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Kelly Clark hopes to add one more Olympic bib to historic wall

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Kelly Clark, a pro snowboarder for the last 17 years with three Olympic medals, likes to save her halfpipe competition bibs. All of them.

More than 200 bibs are stuffed into boxes upon boxes in the garage of her Folsom, Calif., home.

“I like to think there’s a fine line between collecting and hoarding,” she said, smiling.

Four of Clark’s favorite bibs are not in boxes. They are framed, hanging on a TV room wall next to three wooden snowboards (one signed in pencil by Jake Burtonand a Snurfer.

It’s clear upon view. They are Clark’s bibs from her four Olympics, spelled out on the front — “Salt Lake City 2002,” “Torino 2006,” “Vancouver 2010” and “Sochi 2014.”

One day in the last year, some friends visited Clark’s home. They scanned the bib wall and noticed an empty space.

“Hey, you’ve got one more open spot for one more bib,” Clark recalled one of them saying.

“I didn’t plan it that way,” Clark continued, “but when I looked, I actually have one more spot that one more Olympic bib could find a home.”

There’s little doubt Clark will pack a “PyeongChang 2018” bib and fly it home to Folsom next year. The 33-year-old is on track to become the first U.S. snowboarder to compete in five Olympics.

Which is incredible, given Clark relearned how to walk last spring.

She tore her hamstring and hip labrum on her left side, underrotating a 1080 in practice at Winter X Games Oslo in February 2016. Her first serious injury.

Clark later found it to be the biggest obstacle of her career. It overtook her fourth-place finish at the 2006 Winter Olympics, the only time she has missed the podium at a Winter Games.

After surgery, Clark’s feet were bound together for a month. She watched “Friends” episodes in bed.

Clark was off snow for seven months. She got Iris, a golden retriever puppy. Iris faithfully stayed at Clark’s side for endless hours of physical therapy. Clark taught her how to swim.

In October, Clark got back on a chair lift in New Zealand. She shared the ride with Shaun White and his coach, 2002 Olympic bronze medalist J.J. Thomas.

The men had no idea that Clark was having “an inner crisis,” doubting whether her hip would hold up when she got off the lift. She let White and Thomas disembark first.

“Intimidating,” she said. “Got my feet back underneath me.”

Then came Feb. 5, 2017, one of the best days of Clark’s life. In her first contest back, she won the U.S. Grand Prix at Mammoth Mountain, Calif.

Fearing poor weather might close the roads that evening, Clark quickly hopped in a car after the awards. She drove 100 miles north to Topaz, a community on the California-Nevada border.

Wearing a New England Patriots jersey, the Vermont native walked into a casino steakhouse bar, sat and watched the greatest comeback in Super Bowl history.

Two weeks after that, Clark won the Olympic halfpipe test event in PyeongChang.

“I really just had some moments where I stepped back, and I just couldn’t believe that I still get to do this,” Clark said of last season. “I couldn’t believe that I was, you know, 33 years old, winning an Olympic test event. Like, I wouldn’t have dreamt that I’d be able to do that in my wildest dreams. It was more emotional than I had anticipated, the moment for me. It was kind of a benchmark, as well, where, post-hip surgery, I was back.”

Clark has memories associated with every Olympic halfpipe event. When snowboarding debuted at Nagano 1998, Clark recorded the TV coverage on VHS so she could watch it after school days.

In 2002, Clark rallied to make her first Olympic team and became the youngest Olympic snowboarding champion at age 18. A record she still holds.

After that 2006 failure, Clark broke the record as the oldest Olympic halfpipe medalist by taking bronze in 2010. In 2014, she tearfully broke it again. Clark landed the last run of the entire competition for bronze after falling in all five practice runs and on her first run of the final on a slushy pipe.

“My Sochi medal is, by far, my favorite Olympic experience,” Clark said. “You know, that day wasn’t my best snowboarding. But what I personally overcame that day to stand up on the Olympic podium, 12 years after I first stood up there, that was probably the greatest victory of my career.”

Clark was miffed that night when, before she could take her boots off, people started asking her about retirement.

“I kept getting this question, are you finally done?” said Clark, who had won every X Games title in the Sochi Olympic cycle. “That’s a weird way to phrase it. I got asked it enough that I had to really kind of evaluate that.”

Clark decided that she was competing not for victories but for love of the sport. As long as she’s still learning, she’ll keep entering contests.

