On her Game
For Hermosa’s KK Clark, becoming an Olympian and winning the gold was less about physical conditioning and technique … it was a rigorous exercise in self-evaluation and mental might.
The U.S. women’s water polo team claimed the gold at the Rio 2016 Olympics, and for KK Clark—who played as a defender—the experience served as a momentous culmination of years of dedicated training, hard work and sacrifice.
It’s easy to assume that KK—a Bay Area native and current Hermosa Beach resident—harbored dreams of winning the gold from an early age, but that’s not the case. It wasn’t until KK was in the midst of her college-level water polo career that the Olympic dream started to take hold. And even then it took an ample amount of mental conditioning and self-evaluation to determine what, exactly, she wanted out of water polo.
Athleticism runs in KK’s family. Her sisters played water polo at the college level. Her aunt Marybeth Dorst was on the 1980 U.S. Olympic women’s swimming team, and her uncle Chris Dorst was a two-time water polo Olympian in 1980 and 1984.
Since her older sisters played the sport, KK was introduced to water polo at a young age as the “carpool dummy.” She learned about the game riding with her sisters to their practice and watching them play. She was in middle school when she started playing seriously.
“But I was resistant to water polo at first,” she says. “Horseback riding—and being an equestrian—was actually my first love. Hopefully it’s something I can return to in the future.”
At Sacred Heart Preparatory School, KK played on the high school’s JV water polo team. “I didn’t have the commitment to play on varsity. But the athleticism was there.”
Later during high school she began to excel with the sport and was eventually recruited to play at UCLA. But, she adds, during her college career she never had the luxury of knowing she was a top player on the team. “I had to fight for a spot, and it was very tiring and challenging.”
KK didn’t lack the skill or finesse to play Olympic-level water polo. She points out that much of her difficulties came from a lack of focus—she wasn’t quite sure what she wanted. In 2015 KK was actually cut from Team USA’s world championship team, and the setback hurt. “All my worst fears came true,” she says. “This was the world champs before the Olympics. I was bawling.”
However, being cut helped sharpen KK’s focus—she knew what she wanted now. “Being at the world championships, it was a reminder of what everything would be like, all that success, without me there. I came to the realization that, even if I’m not on the team, I just want to be at the team meetings and be a part of the club.”
KK realized what she wanted out of water polo: to support her team. She wanted to be with them and to share in that success. Even if she couldn’t be on the roster, she notes, she just wanted to be a part of that water polo family. Once she realized that, she says, “it was liberating, mentally and physically.” Ultimately, KK wanted to be an Olympian.
She began focusing heavily on mental conditioning: watching sports films, reading inspiring books and creating a syllabus that outlined her physical and mental goals. KK believes that becoming an Olympian and sharing that success with her water polo team came about because of her mental training.
“This Olympic journey shifted when I realized that I needed to work on myself,” she says. “I had the physical stuff down. But the greatest thing that happened to me was being cut from that team.”
KK’s Year in HEALTH
Wake up at 5:30 a.m. and leave apartment by 6 a.m and hit Starbucks. “I’d have an iced coffee and a breakfast sandwich. I’m not big on cooking at home, and I’d eat that on the way to Long Beach for training.” Practice by 6:45 a.m. starting with weight training. From 8:45 to 10:30 a.m. in the water. “It would change each week, in terms of yardage. Then we’d get out at the end of training, and we’d have food delivered to the pool: healthy things like chicken sandwich wraps, root veggies and fruit.”
From 10:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., fuel and recover. More practicing and training from 1:30 to 4:30 p.m. “You would work on different tactics every day. Saturday we would come back for a purely three-hour conditioning practice. That was a typical week during the summer.”
“A nutritionist worked with us on an individual basis. The question was always: How do I get enough calories? Eventually I had to start bringing a lunch box to practice, and it had a peanut butter and jelly sandwich along with cheese and dried mango—anything I could munch on while I was subbing out during practice. Some days I would just go to In-N-Out Burger and get cheeseburgers because I needed the calories.”
Listen to “This American Life” on public radio and try to enjoy the drive home. “I would go out and meet friends for dinner. Monday through Saturday it was hard to balance a social life. I told myself I wouldn’t let finances stress me out, and I would go and see my friends. I’d also watch movies and meditate. I watched a lot of Netflix. I’d do anything that wasn’t physical.”
Handel’s Homemade Ice Cream and the drive-through at In-N-Out: “It’s so hard now that I’m not training!”
Her coach Adam Krikorian: “I wouldn’t have done [water polo] if he hadn’t been my coach. He trained us for life in a lot of ways. Also my teammates inspired me. Everyone has such a different background and personal stories, and I’ve really come to respect them all.”
“I did the 30-Day Yoga Challenge at SoHo Yoga here in Hermosa after I got back from Rio. It was so humbling. With yoga, I honestly can’t do what others are doing!”
Advice for Aspiring Olympians
“I think the biggest thing is to be honest to yourself when you’re evaluating things. The biggest thing that helped me was formulating a plan, establishing something that works for you and following through. And being mindful is important, but it takes practice. I’m still working on it.”