As she tore down Aspen Mountain on Friday, the hospital bed that was her home in August was well out of Kirsten Clark's mind. She was skiing, so the staph infection that ravaged her left knee wasn't in her thoughts, because that is where she is most comfortable, in body and mind. When she makes her way around this ritzy resort town, she must hobble as if she is the old woman of the U.S. Ski team, which, in fact, she is. On the mountain, her knee is better, because she can flex, and she can fly.
"I'm just so excited with the way I skied," Clark said, "given everything I've been through."
Clark continued a surprisingly strong start to her World Cup season by finishing fifth in the Super-G that opened the three days of the Aspen Winternational meet. Given the knee surgery she had in August, given the resulting staph infection, given the fact that she thought, for a moment, that her season, if not her career, might be lost, the post-race kiss she blew to the pro-American crowd was heartfelt, indeed.
"This is so huge for her confidence," said her husband, former World Cup racer Andreas Rickenbach. "It was difficult when it first happened. It really didn't sink in until you saw her in the hospital bed, hooked up to all those machines."
Clark's performance followed her seventh-place finish in a Super-G last weekend in Lake Louise, Alberta, and it helped the native of Raymond, Maine, offset a less-than-spectacular day for a few Americans. Lindsey Kildow, perhaps the U.S.'s best hope for a medal in the upcoming Winter Olympics in Turin, Italy, was solidly in seventh. But Julia Mancuso, who took bronze in Super-G in last year's World Championships in Bormio, Italy, finished 31st. Caroline Lalive caught her left ski on a gate and tumbled over backward before sliding down the steep, shadow-spackled slope, suffering a left knee injury that put the rest of her weekend in jeopardy.
The day, thus, belonged to Switzerland's Nadia Styger, who posted the first Swiss World Cup win in two years, a result she hoped would reinsert her country into the mix with the powerful Austrians as the Olympics approach. She finished the steep and technical course of just more than a mile in length in 1 minute 13.77 seconds, one-tenth of a second faster than runner-up Michaela Dorfmeister of Austria, the 21-time World Cup champion who is calling this season her last. Another Austrian, 20-year-old Andrea Fischbacher, was third.
"This course is something for me," Styger said. "I like it when it's a little bit difficult."
If Clark feels the same way, then her difficult road to this World Cup season must have been a joy ride. At 28, with 12 years on the U.S. team, she is decidedly the sage of the group, the married woman with the dogs and the cat who appeared in her first Olympics before some of her teammates were teenagers. Yet Clark, too, has expectations, and they might be more acute because Turin could well be her last Olympics.
Which, of course, make the events of this summer all the scarier. Clark's tumble started when she barreled down a mountain in Haus, Austria, in a terrifying crash that ended her 2004 season and left her with several injuries, foremost among them a torn anterior cruciate ligament in her left knee. In a way, that accident led to the staph infection, because after a tremendous training stint this summer in South America, Clark still found the knee bothering her a bit. Team doctors decided to perform arthroscopic surgery to clean out the injury. Nine days after the surgery, Clark was back at the hospital.
"You didn't even know what was happening," Rickenbach said. "We got to the hospital [in South Lake Tahoe, Calif.], and they diagnosed the staph infection, and 40 minutes later, she was in surgery."
Though the surgery went well, there are thoughts in such a situation that are inescapable. This was to be the year she was fully recovered from the crash in Austria. This was the year she was supposed to go into the Olympics full-bore, poised to challenge the up-and-comers on the U.S. team for a medal.
"You think a lot of things when you're in a hospital bed for a week," she said. "I didn't know if my season might be over. There were a lot of what-ifs."
Recovery from the infection, which is bacterial, is ongoing. "My goal is to be 100 percent by January," she said. If she is not yet 100 percent, then she could be, indeed, a medal threat in either the Super-G or the downhill in Turin. Only five times in her long career has Clark finished higher in a World Cup Super-G than she did Friday.
With her run over, Clark smiled in the sun at the bottom of Ruthie's Run, which sits high above the village. She accepted a congratulatory hug from Kildow. Her knee bothers her when she walks, because it has to be extended more than when it's in a ski book, so it might take her a bit longer to get to dinner or to her room. But the crutches have long since been discarded, and in two weeks, with two top 10s, her confidence is nearly all the way back, even if her knee isn't.
"I'm so excited," she said. "I didn't think I'd be where I am, for sure."