Xu Mengtao, of China, Takes the Gold in Women’s Aerials

Australia has a habit of dominating freestyle skiing aerials, but China came to Genting Snow Park on a bitingly cold night hoping to win medals for the home country. And China delivered.

With the evening temperature at minus-10 degrees Fahrenheit, Xu Mengtao who won the gold medal, with a back-full-full-full effort executed to near perfection. Hanna Huskova, the defending gold medalist from Belarus, earned silver, and Megan Nick of the United States got bronze.

Xu’s winning trick brought the few Chinese fans in the grandstands to their feet and caused them to cheer, breaking the pandemic-era decorum that asks fans to not yell. Her score of 108.61 put her in first place.

That left Ashley Caldwell, of the United States, jumping last. She did the same trick, landed a bit on her backside, and finished fourth. Afterward she swallowed Xu in a long embrace, the winner overcome with tears. Xu then danced with the Chinese flag draped over her shoulders.

Laura Peel of Australia, a two-time world champion and one of the favorites to medal, came in fifth after a hard fall.

In aerials, competitors take turns speeding downhill to launch themselves off a near-vertical ramp known as a kicker to perform a litany of dizzying tricks. They are the type of spinning acrobatics that viewers might see off a diving board during the Summer Olympics.

But the discipline is dangerous enough that there are limits to what is allowed. Athletes can perform a maximum of three back flips, but can add as many twists as possible. Peel is one who has managed four twists in competition.

Flying is not the hard part; landing. The landing slope is snow covered and steep, so that athletes can, theoretically, glide away once they land. And it is covered in pine needles to help them spot the ground during all their rotations. Coaches stand near the kicker screaming at the athletes spinning above them to either slow their rotation or speed it up.

But crashes can be spectacular, and it is not uncommon for even solid, ski-first landings to be so firm that competitors cough up blood.

On Monday night, 12 women reached what is called Final 1, and their best of two attempts determined which six would advance to Final 2.

Those six took turns on one all-or-nothing jump to determine the medals.

Huskova took the early lead, and Nick trailed. Peel and Kong Fanyu, of China, took hard falls.

That gave Xu the stage to pull off the biggest jump of her life. And it gave Caldwell, a 28-year-old from Utah making her fourth Olympic appearance, a chance to get her first-ever individual medal.

She led the US team to a mixed team gold medal last week, but in three previous Olympic appearances, her best finish had been 10th, twice, in 2010 and 2014.

Having qualified first for the six-woman final, ensuring her best-ever finish, she landed on her back after her trick, creating a swirl of snow in the cold night air, and popped back upright.

The scores soon confirmed what everyone knew: Xu had won. Caldwell yelled “Olympic champion!” as she ran to embrace her rival.

“Taotao has been pushing triples for longer than I have, and I respect her wholeheartedly,” Caldwell said, using Xu’s nickname. “For her to win the gold medal in her own country is an incredible accomplishment and it brought tears to my eyes just as much as sadness did.”

“I respect what everyone does out here,” she added. “I know how hard this is. I face it every day. Why shouldn’t I be excited for their success.”

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