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Craig Kelly, an icon in the snowboarding world, dies in B.C. avalanche

VANCOUVER (CP) - In the snowboarding world Craig Kelly was considered an icon, a builder of the sport and a man who loved escaping the confines of resorts to ride in the pristine backcountry.

Kelly, 36, who grew up in Mount Vernon, Wash., and lived the last two years in Nelson, B.C., was killed Monday in a massive avalanche near Revelstoke, B.C. The four-time world champion and three-time U.S. Open champion, was one of seven people killed in a smothering mountain of snow that was 30 metres wide and almost 100 metres long.

"I can't think of a bigger loss to the sport and to all of us personally," Jake Burton, founder of Burton Snowboards of Burlington, Vt., said in a release Tuesday that confirmed Kelly's death.

"To be world freestyle champion four times and rule the sport the way he did was a huge accomplishment, but to retire from competing and go on to become a backcountry guide says far more about him."

In an interview with, Kelly talked about his love of the backcountry.

"There's just a feeling you get from certain things you do in life that just kind of feel pure and independent of what's actually, physically, going on," he said.

"All of a sudden you have this feeling of clarity. Backcountry snowboarding has really done a lot to boost that feeling in me."

Kelly's death sent shock waves through the tightly knit snowboarding community.

"Craig Kelly losing his life would provide the same impact as Wayne Gretzky being killed," Stu Bott, domestic program co-ordinator for the Canadian Snowboard Federation, said from Calgary.

Ross Rebagliati, who won a gold medal for Canada in snowboarding at the 1998 Nagano Games, said he was inspired by Kelly to get into the sport.

"Snowboarding was his reason for living, basically, and for us, too," Rebagliati said in an interview with Global television. "For him to go down in an avalanche is something that nobody wants to have that happen. But at the same time he was doing something he loved doing.

"You've got to give him credit, he took it from end to end."

Kelly was considered an innovator in the sport. He was a professional rider for 15 years and helped Burton develop snowboards and other products.

"He did more to progress modern snowboarding than anybody," Cec Annett, vice-president of Masev Communications, said in an interview from Carlsbad, Calif.

"He was the first guy to make movements into new genres of the sport. He was the first one to focus on half-pipe and freestyle. He was the first guy to really dictate that things were moving into the backcountry."

Annett went heli-boarding with Kelly in Alaska last April. At that time Kelly was presented with a snowboard lifetime achievement award.

Annett remembers a soft-spoken, spiritual man who loved snowboarding almost as much as he loved his infant daughter.

"Craig Kelly embodied the sole of snowboarding," Annett said. "He rode for himself because of the true love of the sport. He found pleasure in soul riding, going into the backcountry."

In a sport where some of the young riders relish a gangsta image, Kelly practised Tai Chi and yoga. He once took 18 months to drive from Alaska to Argentina, snowboarding and surfing along the way.

Kelly was fearless - once doing a Wrigley's chewing gum advertisement hurling out of an airplane on his snowboard - but also knew his limits.

He travelled to Japan to help instruct an avalanche awareness course. He operated a summer snowboard camp at Blackcomb, in Whistler, B.C., from 1988 to 1998 and also was part of a program that helped underprivileged children to ride.

When he rode, Kelly melded into his snowboard. The line between man and board blurred.

"Watching him ride was like watching water flow down a river," said friend Dave Downing.

"When we were out in the backcountry, he wasn't into taking risks, but taking the path of least resistance and riding the smoothest."

Kelly was survived by his daughter, Olivia, and partner, Savina.

Burton Snowboards said donations in memory of Kelly can be sent to the Canadian Avalanche Association.


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