Despite her success this past winter, Clark had not regained all of her strength. She’s eager to see what’s possible next season with a full prep period.

Who’s to say Clark can’t reset the age record a third time in PyeongChang at 34 years old?

The Vermont native jokes that she’s been snowboarding since before it was considered cool. Twice in 2016, she shared a podium with two girls whose ages didn’t add up to her own.

At home, Clark has boxes of bibs and wooden snowboards older than her new batch of rivals. She doesn’t mind being reminded of that.

“When people come over and they look at them,” Clark said, “it kind of brings back the memories for me, too.”

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Catching up with Ross Powers

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Ross Powers, now 38 years old and 15 years removed from his Olympic snowboarding title, is still out with halfpipe riders on the snow five days per week.

The difference now is that Powers is coaching. He runs the snowboarding program at Stratton Mountain School in Vermont, where he graduated from in 1997.

Powers spoke with OlympicTalk before last season, reflecting on 20 years of snowboarding in the Olympics, Shaun White and how he likes coaching.

OlympicTalk: The PyeongChang Winter Games will mark 20 years since snowboarding’s debut in Nagano. What was it like competing in the first Olympic halfpipe?

Powers (who won bronze in Nagano at age 19): It seemed kind of like a regular World Cup. We were up in the mountains. At the time, it was a really good halfpipe, but we ended up competing in some bad weather, some rain. I didn’t realize until I left Japan and got home how big the Olympics were. But looking back, it was a special time. And I really learned from the ’98 Olympics, like if I get this chance again, I’m going to go there, I’m going to do it all. I’m going to go to Opening Ceremonies, Closing Ceremonies, watch as many events as I can and just make the most out of the Games.

OlympicTalk: The Nagano halfpipe was about half the size of today’s superpipes (394 feet long with 11 1/2-foot walls vs. 590 feet with 22-foot walls in Sochi). Could today’s snowboarders compete with you guys back in 1998?

Powers: It was so different. At the time, I want to say it was the biggest pipe we rode, but compared to today’s standards, it’s small. The weather was tricky. I think a lot of those guys [today] could ride it, but it’s so much different than today’s halfpipe for sure.

OlympicTalk: In 2002, when you led a U.S. men’s halfpipe medal sweep, the rider who just missed the Olympic team was a 15-year-old Shaun White. What do you remember about him?

Powers: You kind of knew he was going to be the next guy. Where he took our sport and certain tricks. One thing that really impressed me about him is he’ll train really hard for an event, show up, even if the conditions are bad, he’s planned this trick he wants to do, and he’ll try it no matter what. Most of the time he’ll give it a go and land it. That actually hurt him in Russia [White attempted but couldn’t perfect the YOLO Flip 1440 in Sochi] because he probably could have stepped down a notch, gotten a medal and maybe even won the event.

OlympicTalk: Did Shaun ever beat you before you retired?

Powers: I had my run from 1998, ’99, ’00, ’01, all those times that I was doing really well. I tried to make the 2006 Olympics in Italy. I was the alternate, so I just missed that. He was definitely beating me up through those times.

OlympicTalk: Did you travel to the Torino Olympics as an alternate?

Powers: I did, yeah. I traveled over there and actually watched my buddy [Seth] Wescott win the gold in boarder cross. That night, he was like, you should try boarder cross. That kind of got me into doing that my next few years after that.

[Editor’s Note: Powers almost made the 2010 Olympic team in snowboard cross, even finishing third in a December 2009 World Cup.]

OlympicTalk: Which is tougher, coaching or competing?

Powers: I would say it is tougher coaching than competing. You just have so many responsibilities and so much work. The nice thing about coaching, though, compared to competing, is you can kind of push yourself and have fun [riding] on certain days but then also sit back and really work with the athletes on all other days. So when you’re feeling it, you can push yourself. So it’s not like an athlete, where you have to push yourself.

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No private halfpipe for Shaun White before this Olympics

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Shaun White trained for the 2010 and 2014 Olympics on private halfpipes built for him by sponsors, away from prying eyes in Silverton, Colo., and Perisher, Australia.

White will not keep that tradition going for PyeongChang 2018.

“You would train on your own because you don’t want to just give someone a blueprint of how to do a trick,” White said recently in between New York City media appearances. “As I’ve gotten older, the motivation to be there in the silence to get it done is not what it used to be. You need other things to change in your outlook and attitude.”

