Clark charges out of the shadows | AspenTimes.com

Clark charges out of the shadows

Nate Peterson

Kirsten Clark was the top American racer Friday, skiing to a fifth-place finish in the Aspen Winternational World Cup super G. (Mark Fox/The Aspen Times)

Kirsten Clark didn’t expect this. Not after a staph infection in her left knee put her in the hospital for a week in September. Not after a month of heavy doses of antibiotics and close to two months spent on crutches.

On the same technical course where she shot to a fourth-place finish three years ago, Clark emerged from the morning shadows Friday on Aspen Mountain to finish fifth in super G. It was the best finish for an American woman in what is the only U.S. stop on the World Cup women’s alpine circuit. It was a result that left Clark trying to explain a comeback that has progressed much faster than expected.

“It’s a little bit surprising. I didn’t think I’d be where I am right now,” said Clark, who finished seventh in the season’s first super G last Sunday in Lake Louise, Alberta. “I’m definitely relying a lot on my experience in the past and having the knowledge that my knee is strong and that I’m able to trust it.”

Friday’s super G track on Aspen Mountain wasn’t forgiving, with only one major turn on the straightforward top half, followed by six difficult turns on the bottom half.

The idea was to maintain speed through the winding bottom half, Clark said. The trend Friday was the opposite, with a number of skiers skidding into the softer snow on the side of the course and losing velocity.

“The way she skied the bottom was pretty impressive,” U.S. women’s head coach Patrick Riml said. “She took some risks and she had a chance to be in there. … A lot of people were overskiing, and from there you lost half a second to a second until the last part down to the finish. If you were able to take risks, you were right in there. It’s a very fine line.”

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Clark’s return to the top five in Aspen almost didn’t happen. She expected to be back to training within two weeks after a minor operation on her knee on Sept. 9. But nine days later, the knee began to ache and swell.

“That afternoon it came on really fast,” she said. “I was feeling sick, not feeling great. [The knee] was super painful and then the next morning it was huge.”

Fear set in shortly after.

“I didn’t know what all was taking place,” Clark said. “I had heard of staph infections, but I didn’t know how dangerous it could be. … It definitely crossed my mind [to retire] this fall. I’m not going to lie.”

It wasn’t the first time she considered retirement, Clark said. The knee surgery in September was scheduled for minor cleanup work after a string of previous surgeries on both knees ” all the result of a violent crash in Austria six weeks before the close of the 2004 season.

There were also surgeries on a broken wrist suffered in that crash ” Clark’s first major injury in her 12-year World Cup career. The wreck almost led Clark to walk away from the sport.

Almost. Just as she did last fall, Clark decided this fall, after reclaiming her heath, that she still wasn’t ready to give up the thrill of slicing down an icy race track at speeds of more than 60 mph. It was the right decision, she said.

“I still have the desire to want to win and go out there and do it. I mean, it was all going to be whether my knee was going to be able to let me do it, and I can,” she said. “I’m out here and I’m enjoying every day. Right now, I’m just taking each day as it comes. I got my first GS race tomorrow and, having good results, my confidence is just going to keep getting stronger. Hopefully I’ll be peaking toward Torino.”

“It’s good to see her being up there and leading the whole pack again,” Riml said. “I’m sure after the last couple of years, she’s wondered at times, ‘what am I doing this for?’ On a day like this, that’s the reason why and it keeps her going and it keeps her focused. I bet she wants more.”

Clark, who now has 32 top-10 finishes in her career to go with a silver medal from the 2003 World Championships, said after the Olympics she has plans to race one more year on the World Cup circuit. From there, if she’s still competitive, she’ll re-evaluate her desire to keep ski racing, she said.

As the lone member of the women’s team who is married, she hinted that two more years will likely be enough.

“It all depends on how my mind feels about traveling and being away from home,” said Clark, whose husband, Andreas Rickenback, a former World Cup racer and U.S. coach, was in attendance Friday. “It’s nice when you have races in the states to have family come out. It’s just a great atmosphere. … I’m excited with how I skied, just given everything I’ve been through. I’m just building confidence.”

Nate Peterson’s e-mail address is npeterson@aspentimes.com

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