Kelly Clark was all smiles as she rocked out to her Christian worship music atop her third and final run at the 2011 Winter X Games.
Over in their booth, the announcers joked, "She might be appealing to the man upstairs for a 1080."
For good reason, too: The 1080, three full rotations in the air, was a stunt no woman in halfpipe history had pulled off in a competition. It's the kind of trick you'd pull out of your bag at the last minute in a desperate gamble to win a competition.
Clark didn't need this trick to win. She already had clinched the competition in her first two runs, making this her victory lap. The 1080 attempt was simply Clark wanting to see whether she could be the first woman to nail it in a competition.
She dropped in with a big smile, knowing the stakes were record-breaking high. In just her third hit, she "stomped" it -- insider lingo for perfection. At the end of the run, her teammates swarmed her. This 28-year-old, the winningest woman in halfpipe history, had catapulted her sport into the next frontier.
"It was a special moment for me," said Clark, who resides in snowy Mammoth, Calif., when she's not on the road. "At an event, it is really easy to go down and celebrate yourself, like, 'Yeah, I did it!' But to have the support of my teammates, friends, competitors made it such a powerful moment. It was a huge step forward for me to land that trick, but I also knew what it meant for women's snowboarding. To be able to celebrate it with my teammates and competitors -- I couldn't have dreamed of a better way for it to happen."
Clark, a two-time Olympic medalist in snowboarding, has been an innovator in her sport from the beginning. She's known for her astonishing amplitude in the pipe -- flying higher than any other competitor. Watching her incites a wow factor from fans. She's a technician, a master. She works hard for it, too. Clark outlines a clear plan for each season -- continuing to raise the bar for her friends and competitors.
"I'm definitely a goal-oriented person," she said. "I start small with trick goals, and those turn into contest goals, and ultimately I think in four-year increments in terms of Olympic goals as well."
Born to board
Growing up in Vermont, Clark couldn't help but be surrounded by snow sports from an early age. When she was 8 years old, her parents bought her a snowboard, and she was quickly hooked. She soon enrolled in Mount Snow Academy, a sports school for competitive winter athletes in grades 6 through 12.
There, under the guidance of instructors, Clark fine-tuned her skills -- learning to find the board's edge better for more speed -- and began experimenting with new tricks. At age 18, she became the first American to win halfpipe Olympic gold in front of an American crowd at the 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake City, a daring performance that earned her the respect of fellow snowboarders.
She's been pushing the technical limits of her sport ever since.
I'm a goal-oriented person. I start small with trick goals, then contest goals and ultimately Olympic goals as well.” -- Kelly Clark
For Clark, the risk of trying a new trick is what it's all about. Although the points system of snowboarding means that many times she could win an event with a far more conservative approach, Clark frankly doesn't care. "I want to challenge myself," she said. "I try new tricks just because I love it."
In a sport known for its loud lifestyle as much as its appreciation of guts and not a small amount of grandstanding, Clark's personality can seem at odds with her chosen path. On the mountain, her competitive spirit is fierce. But when she's not boarding, her main focus is her faith.
"The biggest thing that helps me be effective in what I do as an athlete and a person, for that matter, is that I'm very comfortable in my own skin," Clark said. "I know who I am apart from what I do and the importance of God." She has seen plenty of young boarders become so caught up in winning contests that they quickly burn out and disappear from the sport. Not Clark. "I'm successful at what I do because I'm not using snowboarding as a way to get a sense of self-worth," she said.
That self-confidence began in 2004, when Clark, who'd won the X Games, the U.S. Open and the Olympics, was starting to wonder whether there was more to life than just another season of snowboarding trophies. "I was at an event, watching a competitor come down the pipe. She fell at the bottom and began to cry," Clark said. "Her friend came up to her, trying to make her laugh, and said, 'Hey, it's all right, God still loves you.' And that really stirred something in me."
Clark wasn't raised in the church, and said she didn't know much about the religion at the time. But she was looking for something to ground her, and the more she learned the more she knew this was where she'd find that inner peace. "As I pursued God, the conclusion that I came to was that He was real and that He loved me," Clark said.
One of the big takeaways for Clark in her exploration of Christianity has been her desire to give back to others. Last year, she created the Kelly Clark Foundation to provide today's youth with the resources and opportunities to attend mountain schools and pursue their dreams in snowboarding.
In its first year, the grassroots foundation raised $11,500 for seven young snowboarders to attend five different mountain schools. The board of directors includes some of her snowboarding friends and her mom. In addition, Clark has a personal assistant who handles the admin for the foundation. The foundation is small and requires a lot of hands-on work, and Clark is busy traveling the world for events, but it's part of her heart and its success is a priority for her in her life.
"The longer my career and the better I do in snowboarding, the more I realize it's not about me," she said. "I've realized the importance of making the things I've learned and achieved transferable to the next generation. So I'm not just leaving a memory, I'm going to leave a legacy, and I see the foundation as just that."
Of course, it's a legacy in progress. On Dec. 7, Clark will kick off her season with the U.S. Grand Prix at Copper Mountain, Colo. She's also got an eye on the top podium spot at the new world snowboarding championships in Oslo, Norway, in February.
Topping her wins from last season will be a tall order. "I'm definitely coming off the most successful season I've ever had," Clark acknowledged. "I accomplished my goals. But there were a lot more victories than just the ones on paper."
Managing stress, emotional ups and downs and the long season can make or break an athlete's performance, and Clark said the pieces all came together for her last year. "This year, I'm going to take what worked from last season and build on it," she said.
That should have her competition worried.
For more information about the Kelly Clark Foundation, visit www.kellyclarkfoundation.org.