When Kirsten Clark announced her pending retirement last Monday in Portland, most of the press reports started with “three-time Olympian.”

This no longer surprises me.

It’s as if the other 10 years on the U.S. Ski Team don’t count. “Clarky,” as she is known by her teammates, coaches and friends, will complete 13 years at the U.S. Nationals at Alyeska, Alaska, starting Tuesday.

Whether or not she competes in an attempt to add to her seven national titles depends on how her “body feels” after skiing this weekend. The reason for the question is a crash in downhill training for the World Cup finals in Lenzerhiede, Switzerland, on March 11, two days before the event.

She qualified for the finals by finishing eighth – her best of the season – a week earlier. The crash stretched some ligaments in her knee. Although first reports said she was not injured, she didn’t complete in the downhill finals, even though it was on the hill where she had won her only World Cup victory.

To me, the occasion of her retirement calls for a review of the totality of Clark’s career and what that represents. By now, everyone knows how she grew up chasing her older brother, Sean, down the mountain at Sugarloaf. This led to joining the Sugarloaf racing program at age 7 and attending Carrabassett Valley Academy. After winning the 2004 Junior National downhill title, she was invited at age 17 to join the U.S. Team. She quickly became one of its most consistent racers.

Her first National title came at Sugarloaf in 1996. Starting in 1998, the Raymond native won four consecutive national downhill crowns from 1998-2001, and might have won five had the 2002 championships not been canceled due to weather.

In 2000, she also won the National super-G title and came back home to Sugarloaf last March to win another downhill championship. Those seven titles alone are enough to insure a permanent place in U.S. Ski Team history, but there is more.

Clark’s best season was probably 2003. She stood on the World Cup podiums four times among her 10 top-10 finishes, good for second in the downhill standings. That same season, Clarky won the silver medal in the World Championship super-G, just two hundredths of a second behind the gold medalist. At 60-70 mph, that’s less than the distance between the toe of her boot and the tip of the ski.

Her lone World Cup victory came at Lenzerhiede in 2001. She stood on the podium eight times and had 30 top-10 finishes.

A season-ending crash in January, 2004 came at the peak of her career. As she worked her way back into shape for the next season, a staph infection in her injured knee slowed the comeback. While she made the 2006 Olympic team, she wasn’t back in form. That injury and comeback, makes her 2006 U.S. title all the more meaningful, and she calls it one of her most memorable moments in her career. Winning at Sugarloaf was even better, and those of us who were there at the finish will never forget the cheers from her fellow Sugarloafers. It was the noisiest moment of the entire championships.

Those are the numbers of a Maine ski racer who spent 13 years chasing gold on the World Cup Circuit against the finest skiers in the world, but they only tell a small part of the story of Kirsten Clark.

I know from personal contact that this young woman was special. Anytime I called or e-mailed her in order to bring the latest news of her quest to these pages, I could count on a prompt response. Her manner never changed from the day she made the team to the day she announced her retirement. She never became impressed with herself and remained the kid from Raymond, Maine. Asked about her success in any area, Kirsten always gave credit to others, her coaches, her teammates and, most of all, her parents.

George and Joan Clark never pushed their daughter to become a ski racer. In fact, they really didn’t want her to join the team. Once she decided to chase that dream, they were always there in support. Their biggest emotion Monday was one of relief. It’s scary for a parent to watch their daughter fly down a mountain on the most difficult courses in the World at speeds approaching 80 mph.

Just how special “Clarky” is was best demonstrated by Paul Robbins. His job for the U.S. Ski Team is to travel with the teams and get the story out to the press after each event. He has covered Clark for all 13 years. When Robbins received the call of the announcement he thought his schedule would not allow him to make the four-hour drive from Vermont to Portland. He told me, “As soon as I hung up I thought, ‘Hey this is Clarky, of course I’m going.'”

And he was there. He told me, “Clarky represents everything skiing needs in its athletes.” He talked about her work ethic, her devotion to the team and the other athletes. As we talked with her, Clark, 29, spoke of her role model, Hilary Lindh, another downhill specialist known for her work ethic and “let-my-skis-do-the-talking” demeanor. Kirsten Clark proved herself a worthy successor, and the team can only hope one of their young racers can follow her lead.

A 13-year career is ending, and another is starting. There will be a continuation and expansion of her summer conditioning camps at CVA, maybe some part-time coaching and women’s ski clinics. For now, she can spend more time at her Squaw Valley, Cailf., home with her husband Andreas Rickenbach.

The break is well-earned, and all we can do is thank Kirsten Clark for setting the example of how to reach for the top while conducting herself in the highest manner.

Dave Irons is a freelance writer who lives in Westbrook.

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