Spirit of a Champion
Olympic Gold Medalist KK Clark brings a winning attitude to the fore as grand marshal of the 54th annual Marina del Rey Holiday Boat Parade
By Christina Campodonico
Olympic gold medalist and collegiate champion water polo player KK Clark hasn’t ruled out the possibility of playing for Team USA in Tokyo when 2020 rolls around, but for now she is flirting with the idea of jumping into another kind of pool — you know, the one for job applicants.
Having spent so much time in the water, “I’ve had to get creative with the résumé,” says Clark, 26, as we talked about her hypothetical job search and real-life Olympic journey following a breezy boat ride and photo shoot on Marina del Rey’s main channel.
As a member of the gold-medal USA women’s water polo team at this year’s Summer Games in Rio, an NCAA champion and three-time collegiate All-American, the 6’2” Clark — who played for UCLA in the PAC-12 and
then professionally in Italy — has plenty of impressive accomplishments to put on her resume.
And with an Olympian aunt and uncle, personal drive seems to run in the family.
“More than anything I think I just felt like there was a destiny in a way, that it was sort of in my blood to be good at this,” says Clark, whose given name is Caroline. “I kind of always had this belief in my back pocket.”
So it comes as a surprise to find out that she almost didn’t make it to Rio this past summer.
Just a year ahead of the Olympics, Clark found herself just short of making the U.S. team roster for the 2015 women’s water polo world championship in Russia. Only 13 players were selected to compete at the tournament. Clark, number 14 on the list, was just shy of making the cut.
“That was kind of a wake-up call,” said Clark. “At the time I thought it was kind of over. There’s a year to the Olympics. How much turnover would there be now?”
Clark decided that she not only needed to improve her play in the pool, she also had to train her mind to compete at the highest levels. She began watching ESPN’s “30 for 30” sports documentaries, read about the lives of athletic greats, kept a journal of daily intentions and meditated regularly.
After renewing her commitment to the sport that she had played throughout high school and college, Clark was in the pool a year later when the final buzzer went off at the U.S.’s gold-medal-winning match against Italy. The final score was an absolute blowout: 12-5.
“It was incredible,” she says. “We won the gold medal game by seven goals, which is kind of unheard of in water polo.”
Still buoyed by her team’s win, Clark, now living in the South Bay, is enjoying the fruits of her labor and is looking forward to serving as grand marshal for the 54th annual Marina del Rey Holiday Boat Parade on Saturday.
Do you have a natural affinity for the water?
I do. I feel like a little bit’s in my blood. My grandfather Richard Dorst, he was an engineer and he and a buddy built Dorsett boats — these vintage little tugboats. I actually did not grow up on boats because my mother did, and she grew very tired of being on boats. I think I am attracted by nature to the water.
I hear that there are other Olympians in your family, too.
My uncle [Chris Dorst] was a water polo player as well. Chris was one of my first coaches growing up. He was a goalie for the 1980 and ’84 teams. And then his wife, Marybeth Linzmeier, was a really decorated swimmer who qualified for the 1980 Olympics, but our country didn’t go [in 1980], so it’s kind of a bittersweet thing for her.
And then your Olympic journey. I read that you were cut from the 2015 world championship team at the last minute. What happened?
It was a mix of things. I wasn’t playing to my potential and where I needed to be playing for the team. The coach also used opportunities to play different combinations of players, and he challenged a lot of the girls on the team in different ways. And this was one of my big tests.
The team won the world championship and I was in the stands, which was hard at first. But then I became really excited to be there cheering on the girls, and it was liberating to me because I realized I wanted to be on the team, whether or not I was on the roster, and that ultimately allowed me to kind of let go of all of these fears that I wasn’t going to make the team at the end of the day. And I think by letting go of that fear I was able to play so much better in practice.
It just allowed me to kind of be the athlete I was not able to be those years prior because of the pressure and because of the expectation that I think I put on myself. So it was really cool for me to look back on that and see how I adapted and changed with the challenges that I faced.
What did you do to make your comeback?
I had four categories. I made a little syllabus for myself. And it was all things that were just kind of like brain food and soul food for me. Watching was one of the categories, and I started watching 30 for 30s [ESPN sports documentaries] and inspiring sports movies. So I watched “Rudy” for the first time and The Rocky movies for the first time.
My second category was reading, and I started reading sports-related books. So I read Andre Agassi’s autobiography, a John Wooden book, a golf book — really anything that I could somehow pull inspiration from. I would read those on the bus when we were busing to and from practice, while we were on trips, on a plane, before bed.
The third thing I did was write. I wrote in a journal and I wrote daily intentions. And then also when I came home I wrote positives and negatives to what I did in practice, just so that I could make sure I wasn’t making the same mistakes.
And then the fourth one, which is actually the hardest, was just meditating. It was really helpful for me to have that kind of peace of mind and the calmness that it brought.
Water polo can be a very rough sport. Some of my high school friends on the water polo team would tell me about suit grabbing and kicking under the water. Is it like that at high professional levels of the sport?
A lot of people, when you tell them you play water polo, they say the same thing. The sport has a bit of a violent reputation. But I think at the level we were playing there was not as much of that. I think that’s just because the players are well rounded in a set of skills and it’s more about maneuvering than it is about taking another player out, if you will. There’s definitely suit grabbing and a bit of kicking. And we had to train so that we were prepared for teams that would try to be really, really physical with us. So we had to be exposed to a more aggressive style of play, and we would do it to each other in practice. But we also had to be able to play really quick and fast — not let yourself get grabbed. That was my big thing. I’m really long and fast and mobile, and if I get grabbed then I’ve lost the battle already. So my style was more about trying not to get caught up in a physical match.
What’s it like coming home after winning an Olympic gold medal?
Coming home was really, really cool. I remember being in the airport and strangers would come up to us and say, “Thank you so much.” And I was really taken aback by that because I’m not a veteran. My grandfather was a World War II vet. Those are the real heroes. But I was really proud and honored to represent the country in a small way and being able to share the medal.
Since being home, I think my biggest realization is that the medal doesn’t mean that much to me because it’s just a medal, whereas my memories and the feelings I get when I think about being with the family and what we went through is so much more valuable to me. So it’s fun for me to share the medal with people. You see their eyes light up and that it means something to them. My mom was like, ‘We can get it framed for you.’ I’m like, ‘No, this thing is not being framed yet.’ It will go on a wall one day, but it’s meant to be shared.