The U.S. Women’s Water Polo team just won the gold last night in their final round — woo! — bringing us all one step closer to the end of the Olympics. It’s sad because it’s almost over, but let’s be happy it happened, right? I think Pinterest said that. And before the actual gold was won and this was still but an upcoming dream, KK Clark, A 26-year-old member of the U.S. Women’s Water Polo team, said all of this:
Was your goal always to become an Olympic athlete, or was there a turning point in your career where you realized it was a possibility?
I’ve always wanted to be an Olympian, but I also know how few people get the opportunity to represent their country while playing the sport they love. Because of that, I tried to be realistic.
I committed to play water polo my junior year of high school. Up until that point I was an avid equestrian, missing water polo tournaments in favor of horse shows. I didn’t realize the dream was attainable until after my college career at UCLA, when two coaches at separate moments pulled me aside and told me if playing for the national team was something I wanted to commit to, I could do it.
What is a typical day of training like?
7-8:45 a.m.: weight session
8:45-10:30 a.m.: conditioning session in water (usually swim set and leg set)
10:45 a.m. lunch with team
11 a.m.-1:30 p.m.: free time spent resting, recovering with weekly acupuncturist, masseuse or chiropractor (which sounds very plush, but all the credit goes to our saint of a trainer who works diligently to keep our bodies healthy!)
1:30 p.m.-4:30 p.m.: water polo practice (skills/drills/scrimmage depending on the day)
What motivates you beyond the thought of winning the gold? Who motivates you? What about when you want to give up?
Beyond the thought of winning a gold medal, I’m motivated by my teammates, coaches, family and friends. Everyone who was with me along the way has such a crucial role in my personal journey.
Additionally, I’m motivated by the feeling I get when I’m in a practice or a game and time seems to stand still. I’m motivated by that rare moment when I catch myself in a state of joy and happiness, and for a second, think I understand how special this team and our journey is. It’s exhilarating and terrifying all at once but the trick is to try and stay in the moment and enjoy the ride.
Do you still feel “normal”? What keeps you grounded and focused through this process?
Of course I feel normal! I think in a way, we’re lucky our sport is so small. We don’t get the attention or financial incentive that other sports may get, but on the flip side, I never have to question my teammates’ or my own intentions. We are all here because we love the game of water polo and have a pure desire to become the best team that’s ever played the game.
How do you define success?
Success, to me, is the way in which someone responds to hardship. It’s easy to be happy and supportive when things are looking good and going your way. I think we learn the greatest about ourselves and others based on that first step we take after falling. Success is standing back up and setting an intention to improve.
What’s the one thing about the Olympics that no one asks you that you wish they’d ask? And what’s the answer?
I think most people think that being an Olympic athlete is all about the physical shape you’re in and all of the training sessions you put in. I’d like to know more about athletes’ mental and psychological preparation and health.
There has been more and more talk about mental health in our country and the stigmas that exist. Our team places the same value, if not MORE value, on an individual’s mental strength. But what is it that makes a person stronger mentally? I want people to model not just their physical workouts after elite athletes, but also their cultivation of mental strength and stability.
Competing in the Olympics is the ultimate dream — and whether you win or lose you’ve achieved a very grand dream. What advice do you have for anyone out there who has lofty goals or dreams that seem unachievable?
I think the biggest problem our generation (yay millennials!) runs into is our exquisite way of finding excuses and formulating justifications. You don’t have to just want something really badly in order to achieve it. You have to understand how you work in every capacity. Where is your mind? How sharp is your focus? What are you actually made of?
Everyone has dreams. And each one of us has the tools to achieve them. But it takes time and patience, and setbacks are normal. In the summer of 2015, I got cut from the squad that went on to win a World Championship. It was a deeply painful experience, and I spent plenty of time feeling sorry for myself. I told myself that I didn’t join the national team to be a World Champion, I did it to become an Olympic Champion.
After that summer I went back to the drawing board. I created a syllabus for myself (yes — like the ones from school) in order to hold myself accountable to things I thought I needed to do to get better. Some of those things were reading books, meditating and watching inspirational movies. Now I can’t say for sure that those are the ingredients for success, but I drew a great deal of confidence from formulating a plan and executing that plan. I think making a plan and following through with that plan is a great way to start chasing a dream.
What’s been your favorite “cheat meal” during all of this?
After an especially tough day I get In N’ Out! Two cheeseburgers (no onions) and Animal Style fries. And yes, I’m very concerned about how my eating habits will adapt when I no longer work out 6 hours a day.
Besides your own sport, what’s your favorite sport to watch/cheer for and why? Who’s your celebrity athlete that you’re excited to see?
My favorite sport to watch is gymnastics, I remember watching the 1996 Olympic Games when Kerri Strug stuck her second vault on a broken ankle to win gold for the team. Talk about inspirational! I was seven years old and was convinced that I was going to be an Olympic gymnast. I’m 6’2, so it was pretty clear early on that I was too tall to be a successful gymnast. Because I’m such a fan, I’m excited to see Simone Biles!
What would you be doing if not this?
If I wasn’t training for the Olympics, I would be spending all of my time and money in my mother’s consignment store. While I may spend most of my days in super flattering one-pieces and athletic clothes, I love fashion. Consignment stores are like treasure chests, and when I go home to Menlo Park, CA I always have to stop in.
Feature photograph by Phil Walter via Getty Images.