PARK CITY — The first time Kelly Clark rode the halfpipe at Park City Mountain Resort, she couldn't imagine anything more important than winning.
Sunday morning Clark stood atop the podium for the 74th time in her professional snowboarding career, but 14 years after she first stood victorious in the Park City halfpipe she has very different ideas about what constitutes success.
Some of those ideas are shaped by what she has learned in a lifetime of competitive sports, but most of them come from an experience she had at age 20.
"I basically had a lot of success in my life," she said. "I kind of had the idea that when you're successful, it goes hand in hand with being fulfilled. By the time I was 18-years old, I'd won the X Games, I'd won the U.S. Open, I'd won the Olympics, and I didn't get that sense of significance and fulfillment that I was really striving for."
Clark had an experience in Utah that took her on a journey that changed her perspective and eventually her life. She was competing on the same halfpipe where she'd won Olympic gold just two year earlier.
"That morning I was actually writing in my journal about how insignificant I felt and how I was just starting the snowboard season going through the motions but I didn't enjoy it," she said. "I was fulfilled. I wasn't a happy person."
She was standing in the finish area after qualifying for finals when she noticed another competitor crying because she hadn't made the cut.
"(Her) friend tried to make a joke and said, 'Hey, it's alright. God still loves you'," Clark recalled. "There was something about that comment that stirred something in me where I thought, 'if God loves them, maybe God loves me.' "
She spent the next five months asking anyone and everyone about their experiences, opinions and beliefs. She read the book, "The Purpose Driven Life" and she prayed constantly asking God to reveal himself to her.
"The more I explored it, the more I understood," she said. "I thought being a Christian was about being good, that it was about following the rules, going to Church. I really found out it was about a relationship with Jesus, and not about being religious. That opened for me a door where I don't think we're meant to do life on our own."
She found a church in Mammoth Lakes, California, where she lived at the time, and she found acceptance and fulfillment that she'd never before experienced.
"I met people for the first time in my life who loved me for who I was and not what I did," she said. "I started to develop that for myself. I started to develop a sense of identity for who I was. I didn't know myself as anybody besides Kelly Clark pro snowboarder. It was a really big identity shift time for me."
That congregation and those initial experiences gave her a foundation upon which she has built both a purposeful life and the most dominating competitive career for a woman in her sport.
Clark has represented the U.S. in the Olympic Games four times, and she's earned medals (one gold, two bronze) in Salt Lake, Vancouver and Sochi. She won Sunday's event with a score of 94.50 performing tricks she hadn't used in competition yet.
In the men's competition U.S. snowboarder Taylor Gold earned the U.S. championship, but his score of 94.75 was only good enough for second place because China's Yiwei Zhang earned the second-highest score ever awarded in competition a 98. It is the first international competition that 23-year-old Zhang has ever won.
Helping to push the sport and raise the expectations is part of what fuels Clark's passion for competition.
"Snowboarding is an amazing sport because you're never going to be the best," she said. "It's always changing. The ride I did here in 2002 wouldn't have even made the finals. I've had to be challenged and I've learned new things. I love that."
While most of her peers have retired from competition, she continues to push the idea of what women are capable of in the halfpipe.
"I don't think I've hit my potential," she said smiling. "I feel like a lot of people this year, the post Olympic season, a lot of people have asked me if I was ready to hang it up, if I was done, and it caused me to ask myself that question. I really feel like I have something to contribute to the sport. I think it's easy as an athlete to look around and say, 'Oh, what do I still want to accomplish?' If I was into it to accomplish things, I probably would have stopped a long time ago."
Clark said this year has been an adjustment as she is seen as a mentor instead of a life-long friend.
"It does take some adjustment," she said, "but I love these girls I compete with."
Clark said she is not the typical competitive athlete in that she is reluctant to compare herself to anyone else.
"I'm my own worst critic, my own worst enemy," she said. "I don't want to be reactionary. I find that sometimes if you're competitive, you can be looking around at what other people do to determine what you want to do. I want to be really intentional with what I do, with the tricks I go after."
Clark said that in 2010 she did two things that have helped her achieve longevity, fulfillment and success. She began a fitness program that helped her enjoy the longest injury-free period in her career, and at the same time, she started the Kelly Clark Foundation, which offers financial support to non-profits that help children gain access to the sport she loves.
"Snowboarding is an expensive sport," she said. "I know my own history. My parents, they invested everything to see my dreams come true."
Sunday after winning both the World Cup event and the U.S. championship, she was able to give a check to a Utah organization that introduces teens to the sport.
Clark said there isn't a separation between who she is at home, at church or on the mountain. She talks about her faith openly with just about anyone because she said it is just who she is.
"People know what they're going to get when they talk to me or if they have any needs," she said. "I'm the person they go to to pray with. I'm very open and very transparent about it. Whether I'm in an interview, at church or with friends, the only thing that might change is the language I use to communicate the same truths."
While her faith has helped her understand that she is more than a talented snowboarder, it has also shown her how she can use her success to bless the lives of others. At the end of her career, she said, she wants to leave more than a long list of great competition results.
"I think it's important not to get your identity from what you do," Clark said. "Especially when you're in a performance culture. I don't want to go home feeling good about myself based off of how I performed that day. I want to know that I am significant outside of what I do."
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