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Wednesday, June 20, 2012
Taking flight

By Colin Bane
ESPN.com

Kelly Clark gets some flight tips from Lt. Jason "Fisheye" Papadopoulos on Tuesday.

Snowboarder Kelly Clark has double corks, 1260s, and new switch tricks on her mind as she looks to next winter and the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, Russia, but her training so far this summer has been a bit unorthodox, to say the least: On Tuesday, Clark and U.S. Ski Team racer Stacey Cook flew over California's Mammoth Mountain, flying in F-18 Hornet fighter jets with U.S. Navy pilots, after receiving a condensed version of Aviation Physiology and Survival Training. We caught up with Clark, a two-time Olympic Halfpipe gold medalist and four-time X Games SuperPipe gold medalist, on Tuesday after her flight to find out how breaking the sound barrier and stomaching 6Gs compares to landing 1080s.

Fill us in on what you've been just been up to?
I'm just driving out to Carson from Naval Air Station Fallon, where I just climbed out of an F-18 a few hours ago. I'm kind of on cloud 9 right now. The opportunity came up through Stacey Cook, who is a member of the U.S. Ski Team: She had a connection through Mammoth Mountain to someone who worked up on the Navy Base about a possible opportunity for us to come out and go up in some jets. I'm always up for an adventure, so the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association pursued it and set it up for us, and we got to have this experience of a lifetime. It was one of the most incredible things I've ever done.

Were there a lot of "Top Gun" jokes all around?
On the base we learned that they actually have a $10 fine for anybody who makes "Top Gun" references. I guess they're over it.

What kind of training did you have to do to prepare for the flight?
If you're doing more than one flight you typically have to go through a more intense training, but since it was just the one flight, we ended up just doing one full day of training that consisted of going through all the scenarios of what could go wrong and what to do in the event of an emergency. It was very detailed, and then we got all kitted out for our flights. We also did a meet-and-greet on the base and got to meet many of the men and women who are serving our country, which was inspiring in itself.

Kelly Clark getting outfitted before her flight.

What was the actual flight like?
We each went up in the F-18 Hornet, which is exclusive to the Navy and has capabilities for landing on aircraft carriers out at sea. Stacey and I flew separately and we each went up with F-16s as our wingmen. We got to do an assortment of aerial maneuvers, a simulated bombing run, a tailchase with the wingmen, and some low-level flying at 500 feet, navigating through a valley. The actual flight time was about an hour and a half. You're in an 8-point harness with G-pants on that are inflating and deflating like a blood pressure cuff as you start to get into increasing G-turns. Anything over 4Gs and it starts to max out, depending on a person's tolerance, and you have to use your breathing techniques to keep yourself from throwing up or passing out. Stacey and I both managed to hold it together. We each hit about 6Gs.

How does that compare to landing 1080s and trying double corks?
Much, much different. We broke the sound barrier -- that was pretty cool. There was upside down flying and loops, full back loops where you're looking up and seeing nothing but sky. The other thing that was cool was getting to meet this small, highly specialized group of people with a high level of expertise and realize that you have some things in common. Being an athlete, there was this moment of "I get you" and a level of respect from both sides because of it: You train for that one big moment, to be able to perform when it matters.

Besides this, how has your summer been so far?
I had a good spring with a little bit of travel and a little bit of home time, and I ended up buying a new home in Mammoth, so I've spent the last few weeks at home moving in and trying to get my grass to grow. I'm going to Mt. Hood for two weeks in July, and then I'll go down to New Zealand for the High Fives event -- the new event Burton's putting on -- and I'll do some photo shoots and the World Cup event down there. This summer and the upcoming season are sort of a building time for me: As we get closer to the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, I want to have my tricks more dialed.

Anything else new with you?
I'm just getting ready for my third annual Kelly Clark Foundation Golf Tournament, coming up on July 8 at the Haystack Golf Club in Wilmington, Vt. And I just launched my new website, KellyClarkFoundation.org. We're a non-profit that gives scholarships to make snowboarding more accessible and gives kids tuition to go to mountain schools. Last year we were able to give out 14 scholarships to kids across the United States. I want to be able to look back one day and see that snowboarding is better because of my part in it.