Snowboarding: Thirty questions with halfpipe legend Kelly Clark

Story highlights

  • Kelly Clark is most dominant snowboarder in halfpipe history
  • Clark targeting fifth Olympics in 2018, when she turns 34
  • "I believe I haven't hit my full potential," she says.
  • Current world No. 1 Chloe Kim is 15

(CNN)Kelly Clark is to women's halfpipe snowboarding what Serena Williams is to tennis. Put plainly, she's the most dominant athlete in the history of the sport.

Clark was already competing at age 10, and won an Olympic gold as a 19-year-old at the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. Since then, she's medalled in two more Olympics and 10 Winter X Games (hauling in five golds), alongside countless other competitions.
    Still going strong at 32, Clark is currently ranked world No. 2 in a sport dominated by teenagers.
    While rushing between events, the snowboarding standout spoke to CNN on her mental preparation, what it feels like "going big" on a pipe, and what's grooving on her headphones during medal runs.
    Hi Kelly, where are you at the moment?
    I'm in Sacramento, California. I came from Norway last night (where she earned a silver at the X Games Oslo) and I go to Vail, Colorado today (to attend the Burton U.S. Open, where she placed third). And right after that we go to China for World Championships.
    I'm home for about 18 hours this month...so these 18 hours are going kind of quick.
    Do you fly commercial?
    Yeah. Everybody ends up being on the same flights, because the tour kind of moves together. We're all heading out and arriving on the same day traveling, so it ends up being fun.
    You began competing right as the sport started taking off. What was it like evolving with a growing sport?
    Yes, I always say I started snowboarding before it was cool. There was no such thing as the X Games.
    I never had aspirations of being highly competitive, but I had a moment when I was 14 -- that was the first year when the Olympics had snowboarding as a sport -- and I had recorded the events from Nagano [Japan] on a VHS tape and watched it after school.
    I had one of those moments where I said "Yeah, this is what I want to do with my life."
    What was your high school situation like?
    All I knew is that I wanted to snowboard more. We had a local school in Vermont called Mount Snow Academy focused around competitive snowboarding. You'd go to school half-day and snowboard half-day, and I'd stick to my normal curriculum from high school.
    In 2011 you landed the first ever 1080 in women's competition. Were you always trying to land tricks that no other female competitor had done?
    Chasing down the tricks that no one else has done has been a mark of my career, and "going big" and having amplitude and riding with speed is something that I've aspired to as well. And I think that I've been able to push the sport.
    It's not like we have a smaller ball or play on a smaller field. It's essentially the same. So the way I've approached women's snowboarding is that nothing is impossible.
    It's like breaking the four-minute mile barrier: once that happens then it becomes possible. That's what we've seen in our sport too.
    What does it feel like to be one of the pioneers in the sport?
    I don't think you ever set out to break records or establish the standard, it's a by-product of being passionate about what you do.
    To know that I inspire people to be great and push themselves to the limits of what they are capable of, that's a huge success for me.
    When you're up there about to go for a big run that is dangerous -- there is really no other way to put it -- what is going through your mind?
    I think people look at snowboarding and say that it's a very risky sport, but I think the reality is that it's calculated risk-taking. What would be scary or very risky for other people, isn't necessarily in our shoes.
    As far as halfpipe goes, you know if it's going to work or not going to work in the beginning of the trick you're trying. You don't necessarily know how high you are, or how many spins you're doing either -- it's not something you have a lot of time [to reflect on] up there.
    When you're doing it right, there is an effortlessness to it, which is something people wouldn't assume.
    Is your heart racing before going down the pipe?
    I think every time [after] a run, you ask yourself if you were holding your breath the whole time, because you are pretty exhausted.
    There are not a lot of sports that mirror what our heart rates do. They start at resting right before we drop in, and then they go up to max for 30 seconds, and then within two minutes they are back to resting.
    The only thing that is actually near to it is flight-or-fight response. So in my off-season, we're doing a lot of high-intensity interval training to mirror that kind of repetition.
    What's it like training off the slopes?
    I'm finding as the sport progresses and as the tricks get harder and I demand more for myself, I need to put more in on the fitness side of things -- which is something that hasn't necessarily been embraced by the culture. Unlike other sports, you can't do something to get [technically] better beyond snow. You can get fit, and then go to on-field training.
    What does it feel like spinning around in the air? Is there a feeling of weightlessness?
    There is an element of weightlessness and there is an ease to it. If you can picture the halfpipe wall, we go up and we come back down. Ideally you want to land close to the same spot -- down the hill of course -- but close to the same spot where we take off from.
    If you're doing it right, there shouldn't be a lot of impact. The hard part comes in resisting the g-forces on the landing. So you're basically trying to be rigid and strong, and let the halfpipe do the work for you.
    I would say it is probably the closest thing to flying you can do.
    There must be an element of euphoria in it too?
    Yeah, that's why we all do it. There is nothing quite like it.
    I've gotten a lot of questions in my career: 'Why don't you ride pow [powder snow] and take it easy?' But I love the halfpipe. There is something about it which is so unique.
    When you're trying to put a whole run together, every trick is codependent on everything else. So it's a really challenging puzzle.
    And I kind of liken it to golf. You can have one [great] shot, but you can never really be perfect.
    Yes, with golf you can have a miserable day on the course, but hitting that one sweet stroke is an addictive feeling. Would you make that comparison?
    I think it's really similar. I love golf. I love snowboarding.
    And some days I feel like, well I should probably go home. Maybe I should come back tomorrow.
    You're never the best and you will never master it. There is something to that feeling. You are chasing perfection, and are chasing that elusiveness: that perfect halfpipe run, that perfect air.
    Getting it to work right is such a cool thing in the midst of really difficult circumstances; a lot of pressure, and a lot of the things that you can't factor and you can't anticipate.
    Do you have an internal dialogue before a run?
    Yes, I work with a sports psychologist. I've had a wide range of different things that go on.
    But at the end of the day [not everyone can] go out there and do frontside 1080s on the halfpipe. It can't be all mental.

