Kelly Clark performs a jump during the women’s snowboard halfpipe qualification round. (REUTERS/Dylan Martinez)

KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia — Snowboarder Kelly Clark knows the path to gold. She finished the 2002 Games atop the podium and has been trying to return ever since. The most successful female rider the sport has known will try to fend off a field of younger riders in the halfpipe final Wednesday.

Clark certainly has experience on her side. Consider: One of her competitors in the halfpipe finals, China’s Cai Xuetong was just nine years old when Clark won in Salt Lake City. Even though the Sochi Games mark her fourth Olympics, the feeling never gets old, she says, that mix of nerves and excitement.

“Experience does go a long way, but it never gets easy,” Clark said earlier Wednesday, shortly after posting the highest score in the qualification round. “You can acknowledge that you’re nervous and move along. That’s what you’ve got to do.”

She rode a gondola up to the Rosa Khutor Extreme Park Wednesday morning and privately thanked her coaches, trying to soak in everything around here.

“I’s an absolute privilege when I look around,” she said. “And to think I’ve made my fourth Olympic final — it’s just one of the greatest honors of my life.”

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Winning gold will be no easy task. Even though Arielle Gold had to pull out of the competition with an injury and talented Australian Holly Crawford failed to advance, Clark will have to top the talented Torah Bright and teammate Hannah Teter, riders who took gold and silver respectively in 2010, when Clark finished third.

But Clark feels she’s doing the best riding of her life at 30 years old. The results would support that. She’s won nine Winter X-Games medals, including gold in the superpipe each of the past four years.

Even as the younger riders in Wednesday’s final are eager to top Clark, they know exactly what she’s meant to the sport. Clark’s gold in Salt Lake City 12 years ago helped introduce the sport to a generation of young riders, especially young girls.

“I hear that from Hannah, from Arielle, from Kaitlyn [Farrington], all the girls. That was a big moment in snowboarding,” Clark said. “Snowboarding really burst on the Olympic scene. It’s amazing to be in a position of influence. I want to walk away knowing I inspired people, that people aspired to follow their dreams and be great.”

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Photos from Day 5 | Daily TV schedule | U.S. medal winners