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Kelly Clark and long, halfpipe road to Olympics No. 5

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VAIL, Colo. (AP) — For the better part of a month, Kelly Clark needed help for everything. She wasn’t allowed to sit up straight, and her feet were bound together to avoid compromising tissue around her newly repaired hip that needed rest and plenty of hard work to become functional again.

This is the price the 33-year-old snowboarding icon was willing to pay to go for a fifth trip to the Olympic halfpipe.

And though Clark – with her gold medal and the two bronze medals that she values every bit as much – has nothing left to prove to anyone but herself, this is the road she was willing to travel to make sure she leaves the competitive side of her sport on her terms.

“A very limiting, humbling experience,” Clark called the seven-month repair-rehab-and-recovery process that began with surgery last March. 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.

“I had to reevaluate what success looks like,” Clark said. “If I kept the same measure of success of, `I’m this amazing athlete,’ – well, I was not an amazing athlete. I was a person who needed a lot of help to get through the day, whether it was emotionally, mentally or physically.”

Nobody inside the snowboarding world would be surprised if Clark does what no snowboarder has done and makes a fifth Olympic team. And nobody would be surprised if she’s at the top of the podium in the mountains of Korea next February: After getting healthy, Clark returned this season to win an Olympic test event in Korea and a U.S. Grand Prix contest at Mammoth Mountain, California.

But in a year where the bulk of the attention has gone to Chloe Kim, the 16-year-old phenom whose parents are from South Korea, Clark has stayed somewhat under the radar. Her reaction to the Kim sensation: “I was a (teenager) at one point, too.”

As Clark puts it, she was snowboarding before snowboarding was cool . Before it was an Olympic sport and before most resorts even allowed the then-renegades on the mountain.

At 18, Clark helped change all that, coming into her own in the 2001-02 season by winning the last two Olympic qualifiers, the Winter X Games, the Olympics and the U.S. Open. Her victory at the Salt Lake City Games, which came about 24 hours before the U.S. men swept the medals on the halfpipe, officially put snowboarding on the map.

Her prescient comments from that day: “Maybe it will shine a light on snowboarding, and people will look at it in a different way.”

Snowboarding hasn’t been the same since then and, in a way, the journey Clark has taken from her home in West Dover, Vermont, through the upper echelons of the sport has included many of the same growing pains.

“She didn’t seem to be getting any fulfillment or joy out of it,” said longtime U.S. halfpipe coach Rick Bower, speaking about the period between 2003-06, when Clark struggled to adjust to life as an Olympic champion. “It seemed like she was going through the motions. I kept wondering, does she want to keep doing this?”

Clark had a winning run going at the 2006 Turin Games before falling on her last jump – a slip-up that left her in fourth place behind Americans Hannah Teter and Gretchen Bleiler, along with Kjersti Buaas of Norway. Certainly, the next generation of snowboarders had caught up and passed the 2002 champion.

But no.

Clark finished third at the next two Olympics and, in between those games, put together a 16-contest winning streak, the likes of which may never been seen again on the halfpipe.

For all those victories, though, she insists the Olympic bronze medals were as meaningful as any win “because you value things based on what they cost you.”

On a mushy halfpipe in Vancouver, Clark closed with a frontside 900 jump on her second and final opportunity after falling hard and hurting her wrist on the same jump in the previous run. “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.”

On an equally poor halfpipe in Sochi, she won bronze after falling six straight times – five during practice runs, then once in competition.

“I could have just said, `It’s over, thanks for coming,”‘ Clark said. “But when I look back at that performance, it was what I personally overcame that night that made it such a victory.”

So, it makes perfect sense that a gold medal in Korea isn’t what’s motivating Clark these days.

She overcame the difficult hip surgery to give herself a chance in 2018 and ensure she wouldn’t be bailing out of the sport for health reasons.

And 15 years after making the halfpipe part of the mainstream conversation in American sports, she has remained a central part of that conversation.

