She was 12 and wanted to snowboard the Boyne Mountain terrain park like her cool big brothers. Eight years later she was on a plane to Russia to compete slopestyle in the Sochi Olympics. Kate Bassett shares the improbable story of Olympic snowboarder Karly Shorr in a feature originally published in the January 2016 issue of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine.
Talking to Olympic snowboarder Karly Shorr is like getting a personal time machine back to the young-fun-now. Her energy is contagious. Her make-it-happen grit inspiring. Her sheer joie de vivre makes just about anybody want—and believe they can be—part of her squad.
There’s lots to say about this young woman who grew up as a Boyne Mountain weekend warrior. She goes on inner-city Detroit pit bull rescue missions. She gets the importance of social media for today’s pro athletes. She loves teaching kids about dreaming big. She’s beautiful, spunky, and full of bubblegum-bursting energy.
Maybe it’s easiest just to say this: Shorr is medal material.
At 21 years old, she’s already accomplished more than any other female slopestyle snowboarder from the Midwest. She’s topped podiums in worldwide competitions; is a member of the U.S. Pro Slopestyle Snowboard Team; and claimed a solid sixth place finish in Sochi. Michiganders, of course, love that it all began on Boyne Mountain.
It’s easy to assume, by the mountains of medals Shorr has already accumulated, that she’s been grinding rails and rocking jumps since she could walk. After all, her family is practically snowboarding royalty in Michigan: both brothers, Kyle and Kevin, are great riders, coaches and competition judges. Her mom, Mo, ran USSA snowboarding competitions in Northern Michigan for a decade (ask any respectable rider in the mitten state about the Shorrs, and you’ll no doubt be treated to a ‘Momma Mo’ story).
Until age 12, however, Karly was not allowed to leave solid ground with her snowboard.
“Back then, Karly was really invested in gymnastics. She’d won a state championship. She wasn’t supposed to be doing anything crazy that could get her hurt.” That’s Momma Mo talking, and her words get sandwiched between a sigh and snort from Karly. “The thing about Karly? You can’t tell her no, especially where her big brothers are concerned. She always wanted to do what they were doing, and there’s no way she was going to be left behind.”
A regular Annie Oakley of the gnar shredding variety.
“Yeah,” Karly says with a guilty giggle. “My poor mom. She owned a gymnastics gym when I was born, and I literally grew up in that world. I think she was a little heartbroken when I quit, but she never showed it. Of course, she did admit later she definitely cried.”
For Shorr, gymnastics lost its luster around the same time that snowboarding’s allure started to grow. “My parents would load up the Suburban with gear and kids and food, and we’d drive to Boyne Mountain [from home in Milford] every Friday night,” she says. “We’d have 14 or more high school and college kids crashing with us on competition weekends. Mom always had big pots of chili going, and everyone would snowboard all day and hang out at night. It was so much fun. I fell in love with the whole lifestyle.”
Any aspirations from her gymnastics years were soon transferred to a drive to win slopestyle competitions around the country. “I got good pretty quick,” she says. “Being a gymnast definitely helped. So did being a little sister. (Cue laughter—laughter is the staple ingredient of a Karly Shorr conversation.) My brothers (now 25 and 27) made me so tough and fearless.”
By the time Shorr was 14, she was on the podium at the national competition. “As soon as my brothers realized I had a chance, they never stopped pushing. When I podiumed at Nationals, my oldest brother looked at me and said, ‘Your life is going to change now.’”
Instead of rolling her eyes or thinking, yeah, maybe, Shorr’s reaction was simple: “I believed him.”
Those three words mark the other staple ingredient in a Karly Shorr story. Unwavering self-confidence propelled her from her beloved Boyne Mountain to actual mountain ranges out west, first for short training trips, and then when she was a sophomore in high school, to make a new home base.
“I moved into this sort of boarding house for athletes who had the same goals I did. We had tutors and trained all the time. I wanted to go pro, and I knew this was part of it, but leaving my family was really hard at first. I did a lot of self-questioning. It was especially scary when I didn’t know if I was actually going to make it or not.”
Shorr missed her family. She missed her friends. She missed the fun of high school sporting events, dances, and other “regular” teenage activities. Her loneliness was compounded by the fact that she was, in many ways, the odd girl out.
“Most of the girls I was competing against grew up riding together. They’d known each other their whole lives, and I was somebody no one had ever heard of from Michigan. People still say that to me, by the way. I get ‘You’re from Michigan?’ all the time.”
Still, Shorr wasn’t completely alone: family friend, fellow snowboarder, and surrogate big brother Danny Davis served up much needed doses of support. Davis is a fellow mid-Michigan native and Olympian (he’s also won Superpipe gold in the Winter X-Games).
“Danny, along with Karly’s brothers, really brought her up through the ranks. He was so instrumental in her early years away from home,” Mo says.
Davis—who once upon a time was one of the kids Momma Mo took “Up North” on weekends—now resides in Truckee, California, as does Shorr.
“It’s crazy, thinking about how I felt when I first left Milford. Now, there are so many places I feel like I can call home,” she says, ticking through the boarding house, apartments, and mountains where she’s lived in the last five years.
In 2013–2014, that endless training all led to one big goal: getting to the Olympics.
“When Karly told us she wanted to try and make the U.S. team, we totally supported her,” Mo says, letting a long pause follow. “But to be honest, we thought it might be a reach. It was more of an, ‘Okay, you go girl!’ sort of thing.”
