'Big Sister' Kelly Clark Can Still Hang On The Hill

Kelly Clark, center, won her eighth US Open halfpipe contest, with teenagers Chloe Kim, left, and Arielle Gold behind her on the podium. Courtesy Shauna Farnell

Kelly Clark says that non-alcoholic champagne is stickier. With more wins than any other snowboarder in history, the Vermont native has been doused with a lot of bubbly over the years. But lately, she's the only one on the podium allowed to celebrate with the alcoholic variety.

The four-time Olympian is more than twice the age of Chloe Kim, her biggest threat in the halfpipe. The California native who edged Clark for the gold medal in January's X Games Aspen will turn 15 in April and is in the ninth grade.

Both women are Burton riders who often train together at Mammoth Mountain, California. Clark, herself a former teenage sensation who won Olympic gold in 2002 when she was only 18 and Kim was barely alive, can almost ... almost forget their 17-year age gap.

"When she talks about candy and homework, I realize we're not the same age," says 31-year-old Clark, who wrapped up the last major snowboarding contest of the season -- last weekend's Burton US Open in Vail, Colorado -- with a win.

"There are definitely some generational things that are different," she says of Kim, who finished second last weekend. "I don't have Snapchat. She spends much more time on her phone than I do."

Still, Clark and Kim share some traits. They both smile easily and are quick to say "thank you." They visualize their runs before dropping into the pipe. They listen to music when they ride. During the US Open finals, Kim was cranking Wasted and Revolution at high volume and Clark, who often sings out loud even while soaring up the walls of the pipe, was listening to singer-songwriter Amanda Cook.

Before last weekend, Clark was the only woman who regularly threw 1080s (three full 360-degree rotations) in competition. In Saturday's contest, Kim landed the trick for the first time. But Clark, famous for going twice as high as anyone else out of the pipe, still had the better run. Her winning trick set included the frontside 1080 with an indy grab, a cab 720 and an enormous crippler. Even those unversed in snowboard tricks could watch and tell that Clark's display was the most impressive.

Kim, whose run was equally as technical, asserted that she "wasn't going as big as Kelly" and that the veteran "definitely" deserved the victory.

The Vail podium was rounded out by another teen -- 18-year-old Colorado native Arielle Gold, who also attempted a 1080 but fell on the landing. Gold views Clark as "one of my best friends in the sport" and "my favorite snowboarder since I started when I was 7."

After Clark took her victory lap, both young women tackled her at the bottom of the pipe. They shook up their sparkling apple cider and sprayed it all over each other, laughing like crazy. Walking up the snow to pose for a photo later, Clark put her arm around Kim, congratulating her on the 1080.

It is clear that Clark sets the bar for both teenagers, and not just in snowboarding. She has taught them to push the limits in the pipe, yes. But she has also taught them humility, gratitude and how to maintain solid mental and physical shape.

"A lot of times when I'm struggling with a trick or run, she'll give me moral support and any little hints for what I can work on," Gold says. "Another thing she has tried to drill into my brain is how important it is to take care of your body. If anybody knows about longevity, it's Kelly."

True that a life spent launching off of the icy walls of a halfpipe doing spins and flips is not the best thing for the body. Kaitlyn Farrington, the gold medalist from the Sochi Olympics, retired this season at the age of 25 because of a degenerative spine condition, and long-time star Gretchen Bleiler retired last season at age 32, never having completely recovered from injuries.

Clark often says she has to work much harder than ever before to stay on top. Not only because she has uber-talented teenagers breathing down her neck, but because her 30-something body requires more maintenance than it used to.

"I notice that I require more rest," Clark says. "I was with my coaches at the beginning of January planning out my rest days for the X Games, which were three weeks away. Wow. How things have changed. But by doing that I'm still able to be competitive with these guys. I'm still able to hang."

Of course, when Clark says "hang," she really means win.

Gold fervently mimics Clark's health-maintenance routine of daily stretching and spinning in the gym, even taking an ice bath after a hard day of practice. When Clark and Kim train together, the 14-year-old is eager to get out the door.

"When I'm stretching and working on things, she's like, 'Are you ready yet? Are you ready to take laps with me?' She makes fun of me relentlessly about my ice baths and my activation in the morning," Clark says.

Kim, who put her 1080 together in a matter of three weeks (as opposed to many riders who have been unsuccessfully trying the trick for years) called last weekend's second-place performance "the best run of my life," and also credits Clark as a major inspiration.

"I watched her all the time when I was little," the 14-year-old says. "She really stood out because she went so big. She inspired me to go bigger and do crazy tricks. It's amazing to be riding with her."

Clark acknowledges that a rivalry does indeed exist between her and Kim. It's likely to lead to a full-blown showdown in every halfpipe contest as long as Clark continues to compete. But with a selflessness that has characterized her career, Clark says that ultimately the tug-of-war between she and the teens is exactly what the sport needs.

"Part of me saw those girls doing 10s and I said, 'yes. That's what I've been waiting for.' It is about doing well in the contest ... but it's about the progression of women's snowboarding. It's bigger than me," she says. "The future of women's snowboarding is alive and well. I know it'll be in good hands when these girls take over."