DENVER (AP) — What was perhaps Kelly Clark’s most memorable trip down a halfpipe had nothing to do with winning.
It was the Winter X Games in 2011. Clark had already secured the title. With one lap left — a victory lap, as they call it in snowboarding — she decided to try something no woman had ever done. She became the first to land a 1080 — that’s twisting three revolutions above the halfpipe — in competition.
The move summed up the essence of what the greats do for snowboarding. As much as winning, they are about pushing the sport to new levels. And often their biggest competition is the person looking back at them in the mirror.
At peace with her role in cementing that mindset into snowboarding, the five-time Olympian , who dominated her sport while ushering in the Olympic era, has decided to retire .
“At some times in my career, days that might not have included my best snowboarding led to some of my greatest victories,” the 35-year-old Clark told The Associated Press. “This sport has always been about more than just winning and losing.”
But there’s been plenty of winning along the way: A gold medal in her Olympic debut. Two bronze. Five X Games titles. Nine more at the U.S. Open. A total of 78 victories and 137 trips onto the podium spanning a career that began 20 years ago, back when the halfpipes were handmade and only about half the size of the 22-foot behemoths that challenge the riders in today’s pro game.
In 2001, Clark was a fresh-faced teenager from Vermont whose parents had indulged her dream — maybe a fantasy — to shred down halfpipes with the hopes of making it big someday. She had no real expectations, and the thought of making the Olympics the next year seemed far-flung.
Over the span of a few weeks, that all changed. Clark figured out the McTwist — an avant-garde trick of that era that involves 1 ½ spins while holding the edge of the board with one hand — and started winning Olympic qualifiers. In February 2002, she became the first American to win an Olympic snowboarding gold medal.
“The ultimate peak at the ultimate time,” she called it.
But it didn’t necessarily lead to happiness. In the aftermath, Clark became consumed in a world of too much pressure, too many commitments, not enough fun. In an interview last winter, her coach, Rick Bower, recalled that he “kept wondering, does she want to keep doing this?”
“You’re young, you win gold, you think life is going to be easy and you’re all set, and it wasn’t,” said Burton CEO Donna Carpenter, the wife of the company’s founder, Jake Burton. “That’s when she realized it wasn’t about winning but more about finding her own measure of success and progressing the sport.”
Clark’s bronze medals in 2010 in Vancouver, then again four years later in Sochi, both came after hard falls that made her question whether she could do it. Last year, she finished fourth in Pyeongchang, but even making it to South Korea was a minor miracle given the brutal crash she endured weeks earlier at the X Games in Aspen.
Reflecting last year on some of those mishaps, she said “sometimes you value things based on what they cost you.”
Though she’s saying goodbye to competition, Clark will remain involved in the sport, mainly through Burton, the snowboard maker that has backed her career through thick and thin. She’s designed an environmentally friendly snowboard for women called The Rise that will go into limited production.
She plans on doing more backcountry filming and will keep working hard to spread the word about a sport that she helped bring out of the backcountry and into the spotlight.
On Saturday, she’ll return to Aspen to be honored during the women’s halfpipe final. The favorite in that will be 18-year-old Olympic champion Chloe Kim, who recalls being awe-struck and almost speechless a decade ago when she first met Clark in the lift line at Mammoth Mountain.
Kim has taken Clark’s lead in moving her sport to places people wouldn’t have imagined only a few years ago.
“Anyone in a leadership role wants to know they can step away and the culture can be real exciting and healthy without them,” Clark said. “A few years ago, perhaps there would’ve been a hole. But there are no holes now. It’s thriving, it’s progressing. It’s everything I dreamed it would be.”
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