    Beyond happy to podium with these two @xgames. @chloekimsnow @arielletgold #xgamesoslo

    A photo posted by kelly clark (@thekellyclark) on

    It's about 95% physical and 5% mental -- but that 5% can erase your 95% if you let it. So it's about managing yourself well and doing your preparation.
    Historically you've managed to avoid major injuries, correct?
    I've had minor bumps and bruises, but nothing major. I've had a wrist scope and a knee scope over 17 years.
    Current world No. 1 Chloe Kim is only 15, and you were 19 when you won an Olympic gold medal. Is being young in the sport an advantage, in a sense that you're a little more daring -- and borderline reckless -- compared to being in the sport for 17 years?
    I think there are advantages and disadvantages. I think it's easy being a rookie because you don't have to deal with expectations. That becomes part of the process which is really difficult to manage as you go on as an athlete, in terms of living up to the hype that others put on you.
    I would choose experience and longevity over being a rookie. What I've learned through my competitive process is far more beneficial than just being a rookie and showing up.
    I can do what I do really well, still, but it takes more work now than it ever did. I take longer to recover. The last few times, if you added up the people's ages on the podium next to me, I was older than both of them put together.
    I wasn't going to go there!
    Yeah, I'm kind of an anomaly in the sport. It's more work than it used to be, but it's still worth it.
    Are there risks you wouldn't dare take now that you would 15 years ago, or is it the opposite? Are you still trying to push yourself further?
    It's actually the opposite. For me, if it was about winning things or medals or accomplishments, I probably should have stopped a long time ago.
    I'm here because I still haven't hit my [full] potential. That's honestly what I believe, and I have something left to contribute.
    So you're still hungry?
    Very much so. There's tricks that I want to learn, [like] a cab 1080 [a switch frontside 1080 double cork]. I want to consider working on a double. I'm keeping myself fit enough to do that, and I'm taking the steps I need to get there.
    I think I'm actually more equipped to learn more now, because I have a better foundation.
    Are the tricks going too far? Is there a point where it is just too reckless?
    I wouldn't say the tricks are going too far, but they surge in progression. They get very technical and then they get refined. So I think the tricks need to be refined now, and then there will be another stage of progression.

    Airtime. #RidingIsTheReason 📷: @deanblottogray

    A photo posted by kelly clark (@thekellyclark) on

    Have you seen The Crash Reel (the 2013 documentary chronicling the brain damage suffered by snowboarder Kevin Pearce following a traumatic fall)?
    I have not. I was there that day, and Kevin is a good friend, so it was a bit too close to home for me to watch.
    I understand, and he does seem like an awesome guy.
    Yeah, he really is.
    In terms of health insurance, is everyone on their own? Is it tricky to get good coverage?
    I'm with the U.S. Olympic Committee, actually. They offer a health insurance program for us to sign up for.
    Are you trying to go to South Korea (for the 2018 Winter Olympics)?
    I am. I believe I have another one in me. That's my goal. It would be my fifth Olympics, which would be quite an accomplishment.
    What will life after snowboarding be like?
    I do a lot of public speaking right now. I started a non-profit foundation that helps young snowboarders pursue their dreams when they cannot financially afford it. I started [it] so that I can continue to have influence beyond my ability to perform in the sport I love.
    One of the things I love about snowboarding is the culture. There seems to be a lot of camaraderie, with athletes jamming out after competition. Are you musical too?
    I play guitar. It keeps me sane to have some sort of creative outlet when I travel. I have a mini-Martin now, which sounds pretty good and it's little.
    Do you sing too?
    Just for me. Not for performing or anything.
    What do you listen to when you're going down the slopes?
    A lot of Christian recording artists. That's the kind of music I like to listen to.
    It's nice to be able to get yourself into an environment that you control with the music. It's not like you have to listen to the announcer, or hear what people are saying. It's one element that you can keep consistent, so I love that.
    For me having "safe space" type music is good, because I want to keep my mind and my heart in the right place. I've done all the prep and I want to get myself into a zone, and that's the best way to do it.
    What song was playing when you went for your silver medal run in the X Games last week?
    Do you play any Kelly Clarkson?
    (Laughs). No I don't. Maybe when working out to pop jams, but not when I'm snowboarding.
    You knew that was coming though?
    Yeah always. There was a lot of American Idol when I was preparing for the Olympics, so it's been a long-running joke.
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