BONGPYEONG, South Korea — Kelly Clark, the greatest female snowboarder in history and the single figure most responsible for the incandescence on display at the PyeongChang Halfpipe, could see the end of her Olympic career. She had come here for her fifth Olympics, a podium threat at age 34, still a luminary in a sport overrun with teenagers. Monday afternoon, Clark had to wonder if her start to the PyeongChang Olympics was also the end.
After her second and final run in the qualifying round, which followed a spill and an uncompetitive score in her first, Clark looked up at the scoreboard: 63.5, good for ninth place. The top 12 would make it to Tuesday’s finals, and 16 more riders still had a chance to pass her. Her Olympics, suddenly, had been reduced to watching competitors who had grown up idolizing her. Watching and hoping
“I’m extremely nervous,” Clark said, standing at the bottom of the hill. “I think there’s a lot of really incredible, talented snowboarders out there. You want to be the one deciding that. You don’t want to leave it to other people.”
About an hour later, Clark would be hugging supporters and chatting with coaches, a legend grateful for another chance and another day. Clark’s nail-biting afternoon ended with relief, an 11th-place finish and an American sweep into the finals. Led by the showstopping runs of 17-year-old sensation Chloe Kim, all four U.S. riders made the finals, 17-year-old Maddie Mastro (fourth place) and Arielle Gold (12th) joining the two biggest stars of the sport.
Kim is a fluorescent star of the PyeongChang Games, a sensational 17-year-old of Korean heritage with a bubbly persona and a Wheaties box-ready face NBC will push in coming days. Her performance suggested the hype, if anything, may be insufficient. She produced the two best runs, with scores of 91.5 and 95-5. The difference between her qualifying score and second place was 7.25. Meeting with reporters, she playfully requested quick questions, so she could more quickly get to her vanilla almond swirl ice cream.
“I was really nervous,” Kim said. “Tomorrow, I can really focus on what I want to do.”
Underneath Kim’s dazzle, though, was Clark’s drama. First, Clark’s place in the sport must be understood. Clark made her Olympic debut at the 2002 Salt Lake City Games — when Kim was 22 months — and won her first and only gold medal. Clark has competed in every Olympics since, adding bronze medals in 2010 and 2014. She blazed paths for riders such as Kim and Mastro and Gold, setting a standard and pushing the sport to new heights.
“She’s meant everything to this sport,” Gold said. “She’s inspired everybody.”
“I don’t think many people get to stay around long enough to see what their legacy could look like,” Clark said. “And I’m extremely proud of these girls. I take a lot of pride in seeing them do well. It’s been great to be part of it so long.”
Clark remains at the top of the sport. Entering the Olympics, she had landed on two podiums, and entering PyeongChang she believed she was riding better than she had all year. By her nature, she tempered the optimism with her nerves. She has competed in more than 200 contests, but qualifiers still make her nervous, maybe now more than ever, her stature intensifying the stakes.
“It still takes everything I have,” Clark said. “It requires all of me to be my best. I think more so than anything today, I’m disappointed I wasn’t able to be my best. Snowboarding is the most important thing for me. You want to walk away having put down your best runs when it counts.”
“Qualifying is a lot more intimidating than finals,” Coach Ricky Bower said. “Two runs. If you don’t make it, it’s devastating. She was pretty nervous today. It’s a tough one to navigate.”
Clark could not produce a run up to her standard. She fell on her backside trying to land her final trick in her first run. In the second, she took a safer track, passing up a final hit at the bottom of the pipe. Judges responded with an unenthusiastic 63.5.
“It was all me,” Clark said. “Just made mistakes. I would love to get another shot at it tomorrow, because I’m riding at an extremely high level. It just wasn’t my day. It turns out, I’m human.”
Immediately following Clark’s run, France’s Mirabelle Thovex landed a run and saw a 64.25 flash — Clark had dropped to 10th, with 15 runs left. Japan’s Sena Tomita earned a 66.75 — 11th, with eight riders left.
Clark, math aside, could start to feel comfortable. The remaining riders were all ranked in the high-teens and low-20s, and it would have taken a massive upset for any of them to earn better than 63.5. After the final rider crashed midway through her run, Clark could exhale.
Bower expected Clark could shake her shaky qualification and contend Tuesday for a medal. Nobody would dare doubt Clark.
“Tomorrow’s a new day,” Clark said. “Today was a fluke, and tomorrow’s a new day. Thank goodness, boys.”
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