White, who at 30 is older than any previous U.S. Olympic halfpipe snowboarder, plans to do the bulk of his training at his home mountain in Mammoth Mountain, Calif.

He’s going for a fourth Olympics and a third halfpipe gold medal. The much-talked-about storyline will be White trying to make amends for Sochi, where he crashed in one run and finished fourth.

In the early days of his career, White’s family would drive six hours to Mammoth every Friday in their 1964 Econoline van, nicknamed “Big Mo.” White became part owner of Mammoth a little over one year ago.

Training at Mammoth, White has said people have stood on the edge of the halfpipe trying to get selfies while he’s flying above the 22-foot walls.

“It’s like Jeff Gordon trying to practice driving in the streets, or shooting free throws at the local court,” White said. “Most of the time, I like when people are around, because it builds the energy.”

White will still have private sessions at Mammoth. They will increase as the Olympics get closer. In that sense, it will not be too different than four and eight years ago. Plus, the Mammoth pipe was rebuilt by Frank Wells, who also designed the Silverton and Perisher pipes.

When White does train with other riders, they will often be women. He mentioned fellow Mammoth native Chloe Kim and fellow Burton-sponsored Olympic champion Kelly Clark.

“She’s not particularly a threat to me,” White joked of the 16-year-old Kim, who has drawn comparisons to White for her precociousness.

White gradually improved this season, working his way into form following left ankle surgery last fall. He was 11th at Winter X Games — his worst finish there since 2000 — but then finished first, second and first in his last three events.

He peaked at the finale, the U.S. Open in Vail, Colo. White landed a cab double cork 1440 and a double McTwist 1260 in one run for the first time, according to The Associated Press.

That run was enough to beat Australian Scotty James, who had won X Games and the Olympic test event the previous two months, topping fields that included White both times. James is viewed as White’s top challenger at the moment.

“No dissing to Scotty or anybody, but Scotty won those events with the run I did at Vancouver in 2010,” said White, who unlike James attempted a double cork 1440 at X Games, but fell. “That’s awesome, he’s kind of doing it his own way and he’s doing it big and confident and smooth. It’s tough when you show up to the contest and it’s like, if I did that run, they know I can do that run, I did it in 2010, so I don’t think I would have gotten a great score for it. I have to go here [raises his hand higher]. And that’s fine, because I feel like it’s going to push me to that place, but at times it is very challenging when you’re expected to do something. It’s not really looking at the whole field of what’s happening, it’s like they know you and they expect something. And that’s kind of like the shoes I live in.”

White believed he and James were even at the Olympic test event. Judges scored James a 96 and White a 95.

“I need to win without a seed of doubt,” White said. “That’s what that run was all about in the [U.S.] Open. For me, I had to get that run, and it was over.”

White yearns for such situations, which simply can’t be replicated training alone.

That brought to mind a training run in Calgary this past season. White was riding in the bitter cold, struggling with the YOLO Flip 1440, when he saw six children approaching the halfpipe.

“Hey are you Shaun White?” they asked him.

White confirmed and said, “If you guys cheer, I’ll do a really cool trick for you.”

“It built a pressure scenario for me,” White said later, showing the video on his phone. “And I crushed it. That was the best I landed it the whole night.”

As far as 1440s go, both of White’s biggest rivals suffered major crashes in March.

Swiss Iouri Podladtchikov, the 2014 Olympic champion who invented the YOLO Flip 1440, tore his ACL at the world championships.

Japan’s Ayumu Hirano, the 2014 Olympic silver medalist, fell at the U.S. Open. White believed Hirano lacerated his liver and suffered a concussion, though Japanese media reported liver and MCL damage.

Canadian slopestyle star Mark McMorris suffered a life-threatening crash in March as well.

White said all of their injuries have weighed on his mind, though he plans to keep riding beyond PyeongChang. The risks and ups and downs are part of this sport.

White is familiar from his own experiences, especially in the last four years. And from this past season, coming back from the ankle surgery and X Games struggles to land the best run of his career.

“If I would have walked in, just kind of breezed through every event, maybe I wouldn’t have had the motivation I’m feeling now,” White said. “Maybe I might be like, oh, I got it in the bag. And you don’t ever want to feel that way until it’s the day of.”

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