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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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Danny Davis knows creativity won’t be enough in Olympic year

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Danny Davis and good friend and former halfpipe rider Kevin Pearce discussed Davis’ experience at the Sochi Olympics. They came to the same conclusion.

“We’ve always kind of felt similar on that topic, the Olympics, and how they’re sort of the end-all, be-all for a lot of people,” Davis said in a phone interview last week. “I think, for Kevin and myself, we’re snowboarders. That’s not the end-all, be-all. A good career doesn’t necessarily mean going to the Olympics. There’s a lot of other titles you can have.”

That said, Davis believes qualifying for the PyeongChang Winter Games is just as big, if not bigger than it was for Sochi three years ago. Which is saying a lot in his case.

Davis, a scraggly-haired snowboarding throwback who values style and creativity over counting flips and spins, finished a surprisingly low 10th in his Olympic halfpipe debut in 2014. He had won Winter X Games for the first time the previous month.

Davis was described then as ambivalent about the Games, an attitude shared by some top riders 20 years ago, when the sport was first added to the Olympic program and some skipped it.

But make no mistake, Davis was determined to be on an Olympic team.

He was in strong position to make the 2006 Olympic squad as a 17-year-old before struggling in the last two qualifiers. In 2010, he beat Shaun White in a qualifier, inspired by Pearce, who a week earlier suffered a traumatic brain injury in a training crash.

But before the Vancouver Olympics, Davis fractured his vertebra and was knocked unconscious when he drunkenly crashed an ATV into a fence. He missed out as White repeated gold. Then in August 2012, Davis broke a femur crashing into a pole on a slopestyle course.

In 2014, Davis completed his comeback by finishing first and second in the last two Olympic qualifiers and then winning the Winter X Games for the first time in his sixth try.

Sochi didn’t turn out how Davis hoped. He was one of many riders to criticize the halfpipe condition, and then wasn’t able to land a clean run in the final.

At 25 years old — veteran status in his sport — Davis could have waved goodbye to the Olympics for good after Sochi.

But he’s not thinking that way at all with 11 months to go until PyeongChang. Instead, he’s motivated by what happened in 2014. To do it all better in 2018.

“Last time around I worried so much about the end goal, which was just the Olympics, that I think I missed out on a lot of fun in my season,” Davis said. “I was pretty stressed when I didn’t do well.

“This year I kind of did a little less contests because I know next year is going to be so hectic. I think this time around I’m more focused on doing well in all of the events, not so much making the team and going to the Olympics. More so being a strong, consistent rider.”

Davis had a painful start to this past season, axing through two tendons in his right hand while chopping firewood in November. He needed surgery and wore a large cast at the X Games in January, where he placed fifth.

Davis snuck into the 10-rider final at the Burton U.S. Open this past weekend and finished sixth, landing one clean run out of three on Saturday. He said the hand limitations are gone, but he still must wear a wrist guard.

The difference between this year and 2014 and 2015 — when Davis won back-to-back X Games titles — is the level of competition. Though Davis was off the U.S. Open podium, he still earned a special award for throwing the best throwback trick of the event — a frontside alley oop Indy.

That contradiction sums up where Davis is right now. His style and creativity remain in a class of their own, but he doesn’t have the flipping-and-spinning firepower to beat White or Australian Scotty James at their best.

“Scotty James and Shaun, they’ve both got back [-to-back] double [1260s] in their run that are pretty standard,” Davis said. “Back double 12s was something Shaun was fishing for back in 2014. He could do it, but he didn’t have it every time. Now, he has it every time, and Scotty’s got it every time. A lot of these guys have a lot of doubles every time.

“I can be creative with my riding, but at the end of the day, you’ve got to do some doubles. You’ve got to spin, and that’s the way it is.”

The Olympic team will likely be made up of four riders again. White has been the top American this season, followed by potential Olympic rookie Chase Josey.

Davis is in a group of other riders also in contention, including 2014 Olympic teammates Greg Bretz and Taylor Gold.

Olympic qualifying, which consists of a series of contests, takes place next season.

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Shaun White ends season with comeback U.S. Open win

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Shaun White capped the last season before the PyeongChang Winter Games by beating the rider who had emerged as an Olympic favorite this winter.

White, the 2006 and 2010 Olympic halfpipe champ who finished fourth at Sochi 2014, scored 92.74 points in his second of three runs to win the Burton U.S. Open for a second straight year and seventh time overall.

He came from behind to beat Australian Scotty James, who had the highest-scoring first run with 82.87 points. James beat White at both the Winter X Games in January and the PyeongChang Olympic test event in February.

“I needed those to make it today,” White said of the defeats, which included an 11th-place finish at X Games, his worst since his debut in 2000 at 13 years old. “I needed that motivation and frustration of losing.”

White said it was his last contest of the season. White had an up-and-down campaign, but it was his busiest since the Sochi Olympics. In addition to the X Games and Olympic test event defeats, and an 18th-place finish at his season opener in December, he won the U.S. Grand Prix at Mammoth Mountain, Calif., in February.

On Saturday, White landed a cab double cork 1440 — or YOLO Flip — followed by his signature double McTwist 1260 in the same run for the first time in his career, according to The Associated Press.

“Come next season, I’m going to be a completely different rider,” White told reporter Tina Dixon on the U.S. Open live stream. “On another level, hopefully. It’s so funny because I keep hearing from people about this [2018] Olympics and whatnot. I’m already thinking about China [the 2022 Beijing Winter Games]. I’m going to keep going.”

Chase Josey, emerging as a favorite for one of four U.S. Olympic team spots, was third on Saturday. Sochi Olympic champion Iouri Podladtchikov was fourth, and 2014 and 2015 Winter X Games champion Danny Davis was sixth.

Japan Olympic silver medalist Ayumu Hirano was taken to a hospital for further evaluation after a fall in his second run, Dixon reported.

Chloe Kim won the women’s final after three-time Olympic medalist Kelly Clark pulled out for precautionary reasons following a warm-up crash.

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