Ready for liftoff

Mark Leffingwell/USA TODAY Sports

Snowboarder Kelly Clark has earned her spot on the U.S. Olympic team. The teammates who will join her in Sochi, however, remain uncertain.

Last month, I won the U.S. Snowboarding Grand Prix, which gave me unbeatable points in the Olympic Qualifiers and a virtual lock on Team USA. My goal was to go home for Christmas having secured my spot on the team, and I pulled it off.

But it wasn’t easy. I woke up with the flu that morning and spent the day on the couch with my coaches bringing me soup and Gatorade.

I went up for practice, which did not go very well, and afterward my coaches sat me down. They said, “Hey, you don’t have to prove to people you can do 1080s or do some crazy run. You can do a stock run and get the points you need.” So that’s the route I took, doing a pretty basic run that I’d done in qualifiers. Luckily it was enough to put me in the lead.

I qualified first into the finals a few days earlier. This meant I got to drop last in the final, so by the time they got to me on my second run I knew I’d won the event. So I dropped in and did a run I could walk away and be proud. I did what I wanted: 1080s. It wasn’t anything I’d done in practice that night, but hey, when you just made your fourth Olympic team you can do anything you want. It was a fun victory lap!

The competition is still intense for the remaining three Olympic team spots. Arielle Gold is in a close second in the scores. Not a lock yet, but she’s sitting about as pretty as she could be. After that, Gretchen Bleiler and Kaitlyn Farrington are tied. But Gretchen didn’t make this weekend’s final while Elena Hight, who’s received two fifths so far, will be in the final. So if she has a good day it could be anyone’s game.

It’s really unique because we are all friends, and there can be a tension between friendship and competition. I think snowboarding as a sport handles it really well historically. You have to maintain respect for people’s space on contest days, and respect each other’s process. Sometimes you just try to read body language. If it’s intense and you see someone needs space, you back off. If they need encouragement, you give it to them.

But I’ve noticed these Olympics more than in years past that it seems like people are more on their own program -- there is more of an individual vibe. People are hanging out with people who are not competing against them, team managers and family. It can be like working with family.

I think Gretchen says it best: They say you shouldn’t work with family, but this is what we do. It’s a unique thing that most people wouldn’t choose, and it’s easy to isolate yourself. But I have a real value for maintaining those friendships, I am thankful for them and this Olympic experience would not be the same without them.

But when it comes to the contests it’s all about focusing on the task at hand. So many things are competing for your attention -- people milling around in the start area, the announcers chatting away and people putting down great runs. You can’t control the weather or the tricks other girls are doing, but there are some things you can control.

For me, I listen to music before I drop in. It’s one element I can control, and it prevents people from walking up to me and saying things I don’t want to hear, like, “Hey, you won’t fall again!” or “can you do this interview real quick?”

About two minutes before I drop in, when I’m starting to strap in, I’ll tell my coaches I’m checking out and put my earphones in. From then on out we use hand signals, and I’ll take my earphone out if they want to talk to me. Usually it’s just to say, “Take it easy,” though, since I can give it too much at times.

We actually joke about how a few years ago in Breckinridge, Colo., I walked up and Ricky Bower was coaching Gretchen, talking about every little detail that she needed to do. And they turned to me and asked, “Kelly, what are you going to do?” I said, “I want to do a good drop in.” It was the most simplistic, basic thing that no one but me would have said, and they burst out laughing.

So Wednesday (back at the third Grand Prix qualifying event), right before I dropped in, after falling in my first run, my coaches and friends said, “Hey, you better do a good drop in.” It’s a good reminder to keep it simple, and keeps it fun.

During my run I’m staying in the moment. If I’m thinking about my place or the crowds I’m in trouble! Wednesday, for example, it was really slow and every hit I would have a really basic sentence in my head, like “don’t push” or “make sure you land high” (on the transition). If I land low or if I have a trick I was having a hard time with, I’ll tell myself to “point it.”

Just one little cue between each trick helps me stay focused on the task at hand. If I’m thinking about how to land my front 10 later in my run I’ll fall on something easy because I am not paying attention to it. You can lose it if you get ahead of yourself.

I hope the weather holds up for the finals. The pipe has been really good, and the practice days we’ve had here are the best we’ve had all year. It’s going to be a fun day to be creative and do a different finals run. Time to really start working on the Olympic-style runs. Sochi will be here before we know it!