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.
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.”
OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!Follow @nbcolympictalk