Seizing nine major victories in 11 competitions, Kelly Clark has turned the halfpipe into a virtual police state. Her totalitarian rule this 2010-11 season includes wins at the New Zealand Open, two Dew Tour stops, the Burton European Open, Canadian Open, O'Neill Evolution, Winter X Games, the U.S. Snowboarding Grand Prix title and this past weekend's U.S. Open.
Winning competitions as fast as they can set up the course fences should put the 27-year-old Vermonter swaggering in the glow of glory, parading down the magic carpet and going Dewey Decimal on her truckload of trophies. But to ask Clark about her near-perfect season is to hear about the imperfections and fallibility that she says have directed her to the place of clear intentions, calculated decisions and willful ambition.
I did the 10 in my victory lap because that was the trick I had been focused on since I got there. ... Regardless of what is going on around me, I'm going to do what I set out for.
"I was expecting to come out with more momentum in those first events of this year," Clark said of her second-place finish at the Visa U.S. Halfpipe Grand Prix in December and her sixth-place finish at the Winter Dew Tour stop in Breckenridge, Colo., the same month. "For whatever reason, it just took me a little longer to get going."
Clark says that while her first finishes of the year were substandard, they actually helped put her in the headspace that would launch her behemoth tear.
"You're disappointed when you don't finish where you want, but the thing was, I was riding really well at those events. I felt good, and even then I knew things were ramping up for me."
In those less-than-perfect December conditions, Clark managed to stay acutely focused on what she wanted to accomplish in the calendar year to come.
"It helped me commit to blocking out the things I can't control. It set me up to be really deliberate and focused on my purpose for each day. By the time the first of the year rolled around, I felt like I was right where I needed to be."
Right on cue, the first week of January proved to be the tipping point for Clark. On Jan. 7, Clark won the O'Neill Evolution event in Davos, Switzerland. Eight days later, she took the Burton European Open in Laax. The next weekend she extended her streak with a win at the Dew Tour in Killington, and six days later, she won Winter X gold with a victory lap that included the first 1080 in women's competitive history.
"My biggest goal coming into this season was to do things because I want to do them, not because I have to," Clark said. "Even if I have the contest won, I still want to do the trick I set out to do. You could say I've always been like that, yeah, but this year, more than ever, I have very clear intentions."
Clark has competed in three Olympic Games, becoming the first American to win halfpipe gold in Salt Lake City in 2002. Fans will remember her final run of the 2006 Olympics, when she needed only a clean run to make the podium, but she anted in all her chips for a shot at another gold. On that final Torino run, she fell and placed fourth. Four years later, in Vancouver, she managed a third-place finish that she puts at the top of her long list of competitive achievements.
"I really value my bronze medal so much more than anything else. Dealing with my disappointment of being off the podium in Torino, then finding the courage to come back and work hard and not be put down, that is really significant and it marks one of my biggest achievements. It has taught me the most. This year, I continue to draw from that."
Clark values the perspective she has received through each Olympic cycle and attributes the recent rash of success nine years removed from a gold medal to the understanding and frame of reference that her myriad of Olympic outcomes have provided.
"After this last Olympic Games, some of my friends were so glad it was over and they didn't have to compete anymore. I went to my coaches after the Games and said, 'Hey, I'm really kind of motivated. I want to keep competing and finish out this season.' And I kind of had to ask them, 'like is that OK?' Because no one else seems to want to do that! I was just in a different place after that bronze and after last year's Olympic preparation and competition than most people."
One of the biggest differences between today's Clark and her former self is the way she now codifies the Olympic experience.
"I finally realized that, for me, the Olympics weren't an end-all destination. How I did at the Olympics wasn't going to define me or my snowboarding career. The Olympics are a really wonderful addition to my snowboarding career. With that perspective, I'm able to be really intentional with my riding before and after the Games. That mentality and general purpose has been a big part of my success this season."
One purpose Clark fulfilled this season was pushing the female frontier forward when she landed the first 1080 at Winter X in Aspen.
"At X Games, I was set on doing what I came to do. I knew going in that I could do it and that it would potentially win the contest for me."
But when the circumstances of competition changed and Clark had the event locked up without needing the 1080, she did it anyway.
"I did the 10 in my victory lap because that was the trick I had been focused on since I got there," she said. "That's exactly what I wanted to do that day. It wasn't even a question at that point. That's what I mean by staying intentional -- regardless of what is going on around me, I'm going to do what I set out for."
And those self-imposed blinders have been helping Clark block out not only what's going on around her but also what isn't.
While most top-tier riders have been sitting out events this season in the typical lull of post-Olympic doldrums, Clark has refused to coast. You can count on one hand the total number of appearances 2010 Olympic gold medalist, Torah Bright, silver medalist, Hannah Teter, and Olympic perennial, Gretchen Bleiler, have combined for. But Clark continues to show up and put up.
"To me, it doesn't really matter who is there and who is not there. I do enjoy riding with the other girls; it's inspiring to see your friends doing well and I love being pushed in competition, so I really miss them when they're not there. But it doesn't change my approach."
Clark's pipe success is due in part to the heaps of conditioning and off-snow prep work she endured before the season. She arrived physically stronger than ever and more capable of maintaining consistency and resolve.
"I really upped my standard coming into this year. Before, I would max myself out at 100 percent every competition, every weekend -- maybe I would win, but I would be maxed out after every one. Now, my baseline has been raised, so I'm going out at a solid 80 or 90 percent, and I don't feel completely expended. I'm not wondering if I'm going to land what I need to land, now I just do the run that I'm there to do, I know that's my run and that it is enough."
Clark's output this year has certainly been more than enough to solidify her place of prominence in the halfpipe. Although there was already plenty of evidence in the locker to support this claim, Clark agrees that this season stands apart.
"It feels like the best season of my life. I've had really amazing years before, but this one I'm more conscious of; everything just feels more intentional."
Although Clark has seemingly found a fresh lease on life and an upsurge of success through her new mantra of deliberate action and clear intentions, the trademark Kelly Clark unyielding commitment to high stakes and zero-sum still runs thick through her veins.
"It's always been all or nothing. That was the case in 2002 with my gold; that was the case in 2006 when I missed the podium, and that was the case this year at X. That's how I ride: all or nothing."
Mary Buckheit is a freelance writer based in San Diego. Reach her at MaryBuckheit@hotmail.com.