Pressure makes medal sweeter

Andrew P. Scott/USA TODAY Sports

"Contest days come down to that day. It has to be your best on that pipe on that day," Kelly Clark says. "Having had it come to the last run of the Olympics and be able to perform, I couldn't have been more proud."

Sometimes it’s easy to focus on the colors of medals, but what it comes down to is the personal victories and what I accomplished to get there. I was proud of my bronze in Vancouver, and I’m proud of this one, too. To be able to perform under that pressure and make it onto the podium 12 years after my first Olympics was incredible.

The day of the halfpipe contest the pipe was the best it had been. The cut was perfect. It was so perfect I forgot people had been complaining about the conditions earlier.

I was the only American in the first heat of prelims, and I put down a basic run, which was good enough to get into finals. After that I thought I’d give it a try to get the top qualifying run, and I decided to do a cold-turkey 1080. It was a sketchy run for me but it was enough to give me the first-place position heading into finals.

After that we had about a six-hour break between prelims and finals, so I went up to the athlete village. I napped, rode the spin bike and watched “Miracle” (very appropriately), the hockey movie.

The Olympics have the most difficult format we ever see. Basically every four years we have this 10-hour marathon contest with semifinals and finals in the same day. There are no other events like it all season, which makes it hard to prepare for. It’s physically and mentally exhausting. I find that on contest days when I take four or six runs I can be more exhausted than if I did 15 runs that day in training.

Still, I went into the final feeling really good. I was ready. And then I ended up falling in literally every single run in practice, which is about as discouraging as it gets. I can’t remember a time I had that poor of a practice. My body took a beating, too. They were solid crashes. It was warm, and the conditions of the pipe were making it challenging to get the run I wanted. I tried changing things up, doing my tricks in three different locations to see if there was an order I could do them in that would work with the challenging conditions. Ultimately, I went back to my first run.

I got down to the bottom and my sports psych was standing there. I wasn’t going to pretend I wasn’t emotional, but I thought if I could just have a good 30-second cry maybe I could hit the reset button. It’s not all glamorous. It’s as real as it can get. But you can’t let it continue to affect you. I went back to the top and my coaches were like, “This is about as wrong as it could have gone. But this is what you’ve been getting ready for.”

I dropped in for my first finals run, ready to do what I came to do. But I left early for my Cab 7, hit the deck and took one of the worst slams I’ve taken in a while. Obviously it really wasn’t how I hoped it would go. My coach was like, “I’m so glad you’ve been working so hard with your fitness. Most people wouldn’t have been able to get up from that fall.”

A fall is toughest mentally. It can be threatening and it puts you on the defensive, which is the opposite of what you want when you’re giving it your all. But to be honest I was better prepared for a first-run fall than I was for a horrible practice. I’ve done first-run falls before.

Ultimately, I felt good going into my final run. I dropped in, and it was pretty wild. The last person in the contest to go and you have one chance. You’ve been getting ready for this for the last four years. It was quite possibly the deepest I’ve ever had to dig and quite possibly one of the greatest accomplishments of my career. For that pipe, I landed the run of my life. It wasn’t the best run I’ve been handed, and I’m capable of a lot more. But contest days come down to that day. It has to be your best on that pipe on that day. Having had it come to the last run of the Olympics and been able to perform, I couldn’t have been more proud.

I didn’t see the other girls, so I didn’t know if I was last place or first place. I just waited for my score to see where I would settle up. Torah (Bright, who won silver) was holding my hand as we waited for the scores. To me that just illustrated a part of what I love so much about the sport. With even a slight shift in the scores I could have beaten her, but she wanted my best. I think that camaraderie of competitors wanting everyone to do their best is unique to snowboarding.

Looking back at these Games, I can confidently say I did everything right. There’s nothing I could have done better. And that’s kind of what you want when you walk away from the Olympics. You want to know you played all your cards right. I couldn’t be happier with my bronze medal.

In a way it’s refreshing to step back and truly say I’m motivated to finish my season. You don’t want to look at the Olympics as the ultimate be-all, end-all. I’ll chase down the Olympics or the X Games as much as anybody. I’ll keep pushing my ability and my tricks. But I’ll do it because I love it, not just for the hardware. And because of that I’m confident I’m going to be around for a while.