BY BRAD BOTKIN I JAN. 15, 2014
|Snowboarder Kelly Clark poses for a portrait during the NBC
Olympics/United States Olympic Committee promotional shoot
on April 27, 2013 in West Hollywood, Calif.
Kelly Clark has always pushed the limits on a snowboard. When she was a kid, she and her friends would build jumps on the slopes near her home in Vermont and ride them until the ski patrol shut them down. She was 10 years old the first time she pulled off a frontside 180. Some 18 years later, in 2011, she became the first female to land a frontside 1080 (three full rotations) in competition.
"I actually did it for the first time during a victory lap at the 2009 X Games,” Clark said. “The men’s side of the sport progressed so much faster, and I was always chasing what the men were doing. It was like, ‘If they’re doing it, there’s no reason we can’t be doing it.'"
There’s no question Shaun White remains the face of American snowboarding, at least to the outside world, but with over 60 career halfpipe wins (including an incredible 16 in a row in 2012), four overall grand prix titles and an Olympic gold medal, it is Clark who has become the most accomplished snowboarder, male or female, in the world. This past December, after winning the Sprint U.S. Grand Prix at Copper Mountain, Colo., she punched her ticket to the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games in February. It will be Clark’s fourth Olympic appearance. No other female snowboarder has made more than two.
"I’m already outside the realm of what I ever thought would happen in my career,” she said. “I remember taping the halfpipe competition at the 1998 Olympics (snowboarding’s first Games) on VHS. I was 14 years old at the time, and I never thought I would be doing this at 30. I’m so fortunate to be able to do something I love and something that I’m passionate about every day."
Clark didn’t have to endure the early struggles that most athletes do, as she was just 18 years old when she won the Olympic halfpipe gold medal at the 2002 Games in Salt Lake City. But for all her success, a second gold has eluded her since. Fellow American Hannah Teter took gold at the 2006 Torino Games and silver at the 2010 Vancouver Games, where Clark won the bronze for her second Olympic medal.
|Kelly Clark in action on her way to winning the women's world cup competition at the Rosa Khutor Extreme Park in Krasnya Polyana on Feb. 14, 2013 in Sochi, Russia.
Do the math, and it’s been 12 years since the most dominant female snowboarder in the world has won the gold medal, and you would think this quest to get back to the top would be Clark’s driving force. But Clark doesn’t think that way. She points out that if an Olympic gold medal was the ultimate goal, the barometer of a career, then she would’ve been done when she was 18. There wouldn’t have been anything left to accomplish. The truth is, she’s not chasing medals, even gold medals, as much as she’s chasing the very best of herself, the very best snowboarding that she has inside her, that one perfect run on which she can hang her life’s work.
"Snowboarding is always progressing,” Clark said. “There’s always something more that you can do. Every trick is so dependent on the last one because each one dictates how much speed you have built up for the next trick, so putting that all together is almost impossible. There’s always something that could’ve gone better. It’s about the challenge of being your best and that’s a constant pursuit.
"Put it this way,” she says. “the run that I made in Salt Lake (to win her gold medal) wouldn’t even make the final in Sochi. The competition has never been better."
To that point, the fact that Clark has already qualified for the team is a real advantage moving forward. For starters, this past weekend the third Olympic qualifying event, the U.S. Grand Prix at Breckenridge, Colo., was cancelled due to heavy snow and high winds, and though the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association has confirmed a makeup, U.S.-only qualifier to be held this weekend at Mammoth Mountain, Calif., this only adds to the already hectic schedule over the next few weeks with the Olympic Winter Games right around the corner. But Clark, again, doesn’t have to worry about any of that, as she’s the only snowboarder, male or female, to have already mathematically sealed her Olympic spot.
So now, while everyone else is scrambling to put their best runs together at the final three qualifying events, Clark can effectively use them as practice.
"There are so many talented riders these days, and qualifying is not easy,” Clark says. “So to have already (made the team), I can take some risks. I’ll do different runs at the next qualifiers, different tricks in different places, and if I fall on my first run, that’s okay. There’s a bigger picture. I want to put myself in different scenarios so that I’m ready for anything. I want to go out of my comfort zone, so that what’s hard right now will be easy when it counts. I didn’t want to have to make the run of my life just to make the team. I want the run of my life to be in Sochi."
A gold in Sochi would be an obvious cap to an already historic career, and if Clark can in fact get it done, she says she will cherish her second gold more than her first. In fact, she says she is already more proud of the bronze she won in 2010, if only because she actually had to go through something to get it.
"When I was 18, I just rolled up on the scene and success came so easy,” she said. “But that bronze? I know what it cost me. The years of training. The victories. The defeats. I’ve grown so much since I was 18, and if I could get back on that podium in Sochi, that would mean more to me than anything because I will know what I’ve been through to get there."