Raymond’s Kirsten Clark returns to the hill where she honed her craft.

CARRABASSETT VALLEY – Nine years felt like an eternity to Kirsten Clark.

But her long absence from the mountain where she learned to ski did not affect her performance Wednesday during the first day of training for the U.S. Alpine Championships.

Maine’s three-time Olympian carved out the second-fastest time in the downhill on the Narrow Gauge trail at Sugarloaf/USA.

“It’s always fun coming back and racing on the home hill,” Clark said. “It had been a long time since I’ve skied on the hill, but I was going down and knew exactly how to set up. I was smiling all the way down.”

Clark, 28, was raised in Raymond and graduated from Carrabassett Valley Academy, the ski school located at the base of Sugarloaf, in 1995. A member of the U.S. ski team since the 1996-97 season, Clark had not had the opportunity to ski at Sugarloaf since 1997, the last time the mountain hosted the national championships.

After a couple of injury-plagued seasons, Clark had high hopes for this Olympic year. But what should have been a routine procedure to clean out her surgically-repaired left knee last fall turned disastrous when she developed a staph infection. Instead of preparing for the season. Clark spent four weeks on crutches, while taking antibiotics.

The most veteran member of the women’s team made a quick recovery, but the time off the slopes set her back in her bid for a breakout season.

Clark still posted four top-10 finishes in the Super-G, with a season-best fourth place at a race in Austria. At the Olympics at Turin, Clark placed 14th in the Super-G and 21st in the downhill.

She ended the season in eighth place in the World Cup standings in the Super-G.

“I’m just looking forward to next year and a summer of getting really strong and physically fit,” Clark said. “Hopefully, my knee will allow me to do that, and I’ll come into the season the strongest I’ve ever been. That is my goal.”

Her results this winter give Clark confidence that she can finally return to the podium next year. Clark has not finished in the top-3 since winning the silver medal in the Super-G at the 2003 World Championships. Her only World Cup victory came in the downhill in 2001.

While she is committed to competing on the World Cup circuit next year, Clark isn’t sure whether a fourth Winter Olympics is in her future.

“It’s tough to say,” Clark said. “A lot has to do with how I feel physically as far as my knee goes. If I’m skiing well and I’m not in pain, I think I might go for another four years.”

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