ASPEN, Colo. — Kelly Clark already had the contest won. She usually does when she chooses to progress snowboarding.
As she neared the end of the halfpipe, the woman who had added to her list of superlatives with another X Games win tried a cab 1080. No woman has landed one before, and no woman has done two 1080s — three full rotations — in a run as she attempted Saturday night.
That she didn't quite put it to snow barely seemed to matter. Although that could come in Sochi, Clark showed again two weeks from the Olympics why she's one of the best snowboarders in the world.
When she was done, Clark hugged the silver medalist, 13-year-old Chloe Kim. The Californian is too young to make the Olympic team, but she has had a breakout season and has a bright future thanks to all Clark has done for the sport in the 12 years since she won Olympic gold.
It's no surprise that Kim, whose amplitude in the pipe mimics Clark's, counts Clark as an idol.
"I never dreamed that I'd have an opportunity to make my fourth Olympic team and I'd still be pursuing this 12 years after Salt Lake," she says. "But for me, I love the sport more than ever. It's been fun to be on the forefront of that progression and to be taking the sport to new places."
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At 30, Clark has become the most dominant athlete in her sport and continues to be a pioneer. The Vermont native is headed to a fourth Olympics — and everyone around her thinks a fifth is doable.
How has she managed to do that in a sport in which one of her top competitors now isn't even in high school?
In terms of wins and losses, Clark has never had a better stretch in her career than she has since winning Olympic bronze in 2010. She won an unprecedented 16 competitions in a row in 2011-12. She's the winningest snowboarder ever, male or female, with 67 wins and 109 podiums in 128 career events.
In terms of her position in the sport, Clark has never been in a better place. Comfortable and assured of who she is, Clark sets her goals high and isn't afraid to talk about them. She wants to win, yes, and she'll tell you a gold medal is a goal.
But it's not the only one. Since medaling in 2010, Clark has shared what she'd already put in practice for years. She wants to progress the sport. She wants to lay a foundation for the next generation of riders to build on. Despite the wins, she wants to be defined by more than results.
"I had to really examine my heart after Vancouver and just simply decide what I wanted, and I realized I still had passion, that I still had drive," Clark says.
"I love it, and I'm having more fun than I ever did."
PUTTING IN THE WORK
As Clark trained this fall at the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association's Center of Excellence in Park City, Utah, Tschana Schiller told her to heave a 4-pound medicine ball 30 feet to hit a rafter.
"If she doesn't hit the ceiling, she's off the team," quipped Schiller, a senior physiologist with the U.S. Snowboarding team.
"Oh, come on," Clark said, chuckling as the ball came within inches of the beam.
The veteran was, of course, not in danger of leaving the team. As she prepared for the season with a final intense week of workouts in September, Clark represented the USA's best gold medal hopes in the halfpipe.
With her training the last four years, securing a spot for the U.S. team headed to Sochi was more a technicality. She did it in the first two qualifiers in December easily and used the final three as practice and still finished no worse than second.
If any athlete is a testament to the change in snowboarding, it's Clark. With tricks getting bigger and riskier, the sport has evolved to demand more fitness of the riders. Clark came to Schiller four years ago.
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On the day she allowed a USA TODAY Sports reporter to follow her around, she did squats, worked on her core, threw a medicine ball and did planks for two hours. It was her second workout of the day, coming after she'd spent the morning doing bike intervals and fitting in a trampoline session.
"I never have to push her to do things," Schiller says. "She's driving it, which is always really great."
Together, they've been tailoring a program for the sport. Snowboarding is so young, there's no commonly accepted practice for what works in the weight room as there would be for more established sports. So Schiller has worked to improve Clark's overall strength to withstand the G forces in the halfpipe, which can be as much as 8-15 on landing.
Clark has also improved her aerobic fitness. The results have borne out, and Clark credits the training for helping her remain largely injury free.
"I know she's stronger and fitter than she was four years ago," Schiller says.
MAKING AN IMPACT
More than her physical strength, Clark has been propelled by a mental fortitude developed over the last decade.
Calm confidence is what Donna Carpenter calls it. The president of Burton Snowboards, one of Clark's sponsors, has seen the change over the years.
"She's created a life within snowboarding that isn't dependent on results for that day," Carpenter says. "She's really striving to make a longer impact and more of a profound impact."
That wasn't always the case. She won gold at 18 years old. It thrust her into the spotlight, but the fulfillment she thought came with winning was missing.
"I would imagine that was a lot of pressure, not thinking that she was going to be able to accomplish that again," says Cathy Clark, Kelly's mother.
After she was unhappy for years after that, Clark's outlook changed when she became a Christian. Assured by her faith, she sought an identity away from her results. Her sense of worth firmly girded there, Clark was able to withstand the disappointment of her second Olympics.
After falling on her first run in Torino in 2006, she attempted a progressive second run that could have landed her gold. But she attempted a 900 on her final hit and fell, finishing fourth.
It tested her inner resolve, but it also prompted change. Before those Games, she had hesitated practicing tricks she wanted to land in contest runs. Afterward, she put in the work.
"I think she just got fierce. She wanted it," says Tricia Byrnes, a teammate of Clark's on the 2002 Olympic team. "That fourth-place finish is probably the best thing that happened to her."
It paid off in Vancouver where, after falling on her first run, she secured bronze.
Clark says she defined her goal to be intentional after those Games, but in reality she'd been living it for years. After Salt Lake City when she figured out how she wanted to be in the sport — and that her personal worth was not tied up in where she was on the podium — she developed a sense of purpose.
"What's amazing to me is it was not fleeting," says Peter Carlisle, her agent. "If anything, it seems to get stronger and stronger. Nothing throws her off her game. She knows what she wants to do."
To a person, her family and friends all marvel at her ability to set a goal, detail the steps needed to accomplish it and then do it.
Jake Burton, founder and CEO of Burton Snowboards, remembers a conversation with Clark after he was diagnosed with testicular cancer in 2011 about setting his mind to recovering.
"I wish I had half of what this girl's got in terms of understanding life and how to drive herself," he says. "She's worthy of being the snowboarder that's won more titles than anybody else."
This could be far from her last Games. Clark won't make a decision until later, but those close to her wouldn't be surprised to see her try to compete in Pyeongchang, South Korea, in 2018.
It'd be easy to say that Clark's road to Sochi began after Vancouver. That's when she decided to be more intentional about the way she trains and the choices she makes to push snowboarding forward.
But she'd admit she's been on this journey for the past decade as a young gold medalist grew up and figured out who she wanted to be. Now she's one of the most unshakably self-assured athletes the U.S. team will send to Russia.
She might win. She'll certainly be favored. But she might not, and Clark at 30 knows more than Clark at 18 did that it won't be devastating.
The last four years have gone exactly as Clark intended.
Follow USA TODAY Sports enterprise reporter Rachel Axon on Twitter @RachelAxon.