“If it was only about winning things, I probably should’ve stopped a long time ago,” Clark said. “The motivators change over the years. But I think I still have something left to contribute, and I haven’t hit my potential, and that’s why I’m still here.”

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Chinese lead, star pairs struggle in world championships short program

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China’s Sui Wenjing and Han Cong recorded the highest pairs short program score in the world since the 2014 Olympics, topping the world championships field in Helsinki on Wednesday.

Two-time defending world champions Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford of Canada and Olympic silver medalists Ksenia Stolbova and Fedor Klimov are well behind in seventh and 13th place, respectively.

Sui and Han, in just their second event this season, tallied a personal-best 81.23 points.

They lead by 1.39 over Germans Aliona Savchenko and Bruno Massot going into the free skate Thursday (1 p.m. ET, NBCSN, NBCSports.com/live and the NBC Sports app).

Russians Yevgenia Tarasova and Vladimir Morozov are in third.

The Chinese will go for their first world title after giving up a short-program lead last year and taking silver for a second straight time.

Full worlds short program results are here.

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Sui and Han missed the fall season after Sui underwent right ankle and left foot surgeries last spring. They returned at the Four Continents Championships in February and posted personal-best free skate and total scores, ranking only behind Tarasova and Morozov for the season.

Duhamel and Radford, looking to become the first pair to three-peat in 40 years, came in slowed by Radford’s hip injury suffered in the last week. Radford was off-balance on his triple toe loop landing Wednesday. Duhamel’s hand touched the ice on her throw triple Lutz landing.

They scored 72.67 points, which is 8.56 behind Sui and Han.

Stolbova and Klimov both suffered falls in their short program and scored 65.59, qualifying for the 16-pair free skate by four points. The Russian champions missed the autumn season due to Stolbova’s left leg injury.

The top U.S. pair was Alexa Scimeca Knierim and Christopher Knierim, who posted a personal-best 72.17 points for eighth place. The husband-and-wife pair are competing for the second time this season after Scimeca Knierim’s serious abdominal injury.

U.S. champions Haven Denney and Brandon Frazier suffered two falls and placed 20th, matching the worst U.S. pairs finish in worlds history. They did not qualify for the 16-pair free skate.

Therefore, the Knierims must finish 10th or better after the free skate to ensure the U.S. earns two pairs places at the 2018 Olympics.

Pairs is the U.S.’ weakest discipline. The last U.S. medal in pairs at worlds came in 2002. The last Olympic medal was in 1988.

North Korean pair Ryom Tae Ok and Kim Ju Sik placed 14th in the short program, the highest of any pair expected to compete for one of four final Olympic quota spots in September.

North Korea sent no athletes to the Sochi Olympics, and it’s not a guarantee it will qualify any athletes for PyeongChang, or if it will send athletes to South Korea in February. But Ryom and Kim’s personal best by nearly 11 points on Wednesday was very encouraging.

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Pairs Short Program
1. Sui Wenjing/Han Cong (CHN) — 81.23
2. Aliona Savchenko/Bruno Massot (GER) — 79.84
3. Yevgenia Tarasova/Vladimir Morozov (RUS) — 79.37
8. Alexa Scimeca Knierim/Christopher Knierim (USA) — 72.17
20. Haven Denney/Brandon Frazier (USA) — 56.23

Missy Franklin out due to shoulder surgeries

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Missy Franklin is sidelined from swimming competition for an undisclosed period of time to recover from surgeries on both of her shoulders due to bursitis, according to her social media.

“This is what’s best for me to come stronger than ever,” was posted on Franklin’s Instagram. “I’m so far from being done with this sport.”

The five-time Olympic champion was diagnosed in early January following an MRI, underwent surgeries that month and has returned to limited training.

Franklin, who has not raced since the Rio Olympics, will not compete in the next USA Swimming Pro Series meet in Mesa, Ariz., in two weeks.

Her return date is not set.

The U.S. Championships are in June in Indianapolis and serve as a qualifying meet for the world championships in Budapest in July.

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