When Kiana Clay rides a chairlift, she always sits on the left side of the seat so she can push off with her one working arm upstairs. Once there, she gets on her snowboard, points down the mountain and picks up speed.
Lots of it.
She took several top rankings as she plans to compete in the 2022 Paralympics in Beijing and was recently the first female para-snowboarder to be signed by the Burton team, one of the most famous in snowboarding, which includes Olympians like Kelly Included Clark, Chloe Kim, and Shaun White.
“What impressed me immediately about Kiana is that she has seen how her work can benefit others,” said Donna Carpenter, owner of the Burton Snowboarding Company, which sponsors the team. “She has this determined determination, the eye of the tiger that you can see in a good athlete.”
Carpenter first found out about Clay when she was speaking at a national sports women conference a few years ago and was intrigued.
“Your speech was so powerful from that little package,” said Carpenter. “When she talked about rediscovering her purpose in snowboarding and the feeling of freedom it brought her, I thought we need to bond.”
To be Clay in the next Paralympics is far from safe, but not because of her performance. Her class, female snowboarders with disabilities of the upper extremities, is not expected until the 2026 Games in Northern Italy at the Paralympics due to the insufficient number of participants. However, Clay, 26, is leading a petition to add the division to the 2022 Beijing Games.
“We really need this class in the next few games,” she said. “When there’s a little girl with no upper limb who thinks she is less than or unable to do something, the point is to encourage the next generation and create that future opportunity.”
World Para Snowboarding, the international governing body of the sport, competes in this category for women, and Clay is one of only a handful of American female athletes competing in this category internationally. Numerous other nations, including China, have several female snowboarders in the upper limb class.
“It’s the biggest class on the men’s side and growing on the women’s side,” said Daniel Gale, executive director of Adaptive Action Sports, a Colorado-based organization that educates people with disabilities into action sports and helps snowboarders the 2014 Paralympics in Russia. “Had it not been for Covid to interrupt our season last year, we would have had the opportunity for these women to show that the numbers are there.”
At the end of 2020, Clay finished ninth in the world in her category and was the top American, despite being new to the sport and only having a handful of competitions under her belt. At her last World Cup event last year, she narrowly missed the podium and finished fourth.
She trains for a handful of domestic snowboarding competitions and is bowing to international events this season because of concerns about traveling during the coronavirus pandemic. She trains in the gym six days a week, snowboards at least three days a week with Adaptive Action Sports, and meets regularly with a sports psychologist and nutritionist. Joining Burton, she quit two of her three jobs and now worked at a local sandwich shop.
Clay took a detour to exercise.
Growing up in San Diego, she found speed by all means – cycling, skateboarding, inline skating. She got her first motorcycle at the age of 7 and rode motocross as she approached her teenagers. It was an era when women’s motocross was peaking and she was racing across the nation, finishing in the top three among the girls and boys in her class.
Then, at the age of 12, when she was racing on a rainy day in Texas, she crashed when her bike slipped over a crack. Another racer’s front wheel landed on her neck. Clay woke up on a stretcher and found that she couldn’t use her right, dominant arm.
She had a neck injury called the brachial plexus. A few weeks later, Clay and her father were hit by a drunk driver and their truck turned over. Any hope of using her arm again disappeared even after a 14-hour nerve transplant procedure.
She learned to write with her left hand, play video games with her feet, and use a doorknob to make a ponytail. She spent her entire middle and high school trying every type of sport and activity – track, art, choir, cheerleading – to redefine herself and imagine a different future than what she envisioned as a professional motocross racer would have. Nothing made her heart sing.
It wasn’t until Dallas Baptist University college that Clay got back on a motorcycle.
“I found myself constantly on the dirt road,” she said. “A friend of mine said, ‘Why don’t we build a pit bike that you can ride with one hand? ‘The bike didn’t stop for eight or nine hours. I went through three cans of gasoline. I still had that feeling on the track, that crazy feeling of peace. I call it my throttle therapy. If I hadn’t gotten back on my bike, I wouldn’t have gotten into snowboarding. “
The word got around about the one-armed 5-foot-2 woman who rides dirt bikes.
Adaptive Action Sports invited Clay to Colorado to try snowboarding. It was the first time since childhood that she was on a board.
“The day I met Kiana, after knowing her background and watching videos on her bike, I thought she had just the right mindset to be a competitive snowboarder,” said Gale of Adaptive Action Sports. “As we went this route, she fell in love with the sport more and more. She finds her place in snowboard culture, finds her position as an athlete and learns a lot about herself and her abilities. “
Clay has worked with Burton’s designers to improve equipment for people with physical disabilities.
With their contributions, designers have created bespoke boots that Clay can put on without a drawstring, and jackets with diagonal zips that are easy to maneuver with one hand and have a single left sleeve as Clay rides with her right arm firmly strapped to her jacket .
If her arm wasn’t pinned down, it would “flutter like a flag,” said Clay, impeding her balance while riding and running. The inactive arm also poses other dangers. After a recent dirt bike crash in which she went over the handlebars, Clay noticed that her right hand went black and blue a few days later. When she went to the doctor, she found that her wrist was broken.
She hopes the arm will be amputated under the elbow this year.
“When I lose that extra weight, as an athlete, I see a lot of benefits and huge potential for advancement,” she said.
Clay said she hoped others, disabled or not, would find inspiring her efforts in sports.
“The brand I want to leave is not just for disabled people, but for anyone who understands that the only limitation they have is themselves,” she said. “I want to help people to see beyond themselves what their potential is and what they are capable of when they are ready to invest in the work.”