re not thinking that if it doesn’t work out, then your life’s going to be over,” she says. “But at the same time I’ve got to put my entire heart into it.”
Being a self-described, goal-oriented person, Clark is focused on gold. If she can maintain her momentum from a strong last season, her chances should be good. Last year she finished on the podium in every halfpipe contest she participated in and won the overall titles for Dew Tour Halfpipe, Swatch Ticket to Ride World Snowboard Tour and the Grand Prix.
“She’ll definitely come out of Vancouver with another medal,” says fellow 2006 Olympian Andy Finch. “She’s riding so well. Her confidence is up. She’s boosting bigger than all the other girls. There are definitely some other girls stepping up, but they don’t have her amplitude.”
Winning another Olympic gold would bring a sense of freedom, satisfaction and validation of eight years of hard work. But whatever the outcome—win or lose, healthy or injured—Clark is confident in her identity. She knows God loves her, and that’s something she just can’t hide.
“Just being able to pursue my dreams with God is something that’s part of the journey I’m on right now,” Clark says. “It’s been a really fun adventure.”
By Jeremy V. Jones
Jeremy V. Jones is a freelance writer, and the former editor of Breakaway magazine, who lives in Colorado Springs, Co. This story was published in Sports Spectrum’s Winter 2009 issue.
Our Super Bowl XLVIII and February 2014 DigiMag is now available. This issue features exclusive interviews from Super Bowl XLVIII Media Day on Tuesday along with in-depth faith stories on players and coaches on the Seattle Seahawks and Denver Broncos. Our columns also touch on a variety of issues. Managing editor Brett Honeycutt writes about Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman in his column “Airing It Out,” and staff writer Stephen Copeland writes about his experience in New York City in his column “Another Angle.”
Our January 2014 DigiMag is a look back at 2013 and a preparation for 2014. This issue features an exclusive interview and in-depth feature with Sports Spectrum Male Athlete of the Year and National League MVP Andrew McCutchen along with the rest of our lists and awards for 2013. Our columns also touch on a variety of issues. Managing editor Brett Honeycutt writes about what he did to preserve the baseball memories he had with his father in his column “Airing It Out,” and staff writer Stephen Copeland writes about his interview with tight-rope extraordinaire Nik Wallenda and what his 2013 Grand Canyon walk can teach us about life in his column “Another Angle.”
Yeah, Super Bowl XXVII was a long time ago — 1993, to be exact. Take a step back into the past, and read about legends like Reggie White, Barry Sanders, Mike Singletary, and Bart Starr. Happy Throwback Thursday, everyone.
Tony Dungy, in The Jersey Effect, talks about the struggle for athletes once they finish their career. It’s a struggle because, once sports are taken away, they wonder what their purpose in life is. When sports are taken away, they lose meaning in life.
If you’re an athlete, is this true for you? If you’re not an athlete, what is the one thing in this world that you feel gives you meaning and purpose? How would you feel if it was taken away?
The legendary head coach Chuck Noll will say that football may have been his profession for a temporary season of his life, but football was certainly not his purpose. So, if what you do isn’t who you are, then what is your purpose?
See, we strive for importance, but what we deeply need is value. We act like competitors, but what God really wants to make us into is warriors. Purpose, I think, can be boiled down to value and being a warrior. Value comes from what Jesus Christ displayed on the cross and how God loves us each and every day. The truest thing about us is that we are loved. Being a warrior comes from God’s Holy Spirit living through us, in union with us, as we fight for a kingdom. It’s God’s love that gives us worth and His love that makes us warriors. The Holy Spirit, even, is an outpouring of His love as it lives through us to accomplish His purposes for His kingdom.
By Hunter Smith