Kirby Kelly is only 17, but her passport already resembles that of a veteran world-class traveler.
She spent part of last fall in New Zealand a year after she trekked to Valmalenco, Italy, when she was only 15 as part of the U.S. Junior World Championship half pipe snowboarding team.
Next month, her journey could take her to Erzurum, Turkey for another junior worlds competition, but there are times – given the political unrest currently going on there – when Kelly’s father, Joe, has to draw the line and make a decision for his teenage daughter.
Kelly isn’t slated to graduate from Dundee-Crown until this spring, completing what’s already been a nontraditional high school education. But for Kelly, who will compete in this week’s Burton U.S. Open Snowboarding Championships in Vail, Colo., living life a little differently than everyone else has always been part of who she is.
“It’s definitely a huge reality check when I come home,” said Kelly, who lives and trains in Colorado for much of the winter. “My social life here is completely different – my teammates are my best friends and I see them everyday and when I come home (to Algonquin), I really don’t have as many friends anymore.”
Leaving home at 16 was never in doubt.
Kelly learned to love snowboarding at Raging Buffalo Snowboarding Park in Algonquin, where many young riders discover a sport that’s now among the most popular in the Winter Olympics. But Kelly knew that if she was ever going to accomplish the goals she wanted to, Chicago’s far northwest suburbs weren’t the place to do it. So one day, Kelly laid it out to her parents. If snowboarding was going to take her places, she had to leave.
But her parents made it clear: There would be rules.
“It’s not for everybody, but at the time, she was getting really good grades and so we just kind of went with it,” said Joe Kelly, who, along with his wife and son communicate with Kirby on a daily basis via FaceTime. “If her grades ever suffered, it was like, ‘Well, we can always stop it.’”
Kelly maintained her focus, taking correspondence classes from D-C while taking advantage of living in the Rocky Mountains to grow her trick-riding repertoire. Earlier this month, Kelly placed second at the U.S. Open qualifier in Seven Springs. Penn., bringing home the $1,200 prize that accompanied her finish.
As much confidence as she gained from reaching another podium, the competition only grows this week. Among the field in Vail are Olympic gold medalists Torah Bright, Kelly Clark and Hannah Teter.
Despite still being young in her competitive career, Kelly is learning not to be intimidated by big-name competition. Getting over any uncertainty heading into a major event like the U.S. can spell the difference between success and failing to perform up to full potential, Kelly’s coach at Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Park, Ashley Berger, said.
“She’s certainly made remarkable gains in her performance psychology as she gets older,” Berger said. “It takes a lot of getting used to because confidence is huge. You can have all the tricks in the world, but if you don’t have confidence, you have trouble putting runs down.”
So rather than pushing herself to overachieve, Kelly remains patient, learning from every competition. She adds new tricks, but makes sure that heading into competitions, her runs will come off clean rather than trying to keep up with more experienced riders.
But at the same time, Kelly has very specific places where she wants snowboarding to take her.
“I want to keep progressing and get better obviously,” Kelly said. “But I think I’m at a good place right now and I actually feel like I’ve been riding better than I ever have.”
Once the current competitive season ends, Kelly will return to Algonquin. There’s a high school graduation she’s anxious to participate in before making a final determination on her future.
She’s eyeing a professional career, but is also pondering college. She may choose to go the community college route near her training home in Colorado and is also exploring Westminster College in Salt Lake City, which would only be 30 minutes from the trails in Park City, Utah.
The 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, Russia, are on her radar although making an Olympic team so early in her career, she admits, is a bit of a long shot. So she has turned her attention to 2018, when the Olympics will be held in Pyeongchang, South Korea, giving her another international destination to shoot for.
“Right now, I’m just trying to have fun and keep progressing, but the Olympics are definitely in the back of my mind,” she said. “If I fall short of it, I will still be happy to continue snowboarding and have fun with that.”