VAIL, Colorado - With a World Cup win on the Olympic halfpipe in Sochi just two weeks ago and some down time after a jam-packed competition schedule for six straight weeks, Kelly Clark is heading into this week's Burton U.S. Open with confidence.
Clark picked up second place in halfpipe at the Burton European Open earlier this month in Switzerland, and won X Games gold in Aspen about a month ago, too.
It's no surprise that Clark is one of the women to beat this week in Vail because, well, when isn't she?
She's been dominating women's superpipe snowboarding for what seems like forever. She picked up an Olympic gold medal 11 years ago at the 2002 games, and won bronze at the 2010 games.
Clark, 29, arrived in Vail this week and practiced on its brand new, 22-foot-high, 600-foot-long superpipe built just for the Burton U.S. Open. She told the Vail Daily Tuesday it's one of the best pipes she's ridden all year, which says a lot considering she's already competed in Aspen, Copper Mountain, Park City, Switzerland and Sochi in 2013.
Her tricks in Sochi went like this: Frontside air, backside 540, frontside 1080, cab 720, frontside 540 and backside air. (Check out the Vail Daily on competition day to find out what these terms actually mean.)
The Sochi win - on an unknown slope in less-than-ideal conditions - is a testament to the kind of rider Clark is - focused, competitive and determined.
She's humble, too - surprisingly so for a women with 14 X Games and three Olympic games under her belt, and with more wins than any women in the history of her sport.
"Something I love about snowboarding is that you can never be the best, you can never arrive," Clark said. "It's always progressing and in order to stay on top you have to change and progress with the sport, and I've been able to do that."
Clark recognizes she's already had an abnormally long snowboarding career, but with her riding where it's at now, there's no telling when she'll retire.
"I think I'm constantly challenged and that's what keeps it exciting and fun for me after all this time," Clark said. "I probably love it more today than I did when I started."
Clark joked that if anyone in the sport should be burned out by now, it's her. But it's her ability to focus on the bigger picture that has kept her competing at such a high level.
"I've really just grown up through the sport of snowboarding and I've matured into the person I am as a result of my experiences. I think I've learned what I value, and the biggest thing I've learned is not to get my self-worth from what I do," Clark said. "I don't look for my significance in snowboarding - it's simply a sport that I love that I get to do - it's not something that defines me."
When Clark came to Vail last July for the announcement about the U.S. Open's new home, she told the Vail Daily the U.S. Open is second only to the X Games in terms of the most renowned annual freestyle competitions. She knew last summer that the change of venue would give the event a different identity, and immediately had positive thoughts about the change - even coming from a Vermont native who was sad to see the U.S. Open leave her home state.
This week, she reflected on what the event has meant to her over the years.
"The U.S. Open is the longest running event out there, and it has shaped competitive snowboarding as we know it. I was inspired growing up attending the Open as a spectator and have enjoyed being a competitor in the event for some time now," Clark said. "It will be fun to see the Open take on a new identity here in Vail. I think it will continue to be one of the pinnacle events and shape our sport in the years to come."
And just because Clark is the winningest woman in halfpipe history - with accolades like a 2002 Olympic gold medal, 2010 Olympic bronze medal, and notable moments such as landing the first-ever 1080 in women's competition at Winter X Games 15 - it doesn't mean she doesn't continue to dream and push herself.
Clark's biggest trick right now is her "front 10," which is a frontside 1080, meaning she does six 180-degree rotations. She said there's no doubt she'll be throwing it at this week's finals.
Because the U.S. Open is pretty late in the season for these athletes, Clark said it's nice because they've already put a lot of big events behind them and also gotten their riding where it needs to be.
Clark said women's snowboarding is "at an all-time high" right now. She's looking forward to putting a long pipe run together - perhaps a version of the run she did at the X Games this year, she said.
"It has been fun to be a part of the progression," Clark said.
Clark knows other riders will be going big this week, too. She said Elena Hight and Arielle Gold will be other ladies to watch this week.
Assistant Managing Editor Lauren Glendenning can be reached at 970-748-2983 or firstname.lastname@example.org.