Kelly Clark's season for the ages

The calendar says it's already April. Track and field's outdoor season will soon be here, and swimming's, too, and with world championships coming up in both sports -- this the year before the London Olympics -- it promises to be a summer to remember. But before the likes of Usain Bolt and Michael Phelps dominate the headlines, before the skis and snowboards get put away, it is appropriate indeed to single out the one and only Kelly Clark.

She had a winter for the ages.

It is an amazing thing, really. Snowboarding is hip. Perhaps the teenager in the house could thus readily dish about Kelly Clark, who won nine of 11 halfpipe competitions. If you include the Burton New Zealand Open last Aug. 14, make it 10 of 12.

On top of which -- she became the first woman to land a 1080 (three full revolutions) in competition, at the X Games in Aspen in late January.

The crowds at the X Games were, as is typical at a snowboarding jam, feverish. Yet for all the fun and for all its sizzle, snowboarding -- like all winter sports -- typically remains consigned to the back pages of most newspaper sports sections. It's even buried in web-only full-featured sports sites.

Attention, newspaper editors and internet sports savants. Wake up!

You want a winner?

You want a role model?

You want someone who not only brings it but is thoughtful and articulate and can describe not only why she wins but how she goes about planning her victories and then executing them?

America, once again -- we present Kelly Clark, your 2002 Salt Lake Games halfpipe gold medalist and 2010 Vancouver Games bronze medalist. And, as well, the fourth-place finisher in Torino in 2006 -- fourth because she went for it all in a bid to get back to the podium but crashed, a thing that those who know and appreciate snowboarding appreciated profoundly.

Kelly Clark is now 27. "I know who I am," she said. "My identity isn't wrapped up in my snowboarding. My identity isn't wrapped up in my results. So I am able to enjoy them."

She said, "After these last Olympics," in Vancouver, "some of my competitors came up to me and said, 'I am so glad it's over. I don't have to compete anymore.' I had to go to my coaches and say, 'I want to go compete,' " to finish out the season.

"I was like, 'Is that OK?'

"'They're like, 'OK!'

"I have fun."

That, truly, is the amazing and genuine thing about Kelly Clark, the difference-maker.

She has been competing for roughly 12 years. There is an undeniable glamor to the circuit. But there is a grind to it, too.

For her -- it's still fun.

That mental edge is huge. What pushed her this winter back to the top was the other part of the equation -- the physical part of being a top athlete.

Last summer, she committed herself to being in better shape than she had ever been before. She ran miles. She ran intervals. She did core work, agility work, cardio, weightlifting and more.

The goal, she said, came in two parts:

-- In prior years she might max herself out at 100 percent at a particular competition. She might win but feel exhausted. This season the idea was to raise her baseline fitness level to a solid 80 or 90 percent. That way she could run solid and tough from December through March without feeling worn out.

-- She also wanted each and every weekend, moreover, to be in such good shape that her last run of the day in the halfpipe not only could but would be her best run of the day.

That 1080 in Aspen, for instance? That  came on what snowboarders call the "victory lap," a final run. She had already won the competition.

"From the beginning of the season, I decided to be intentional," she said, meaning to approach each competition with deliberate intent -- a plan and purpose.

"That was one of my core values. Whether it was an Olympic year or not, whether it was a big contest or not, I had goals and tricks and things I wanted to accomplish.

"That's why you saw at events if I had first place -- then on the victory lap you saw tricks. I had things I wanted to accomplish. I did things because I wanted to. It simplifies things a lot."

Kelly turns 28 this summer. You bet she's planning to be at the Winter Games in Sochi.

In February of 2014 she would be 30. Laughing, she said of the entertainment value of being a 30-year-old halfpipe icon, "I am aware."

Someone, however, has to be the first. And in her career, that has typically been Kelly Clark.

First and, often, best.

This 2011 season -- for sure the best.

"I want to inspire people and show them what's possible on a snowboard. I want to bridge that gap between the possible and the impossible. I want," she said, "to lead the way."