Clark, 34, will look to qualify for her fifth Olympic Games, the most ever by a female athlete.
In a sport that Madison Avenue portrays as the domain of boisterous, self-absorbed teenagers, champion snowboarder Kelly Clark runs against type. For starters, when the 34-year-old Clark drops into the halfpipe, she is often competing against youngsters half her age. Literally.
Clark, who has seemed implausibly invincible throughout her 17-year career, walks with a greater limp these days. After all, just three years prior to her pursuit of a record fifth Olympic Games, she couldn't move. A crash at the 2015 X Games in Noway resulted in a devastating hip injury and detached hamstring.
"We fall all the time, but that time I knew something had gone wrong," said Clark. "I tore my hamstring off the bone and tore the cartilage that kept my femur in my hip joint."
Still, Clark's adrenaline and untiring preparation propelled her to a second place finish in Oslo and a third place finish at the Burton US Open the following month. After the victory, though, the always resilient snowboarder had to face facts. If she wished to avoid a hip replacement in 10 years, she would need surgery – and the year-long rehabilitation schedule that went with it. Among the fixes: Repair the labrum – the cartilage around the hip socket that holds the leg – and reattach part of the hamstring tendon that had torn away from the bone.
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Turns out my hip injury was worse than expected 🤕. I got all fixed up today, surgery went really well. I will be able to get back to 100%. Thank you to all my friends, family and sponsors who have stepped up to help me heal up. A big thank you to the doctors who are so gifted at what they do. And I am grateful for all the love and prayers that y'all are sending up for me. #teamworkmakesthedreamwork
"It was a real low point in my career," Clark said. "I was in bed for one month. Everyone kept telling me I was getting old and my body was breaking down, but I didn't want to believe [them]."
Surely it was time to give up. After three medals at four Winter Olympic Games and four-straight gold medals from 2011-2014 at the Winter X Games (and 5 overall), what else did she have to prove?
"Snowboarding, you just never arrive," Clark said. "It's always changing, always progressing. If I did the run I won the Olympics [in 2002] with today, I wouldn't even make the finals. I'm always learning new things and progressing my riding and I think that's something that motivates me."
"After a long career, it's easy to say it doesn’t really matter if you win or lose," Tricia Byrnes, Clark's teammate from the 2002 Olympics, said. "But to continue to throw your body on ice and snow, you have to want it on a bigger level. Kelly's different."
A natural athlete, Clark began skiing by age two. Turned off by the competitive spirit of the sport, however, she sought something more creative. In a mini-rebellion against her father, a "ski bum" according to Clark, she chose the unknown sport of snowboarding, which, at the time, was not permitted on most mountains.
"It wasn't cool," Clark said. "It was far from being an Olympic sport. It didn't even become a sport until 1998. They didn't even allow us on the mountains when I started. So it was an obscure sport and not at all what you see today."
Clark's innovative nature and athletic ability drew her to the sport. Growing up in Mount Snow, Vermont, she was, in some sense, groomed to compete in the winter. Once her mind was set on snowboarding, even her father couldn't stop her. At 14, she enrolled in Mount Snow Academy, where she could split time snowboarding and going to school. For the first time, Clark, who was never competitive by nature, was required to compete.
"It turned out I was pretty good and I ended up really enjoying it," Clark said.
Regardless of her success, there were just too many question marks for Clark's family. Was snowboarding really a career? Was winning advanced competitions a realistic goal? Coming from a "traditional East Coast household," Clark's parents were preparing her for college, not for the Olympics. During the 1998 Games, however, Clark knew what her future held.
"I remember I recorded the 1998 Olympics on a VHS tape and watched it after school," she said. "And even though it was pouring rain and pretty limited coverage, I just had one of those moments where I was like, 'This is what I want to do with my life.'"
By 16, just nine years after first setting foot on a board, Clark was invited to the U.S. National Team development camp and placed on the U.S. snowboarding B team, where she would have access to top quality coaching and training. While the B team did not offer the financial support the A team provided (it was a "stretch for her family"), Clark wouldn't be there long. She reached the podium on her first race and began on her career towards superstardom.
"Kelly was just coming into her own leading up to 2002 Olympics," Byrnes recalls. "She was driven and competitive and she wanted it. She had that look in her eyes when you’re young and you’re just like ‘why not?’ You see those people who are just in the moment and are on fire, that was Kelly. Maybe to the outside world [her rise] was a surprise, but we saw her coming and we knew she would be great."
Three years later, however, her father was still not convinced. With his daughter just 19 years old, Terry Clark had his mind set on college.
"I made a deal with my dad. I was one year out of high school at the time and I asked him to give me one year to defer from college to see if I could make snowboarding a career," Clark said.
