Olympic qualifying time

Kelly Clark placed second at the Dew Tour, but was the top American and leads Olympic qualifying for the U.S. team. Gabe L'Heureux/ Getty Images

Our first day of practice in Breckenridge, Colo. was, to put it mildly, classically cold. It was minus-24 degrees, to be exact.

Basically that means I wear everything I own. I have both hand warmers and toe warmers. And I have an expedition-weight Burton FirstLayer fleece that I wear as long johns, with normal snow pants on top. Then on top I run a tank top, a long sleeve, a flannel, a lightweight down jacket and then my normal snowboarding jacket.

I top it off with a thin neck warmer plus a thick neck warmer, and I rub this stuff called Dermatone over my face where it’s exposed. It’s like a wax to protect your skin.

Even with all that, it’s pretty brutal. You try to keep your face from getting frostbite and keep your hands and feet warm as much as possible. It’s a real challenge to snowboard when you can’t bend down to buckle your bindings!

It’s good to be back in the pipe again, though. We came out to Colorado before Thanksgiving when the pipe opened at Copper Mountain, and we had 10 days of training before our first Olympic qualifier, the Dew Tour in Breckenridge, started on Dec. 12. It was just enough to get my legs under me before heading to Breck.

There’s always more nerves than you remembered at the first event of the year --especially in an Olympic season. The intensity was pretty high here, too. I hadn’t been that nervous in a long time! But since there were so many months building up to it, in some ways it’s nice to stop talking about it and go ahead and snowboard.

The contest went really well. I put down an OK run in qualifiers on Thursday, and it felt good to get it under my belt. After that I got to put down the run I wanted and took the lead. When you finish first in qualifiers you get to go last in finals, which means you know which position you’re in going into the final run. A nice little perk.

I put down a good first run in Saturday’s finals, which put me in second position. I was hoping to clean it up and go a little bigger in the second run, but I ended up crashing and placed second overall to 2010 Olympic gold medalist Torah Bright of Australia.

Though I ended up in second, I was still the first American and basically we Americans only compete against one another for the Olympic qualifiers. So in that sense it was the best-case scenario -- I got first-place points and I felt like I won the contest.

The U.S. Olympic qualifiers are some of the most intensely competitive, high-quality events we do – they can seem harder even than the Olympics themselves. There are so many good girls from the States fighting for just four positions.

Each country does it differently, but basically we have four Olympic spots for women for halfpipe and five events that can qualify us into those spots. You’re awarded points depending on how you finish in each event, then they take your top two finishes, combine the points, and select the team from those totals.

Even with a crash at Dew Tour, I was really happy with my riding, which is much better than at this time last year. I don’t want to be landing my best runs now -- I want to do that in February. My performance was a testament to how I’ve gotten ready for this year and I was pleased to see my plan was working. You just never know, after all.

Now I’m back in Copper Mountain, where we had a few days of training and are now heading into the second Olympic qualifier, the U.S. Snowboarding Grand Prix, with finals on Saturday. These events have a large international field even though they are Olympic qualifiers for us, so it’s pretty stacked and it’s a World Cup event as well as a Grand Prix.

Every halfpipe is different, and the one here at Copper Mountain is a bit smaller than in Breck. That means the trannies (transitions) are a little quicker so you have to be really on it. With these back-to-back contests, it’s important to take down days to be ready for Saturday’s final.

This is what I’ve been getting ready for and I’m glad I’ve been through the Olympic qualifying process before so I know what to expect, what the pressures are like and where I haven’t been prepared in the past. When I’m prepared I have more fun!

If you’re too wrapped up in the destination, you don’t get to enjoy the process. So hopefully I can get another good finish here in Copper Mountain and head into Christmas break with a good understanding of where I stand with qualifications.

I just Christmas shopped Tuesday when I realized I hadn’t bought anything -- and it is only a week away! My friends and family should be expecting nice Burton things since I shopped at the Burton store. Christmas has lost some of its grandeur this year with literally a four-day break (usually it’s more like a week and a half). If I had more time I would go back east to be with my family in Vermont, but I’ve missed the past three Christmases with my family because of my competition schedules.

I put up some Christmas lights before I left, though, which always makes it seem more festive, and I’ll get a little tree and try to make my house smell like pine needles. I usually end up hoping it snows and I’ll wind up out at some of my friends’ houses doing a mellow Christmas with people who live in town. Then it’s right back to training camp and all systems go! There will be time to relax after Sochi.