Shorr isn’t offended by this in the least. In fact, she’s proud to be an underdog.
“Even the year of the trials, most of the girls I was up against had no idea who I was. I really had to amp myself up. I had to constantly remind myself I belonged there too, that I was good enough even if no one knew my name yet.”
Mo went to watch her daughter’s first Olympic trial experience … and didn’t come away overly hopeful.
“She tanked. We decided it was maybe not good for me to be there, so from then on I watched from home, and she just kept working super hard.”
A last minute sort of girl by nature, Shorr’s Olympic bid came down to the final trial. She had to place second in order to be considered for the team’s last open spot.
Mo and Karly’s dad, Keith, turned down requests to watch that last competition with friends. They were just too nervous.
“It came down to one run and she landed it perfectly,” Mo says as she starts to cry. “It’s still really emotional, thinking back on that moment. It seemed like forever before her scores came through, but then all of sudden, there it was: second place.”
The Shorr family still couldn’t celebrate yet, because coaches had a very tough decision to make between a wild card newcomer and one of the team’s veterans.
Shorr remembers every detail of the four days that followed: her shell-shocked drive back from Mammoth Mountain; how heavy her eyes felt from lack of sleep; the jokes her girlfriends told as they sat in her Lake Tahoe living room, trying to ease the tension while waiting for the phone to ring.
When it did, Shorr stepped out into the cold, took a deep breath, steadied her voice, and said, “Hello?”
“It was Bill Enos, the (now retired) U.S. snowboarding coach,” Shorr recalls. She can’t hold back a laugh as she finishes the rest of the story. “He said, ‘Karly, how would you like to escort me to the world’s biggest prom? You’re on the team. You’re going to Sochi.’”
“It was amazing,” she says. “And then, 10 seconds later, it hit me. Holy cow. I was going to compete on the biggest stage in the world. For so long my only goal was to make the team, but when it happened, I realized it wasn’t time to celebrate. I had a really big job to do. I left for Russia a week later.”
The initial freakout was immediately followed by a call back home.
“I don’t tell this part of the story to too many people,” Mo says, still choked up. “We’re just so proud of Karly. It was amazing when she called and said the words, ‘Momma, I’m going to the Olympics.’”
This time, it was Mo’s turn to panic. She had just two weeks from Karly’s call to the beginning of the games to make travel arrangements. “Right away we decided that I’d go and represent the family, because it was impossible to get us all there. In order to go to Russia, I had to have the proper visas, and in order for that to happen, I needed proof of plane tickets and a hotel.”
Anyone who remembers the epic “#sochiproblems” hashtag knows getting a hotel room (that was finished, anyway) was like winning the lottery.
“On top of that, I had to drop my passport in the mail, with no guarantee it would arrive back in time,” Mo says.
The day before the Olympics officially kicked into full swing, there was a pre-qualifier for the Slopestyle event. It was the first time the mom and daughter got to see each other in Russia.
“I was walking through the corral with the other athletes and all of a sudden, there was my mom. Needless to say, it was super emotional. I knew I couldn’t lose focus though. Like so much of my Olympic experience, I wanted to stay open and take it all in, but I also made sure I was grounded in the present moment.”
Shorr went on to nail her qualifying runs and was one of four riders who automatically advanced to the finals. As the first event in the Olympic games, she and her teammates got some serious airtime. “The morning after the qualifier, I was on Good Morning America. To be honest, that was as scary as the competition itself.”
She finished a strong sixth place in Sochi.
And while most Team USA athletes hailed from places like Colorado or California, Shorr says she’s never been more proud to represent her home state. Mo says as much as Karly loves Michigan, her communities here have reciprocated their support in spades.
“Everybody has continued to rally around her and cheer her on this journey. We feel so thankful for the amount of love she’s received. One of the first things she did when she got back was go riding at Boyne Mountain with a bunch of young kids. I think that’s when it really hit me, watching her sign autographs in this place she grew up riding. It’s cool to watch the next generation get so excited to see her, and it’s been neat to have Boyne celebrate this with us.”
Giving back, whether in her mom’s classroom (Mo is a teacher) or on the slopes, is one of the things Shorr loves to do most when she isn’t training … or working to help fund her training. “It’s definitely not a glamorous life,” Mo adds. “She lives out of a suitcase and snowboard bag, and she works at our family business or odd jobs whenever she can.”
“I’m catering in an hour, actually,” Shorr says after checking the time. “I do whatever I can to make money. I even sell my old clothes. It’s a constant juggling act to keep it all going, but I don’t mind. I’m not afraid of hard work. I think that’s one of the biggest benefits of being from Michigan. People know how to work hard to get what they want. My family instilled those values in me at a very young age. The payoff is getting to keep doing what I love.”
And what she loves is getting better at snowboarding and setting new goals, like expanding her brand, making it to the 2018 Olympics, and going to college. Right now, Shorr will train and compete around the globe, gearing up for the next batch of Olympic trials, which will begin in 2017. Even as a U.S. team member, Shorr will have to earn a spot in Japan. When she talks about it, she’s focused and tough. And when she talks about what the rest of life might hold, Shorr slips back into that silly early 20s mode, looking at her future as one big, wide-open adventure.
“I mean, there’s still so much to do. I might even want to try some other sports down the road. There’s this cool women’s football thing happening,” she starts laughing again. “Oh, I don’t know. I keep learning and growing and living. That’s what it’s all about, right?”
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