In snowboarding, a sport always progressing at what seems warp speed, it's rare that much of anything — be it a trick, rider or even the depth of the halfpipe — prominently hangs around very long. So it's because of the relatively young discipline's constant reinvention of itself that makes 30-year-old Kelly Clark's resilience so stunning.
After three Olympics — gold in 2002, fourth in 2006 and bronze in 2010 — 12 X Games podiums (including a current four-peat gold streak), and more than 60 contest victories spanning her 15-year competition career, the West Dover, Vt., product somehow manages to remain the class of the American women in the pipe. And that's with plenty of extremely talented up-and-comers threatening her reign as Sochi gets underway.
"The sport's always changing and growing," Clark said, speaking from Park City, Utah this past October in preparation for the Olympics. "I think that's kind of what keeps us all coming back."
Clark made sure to qualify for her fourth Games early in the process. She placed second to Australia's Torah Bright — another favorite and the 2010 gold medalist — at the opening qualifier, the Dew Tour in Breckenridge, Colo., but was the top American finisher in the event. A week later, she won the Copper Mountain Grand Prix, also in Colorado, to seal it, on her way to victories in three of the five qualifiers, and top points in four.
The maximum number of women allowed per country in the event by the International Olympic Committee is four. That was some pretty slim odds between a handful of multi-Olympics, American participants including Gretchen Bleiler (2010 — 11th, 2006 — silver), Hannah Teter (2010 — silver, 2006 — gold) and Elena Hight (2010 — 10th, 2006 — 6th). In the end, Clark will be joined by Teter, who landed the final discretionary spot with a strong finish to the qualifiers, while newcomers, 17-year-old Arielle Gold and 24-year-old Kaitlyn Farrington claimed the other two automatic bids.
But after all these years, many are still just trying to figure out how to beat Clark. Hight, for example, could only joke when asked about her plan for stopping her. "Um, take her out at the knees," she said. "Kelly has obviously been on the top of her game and it's great to see her pushing the sport in a lot of ways."
"I would say right now what it takes to be at the top in halfpipe riding requires so much more than it ever used to," Bleiler said. "It's a razor-sharp edge that you need to walk to have longevity in this career of ours. Making sure that you're pushing yourself every single day so that you are at the top, but not going over on the other side so that you're hurt all the time."
For Clark, it's this mutual respect among competitors that drives her to succeed.
"It's no secret that we have one of the strongest halfpipe teams out there," she said. "I think having everyone here is what kind of inspires us to push each other. We're out there every day training and competing with one another, so we're constantly raising the bar in the U.S. for everyone, and it's been a privilege to be a part of the Olympics with these ladies. I think each one of us are the snowboarders that we are today thanks to riding with these girls for 10, 15 years now, pushing each other."