Olympics / Sports

Snowboarding adventures lead Chris Clark to spot as Chinese Olympic coach

Chris Clark has no permanent address.

He travels the world with one bag and his snowboarding equipment.

His future is uncertain after the Sochi Olympics.

But Clark, an Archbishop Hoban graduate and Suffield Township, Ohio, native, has embraced his vagabond existence for more than 10 years. That's when he decided to leave the more lucrative "cubicle farm" where he toiled with a computer science degree from Kent State for the sport he has been devoted to since fourth grade.

When the 2014 Winter Olympics open this week, Clark, 34, will coach the Chinese national halfpipe snowboard team, perhaps concluding a 2 1/2-year stint that has taken him to Finland, Canada, and to Aspen, Colo., for the X Games.

"I technically don't live anywhere, I live out of suitcases," Clark said in a phone interview last week from Breckenridge, Colo. "I'm definitely getting to the point now where I'm ready for the Olympics to be over, just to have some downtime. But all in all I couldn't ask for much more. It's been great sharing my experiences and teaching the love of the sport to a country that's new to the sport."

When Clark was little, his mother, Sandy, remembers the day he told her to sell his skis because he wanted a snowboard. His father, Tom, drove him around the country to compete in places like Mount Snow, Vt.; Telluride, Colo.; and Mammoth, Calif., even as Clark gave lessons part time at Boston Mills/Brandywine Ski Resort during high school. One year at nationals, he said he was in the running for an overall place but had to sit out because of injury.

The battering his body took eventually forced Clark to move toward the instructional side. In the past two years, he has undergone surgery on both shoulders for rotator cuff tears, including a "massive" one suffered in a fall in Breckenridge. He has herniated four disks in his lower back and broken and dislocated some ribs, which left him with a bulge that comes out of the front of his rib cage.

"A masseuse who works on me when I'm in Colorado has been trying to figure out what's going on there," said Clark, who played baseball and football at Hoban.

As a teacher, Clark spent four years at Carrabassett Valley Academy in Maine and two years in Summit, Colo., where he and a couple of others started a freestyle program through the International Snowboard Training Cooperative. While with the ISTC, he also spent summers working at the High Cascade Snowboard Camp in Mount Hood, Ore.

Clark's road to Sochi began when he befriended High Cascade's founder, John Ingersoll. Ingersoll knew Janet Hu, a former athlete for the Chinese national team. She led Clark to his eventual boss with the Chinese Ski Association.

The Chinese snowboard coach had been forced to resign due to a family emergency. Even with the country in dire need and Clark's experience with athletes on the World Cup circuit, Clark had to go through a tryout period.

He worked two eight-day sessions before being asked to stay on through the summer. Then came a "monthlong training trip" to the World Cup in New Zealand, which earned Clark a contract through the Sochi Olympics.

Arriving in Russia on Thursday, Clark will handle four Chinese women and two men competing in halfpipe. The top male competitor is Zhang Yiwei, second in the Arctic Challenge and seventh at the X Games. The top female is Liu Jiayu, fourth in the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. Jaiyu finished first last year in the Park City World Cup, defeating all the American women, including star Kelly Clark.

Chris Clark doesn't expect to be retained after the games, even though two people (including Hu) have discussed with him whether he would be interested in continuing.

"Normally the Chinese Olympic committee is known for hiring foreign coaches a couple years out from the Olympics, then cutting them loose after the Olympics," he said. "Anything can happen, but I'm preparing for the worst."

That doesn't worry Clark's close friend Doug Radefeld, 37, assistant director of the ski school at Boston Mills/Brandywine, where Radefeld has taught for 20 years. Radefeld said Clark used to captivate students with his personality but since has grown greatly as an instructor.

"He's helping those kids invent new tricks, talking about the slightest movement of the head or an arm or the knee to make it so they can flip twice and spin 3 1/2 times," Radefeld said in a phone interview. "You have to have an eye for it and he's developed that over time."

Radefeld saw that last spring when he and Clark went on a surfing vacation and stayed with a friend with four young children. The kids had been trying flips on a trampoline for 18 months without success.

"Chris figured out what they were doing wrong, took a little video on his phone, pointed it out to them and he got 6- and 7-year-olds doing flips on a trampoline in under 15 minutes," said Radefeld, also an insurance manager for State Farm.

"That's where he's so unique. He understands movement concepts, what movements make performances happen on the snowboard or in the air. He was such a good snowboarder. None of us were Olympic good. But he can watch what they're doing and understand how they left the ground and why that affected certain things."

Clark has several options after the Olympics. He could look for an instructor position or restart the freestyle program. He has completed personal training certification. He might spend part of the year surfing.

"I saved up some money," Clark said. "I knew this day would come when the Olympics would be over and I wouldn't know what I was going to do. I set myself up so I could sit back and wait and see what opportunities arise."

Radefeld isn't sure he could handle that uncertainty, despite Clark's adventures.

"I watch his life and there's times I'm a little jealous and there's other times I'm glad it's him," Radefeld said.

Clark said it's unlikely he'll ever return to Ohio for long. His mother has come to terms with that.

"He's doing something he absolutely loves," Sandy Clark said.

(c)2014 Akron Beacon Journal (Akron, Ohio)

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