Luckily, the year her father gifted her was 2002, the same year as the Winter Olympic Games in Salt Lake City, Utah. Clark promptly qualified for the team and, against all odds, won the gold medal in halfpipe as a teenager. After her victory, Clark's father couldn't deny the truth; his daughter was a snowboarder, an Olympic champion and one of the rising stars in sports.
"It's kind of embarrassing [but] the first words I said to my dad after I won were, 'Does this mean I don't have to go to college?'" Clark said. "I mean I'm all for education. But for me, I really wanted to solidify that I could be successful and make this a legitimate career."
Although Clark's triumph was significant for her and her family, its impact transcended to the rest of the stadium and even the country, which had spent the last four months rebounding from the devastating terror attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City. Clark's gold medal was the United States' first gold of the Games. As she blissfully gazed across faces in the crowd, it became immediately clear that the win was bigger than her.
"I remember in the medals ceremony, it was the first one where we saw the American flag and heard the national anthem since 9/11. There wasn't a dry eye in the house," she said. "There was so much bad news and heart wrenching stories out there, and sports have a way to bring the world and country together unlike anything can. And so to be part of that, that games, was truly special."
"It was so overwhelming," Byrnes added. "I could feel the atmosphere. When the flag went by, it was just silent. It almost felt like we stopped being athletes, it just felt like more. None of us [at the time] really knew how big a medal could be."
15 years later, Clark's eyes water as she attempts to hold back tears in memory of that day. Even today, supporters approach her to explain her gold medal's impact on the country. The journey hasn't always been rosy for the 34-year-old, though. While her success has transcended individual accomplishments and helped place snowboarding on the map as a legitimate, competitive sport, she struggled to adjust to life as an Olympic champion.
“She didn’t seem to be getting any fulfillment or joy out of it,” longtime U.S. halfpipe coach Rick Bower told AP, speaking about the period between 2003-06. “It seemed like she was going through the motions. I kept wondering, does she want to keep doing this?”
Just one run away from another gold medal at the 2006 Turin Games, Clark fell on her last jump, leaving her in fourth place behind Americans Hannah Teter and Gretchen Bleiler. Perhaps her time to shine was over and the next generation of snowboarders had arrived. After all, as Clark continuously says, snowboarding is constantly changing.
A theme throughout her career, Clark defied expectations and put her efforts into extreme preparation. "I've learned you don't want to treat the Olympics as a destination. It should be something you get to do, not something you have to do," said Clark. "I just work at preparing before I get to the Olympics to make sure that I'm setting myself up to perform well and I can go through the motions when I'm there."
Her philosophy led to bronze medals at each of the next two Olympic Games and 16 straight medals across all competitions, the likes of which may never be seen again on the halfpipe. On a mushy halfpipe in Vancouver, Clark shined with a frontside 900 jump on her final run after falling and hurting her wrist on the same jump just one run prior. "She was definitely scared and crying and feeling pressure immensely," Bower said. "To be able to put a run down under those circumstances and get on the podium, it was pretty cool."
In equally poor conditions in Sochi in 2012, Clark fell five straight times in practice and again on her first run in the competition, scoring a 48.25 and entering her final run in 10th place out of 12. Once again, she bounced back and scored a 90.75, just enough for a second-straight bronze medal.
"She's fierce. She really wanted it," said Byrnes. "And everyone wants it. But with her it was just different. Everyone goes through ups and downs in their careers so it was easy for her to just give up, but she just kept going."
Again faced with adversity in the form of a serious, potentially career-ending hip injury, Clark looked internally for motivation.
"I always wanted my retirement to be on my terms," Clark said. "I didn't want circumstances to decide my future."
For nearly one month, Clark could not sit up straight and her feet were bound together to avoid tissue compromise. But her mind was as clear as ever. Clark had her sights on a fifth Olympic Games, a mere 16-years after emotionally displaying her gold medal to a traumatized, desolate home crowd. No female athlete has ever participated in five Winter Olympic Games, but for Clark, it wasn't about the records or the medals.
"I realize I've accomplished really great things, but I've gotten to the point where I want to use my platform to inspire others," said Clark. "I want to show people what's possible to do on a snowboard, as a woman. I'm challenged and I love it, I'm still learning and I get to inspire people."
As she competes in this Olympic qualifying season, she is as focused as ever.
Nearly 20 years after idolizing the snowboarders who raced down the damp, muggy slope on her VHS tape of the 1998 Games, Clark can look back at her role in evolving an unprecedented leisure activity to the encapsulating, prominent sport it is today. Unlike her contemporaries, most of whom have long been out of the sport, Clark is confident in her ability to qualify for the 2018 Games and has no immediate plans to retire.
"Maybe I'm stubborn," she says.