Let’s just say, Kelly Clark isn’t typically a huge fan of down time.
As a testament, you can look at her record as the winningest snowboarder alive, with more medals from the world’s top events than any other rider ever. On top of riding, training and competing, she runs her non-profit, the Kelly Clark Foundation, and plays a pivotal role in Burton’s year-round product research and development. So when she fell and sustained her most serious injury to date at the Burton US Open last March (although she still rode all three of her runs), it meant surgery, slowing down, and starting the recovery process.
We caught up with Kelly at this year’s Rider Roundtable, our annual product development meeting with the team, to find out how she’s dealt with being off the board and on the road to recovery. From pool time to puppies, it’s no surprise that Kelly’s handling it like a champion.
So you are how many days into recovery?
10 weeks as of tomorrow. Two and a half months out.
What’s been the most challenging week so far, out of 10?
Some days it seems like a bad dream when I look back on it. And there are other days when I’m like, “It's been 10 weeks, that’s amazing! I’ve come so far!” Hip surgery is full-on, and it wasn’t as painful as I imagined it to be, but it was invasive all the same. It’s the biggest joint in your body, and you want it to heal without getting stiff with scar tissue. The first month was pretty challenging. I was pretty limited in my mobility: My feet had to be tied together and I couldn’t sit at 90 degrees.
Backing up, can you describe your injury a little bit and what the surgery was?
I have impingements in both my hips which can actually be a genetic thing. How the bones are shaped in the hips and how they rotate in the joint. The ends of my femur where they rotated in the joint weren’t perfectly smooth, they had little bone lesions. If you get into certain positions like I do with snowboarding, you can get those flat parts of the bone (lesions) to hit the other part of bone and pinch the cartilage. I knew I had some limited mobility, and eventually I got into a situation where I loaded it enough to pinch the cartilage and tear it.
When did that tear happen?
I crashed at the X Games in Norway. I was already dealing with my hip, and everything else was really vulnerable. So I tore my hamstring off the bone as an additional result of that crash. One thing led to another. I would say last season I was at 80% strength on my very best day. I was dealing with this for a while, and it became an acute injury, where now I got it fixed in hopes of getting back to 100%.
The good news is that if I didn’t get this done, I would be a candidate for a hip replacement in 10 years. But after the surgery, I have a brand new hip and everything is my own. I don’t have any metal or any one else’s body parts. It’ll heal up and from what I hear, I’ll be amazed at how good I feel.
Can you compare this to any other experience you’ve had in your life?
I’ve never really been injured in 17 years of competitive snowboarding. I’ve had a right knee scope (orthoscopic surgery), a three-month thing that was very mellow about 14 years ago. I also had a left wrist scope that was just four weeks immobilized. But it’s your hand, you’re not depending on it to go up stairs or anything. This has been the injury that’s affected my lifestyle the most. I’ve never really missed a contest due to injury in my whole career so this has been an adjustment for sure.
So the first month you were at a rehab facility.
I went to Vail, Colorado, to get my surgery done by Dr. Philippon. He’s a partner with the US Snowboarding Team and the US Olympic Team. I was out in Vail for about two and a half weeks in intensive rehab. I was doing therapy between four to six hours a day and that was basically all I did every day.
Every time I was in bed or sitting down, I had to have my legs tied together. I was staying at a friend’s house in Vail and I would go to the facility two to three times a day, and when I was home, I just stayed home.
So what kind of movements are you at now?
I can walk without a limp now, which is great. I’m just basically fighting compensations. So when I go up stairs, I have to make sure I’m not hiking up my hip using my back, I have to make sure I’m putting full pressure through my joint, using all the right muscles. I just got cleared to lay on my stomach the other day, or my right side. That was a big benchmark.
From day one I was on the bike, just low impact. There are some things I was able to do immediately and there are some things I can’t do at all. It’s a protocol that the doctor has, who does over 350 of these a year and knows exactly what to do to get you better. So I have my binder and I follow good directions. I go to PT four times a week for deep tissue and I do two hours of therapy in my house every day and that’s on the spin bike, but I can add resistance now.
What are you really capable of?
As of last week, I was able to do 10 pull ups and push ups. I’m starting to get back into core. Bodyweight squats, a hundred a day. All resistance is with rubber bands. It’s just a long fitness program I do. You have to remember that it’s a big picture journey, but once you file that in your mind then you’re like, “Ok I can take it day by day.” It’s a very fine line between getting overwhelmed at the big picture and being encouraged in your day to day. So I think, “Alright, I know where I’m going and how I want to get there, I’m going to focus on the day to day.”
So it’s been a humbling experience.
For sure! When you have to call someone late at night to get you up because you have to go to the bathroom, we were joking that I was like a puppy not allowed water past 8pm.
You have to remember that it’s a big picture journey, but once you file that in your mind then you’re like, “Ok I can take it day by day.”
Do you think you’ve learned more about yourself?
Any time you slow down it causes you to examine how you think, and what motivates you. Not really motivate, because I understand the value of the process I’m in, but my inability to do things for myself and having to depend on others has been really humbling. I’m always the person that’s prepared to be strong and independent. It’s been a nice reminder to allow myself to depend on other people. So even thinking about this I’m like, “Wow, letting people help me in my day to day process could be a good thing even after recovery.”
What’s your mindset about setting goals while keeping things in perspective?
Honestly I’ve turned my brain off recently. I still have the big picture, like the Olympics, but I haven’t been actively goal setting. My brain hasn’t been geared up towards snowboarding. Maybe it’s a good thing that I don’t look at Instagram and get sad that I’m not snowboarding, because I’m allowing my heart and my mind to have a break while my body’s having a break. I think that’s healthy. Doesn’t change my big picture goals, but I’m not spending a lot of mental energy on it right now. I have the timelines and goals and PT stuff, when I’m going to be able to ride a bike, run up stairs, get on snow… but I’m not really driven by my snowboarding goals right now.
Nor should she be. With more than enough time ahead to think about the future, Kelly is 100% focused on remaining positive, healing, and spending time with her new puppy. Stay tuned for more, because this is certainly not the last you’ve seen of Kelly Clark. ∆