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Kelly Clark's four-year plan

1/30/2010

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If 26-year-old Mt. Snow, Vt. native Kelly Clark was just any other Winter X Games competitor and you were to chart her relative success, she would serve as a model of consistency and steady development. Using the last year as an example, Clark finished on the podium of every contest she entered (16) and won four of the five U.S. Grand Prix contests.

Looking over Clark's X Games résumé, you find similarly impressive stats: six SuperPipe medals in 10 appearances. In short, Kelly Clark is not just any other competitor in the women's snowboarding field. The world expects a lot of her. So much so that when she doesn't win a competition, it stands out.

Try to compute Clark's Winter X Games gold medal frequency over the course of her career on a graphing calculator and it would spit out a pattern of two symmetrical curves. Upon review, it shows that while Clark is always in the hunt, she has only two top WX finishes to her credit. She set the women's SuperPipe gold standard in 2002 and 2006 and has earned three silvers and one bronze in between. On Saturday, from a lounge chair in her cabin in downtown Aspen, Colo., Clark discussed the four-year peaks in her performance and then confirmed exactly what we suspected: "My riding is better right now than it ever has ever been."

Four years from her last gold. Right on schedule.

So now that you are aware of the somewhat curious trend of Clark's best years of competition, it's time to analyze it with real-world application. The one variable which seems to coincide with Clark's every-four-years skill swell is the every-four-years Olympic Winter Games. By all accounts, this doesn't seem to be a subtle thing for Clark, but rather a constant. Although the Olympic results have varied (gold in 2002, fourth in 2006), Clark has owned Winter X competitions during Olympic years without exception.

"Olympic years you always try and peak," Clark explains. "It's been great to be able to win X Games heading into the 2002 Olympics and then win the X Games heading into the 2006 Olympics. This Olympic year, 2010, of course I'm using the X Games competition as practice for Vancouver. Being able to put down a technical run here in Aspen and have fun doing it would be a great success. It prepares me and gives me some confidence heading into Vancouver."

Clark certainly earned the nation's vote of confidence this season when she won four of the five U.S. Grand Prix events, punching her ticket to Vancouver with authority and earning her the first of four spots on the U.S. Olympic pipe roster.

On Saturday morning after a few runs at Winter X SuperPipe practice, Clark was seen diligently hiking up the pipe to perfect her frontside 900. In 2006, it was the wily 900 that pushed Clark off the Olympic podium. If she had played it safe with a 700, she may well have walked away with her second Olympic medal. But she went for the 900 and failed to land it. Clark's signature has always been her all-or-nothing attitude and her ability to boost higher out of the pipe than any other woman in the field, but she knows she's not the only lady with 2½ rotations in her purse.

"It's nice for us to be able to graduate from the 7 to the 9," Clark said. "Ellery [Hollingsworth] has been riding great -- she has a cab 900 and she's doing front 9s as well. Elena's got a back 9 and Gretchen's got a front 9, so I think we're going to see a lot of different variations out there. With 900s, it's all about timing and commitment."

Another thing that's all about timing and commitment? Training for an Olympic Games.

Pacing yourself through four years and rallying to peak performance is exactly the cycle of timing and commitment to which Clark has set her clock.

With the experience and maturation that comes with living through three Olympic games (and the 12 good old-fashioned years of life on the planet that comes with it), Clark has a boatload of experience to draw from. She says she's gained a real understanding of the process and the ability to see the big picture of the four-year cycle.

"I took a few steps back about two years ago and started preparing for this season and really working on all the things that I felt I needed to have figured out by the Olympics in 2010. Having done all the work in the days and months and years leading up to the experience really makes the season fun and enjoyable. It really simplifies things. That is kind of my goal this year -- I really wanted to enjoy the season and this Olympic qualification process, and X Games 14 and the Vancouver Games. I've done it other ways in the past and now, having the perspective and the foresight to have it dialed in by now -- as opposed to still striving to make it happen as it's upon me -- now it's just making it happen. Now everything is simply going according to plan."

Kelly Clark came to Winter X 2010 with an on-time arrival. She is riding with a focus and distinction that perhaps can only be derived from Olympic inspiration. Maybe it's not meant for everyday use. Maybe it comes from a reserve of emotion that can only be tapped into every 1,460 days. That would certainly explain why she came to Aspen -- and will arrive in Vancouver -- as a favorite to win gold.