David Zalubowski/AP
February 18, 2010 12:10 PM

Dudes aren’t the only ones who rule the halfpipe. Kelly Clark, who won the gold medal in Salt Lake City in 2002, is ready to cap off an astounding Olympic career when the women drop in for medals on Thursday.

Clark, in fact, became the first U.S. snowboarder to qualify for her spot on Team USA when she won her second consecutive title at the U.S. Snowboarding Grand Prix in Mammoth, Calif., in January. She is the only American rider to have qualified for three Winter Games.

“I am actually thankful for the experiences that I’ve had and the wide range that they’ve been,” Clark, 26, tells PEOPLE. “I’ve had the heights of the success and everything you can dream of, and I’ve had the ultimate heartbreak, getting fourth place in an Olympic Games [in 2006]. Having been through both of those experiences, going into these Games, I know I am going be just fine no matter what happens, and I feel like it’s actually given me a whole lot of freedom.”

And like her male counterparts, Clark knows you have to go even bigger this time than in past Games. “In Torino, you could have gotten away with one big trick,” she says, “but in Vancouver, you’re going to need to have a very complete run with amplitude and style and a few technical tricks, not just one big one.”
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Own Cheering Section

Luckily for Clark, who resides in Mammoth Lakes, Calif., she will have a lot of her East Coast family in the snow to cheer her on, and a best friend from New Zealand is flying in, too.

“I am looking forward to a large support group,” she says, “and I think 10 to 15 friends are coming in from Mammoth Lakes. I am sure some of them will make signs and hopefully they will get together and cheer the loudest so I know where they are!”

While in Vancouver, Clark is staying in a house with other snowboarders, including PEOPLE.com blogger Louie Vito.

Once the halfpipe events are finished, “I am planning on staying through closing ceremonies,” Clark says, “and I know they have an aquarium and I know me and my teammates will go to a bunch of events after. After I am done, I will be able to enjoy Vancouver more.”

And then, she will hurry home as fast as possible with a very trusty travel companion – a specially adorned Brookstone pillow. “I think that’s one of the most travelled pillows on the planet,” she says. “My mom made the case for it out of an old dishrag. It sounds pretty bad but it’s really soft, the softest dishrag you ever saw!”

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