ZHANGJIAKOU, China (Reuters) – The United States knew the only way they were likely to be able to beat China in Thursday’s Olympic freestyle skiing aerials mixed team event was to take some risks, and their bold approach paid off spectacularly and brought them the ultimate prize.
China were the favourites for the first running of the three-person event at the Olympics, qualified top from the preliminary final and led after the first of three runs in the medal round.
Then, Chris Lillis took his position at the top of the hill, drew a deep breath as he visualised the testing routine ahead of him, a high risk-high reward Back Double Full-Full-Double Full with a difficulty rating of five.
He nailed it brilliantly to earn a huge score of 135 points to leapfrog the hosts. Justin Schoenefeld then delivered a 114.48, creating too big an advantage for the final Chinese skier Qi Guangpu to make up.
Canada took the bronze medal, saying they had taken a relatively conservative approach and concentrated on making their landings, but Lillis said his team knew they had to go big to challenge for gold.
“The Chinese team is formidable, and we knew that we had to execute if we were going to be able to beat them because they are incredible jumpers,” he said.
“That’s been our plan for weeks now,” he said of going for high difficulty jumps. “We wanted the gold and maybe we took a more aggressive approach and that was part of the game plan, me putting down the quint twist.
“And we have that capability with Ashley (Caldwell) being one of the only females in the world that can do that triple triple,” he said. “I was happy with that plan and it worked really well.”
Caldwell agreed: “The Chinese team has been good for a long time and that’s why we had to come out here swinging and be ready for to go all in,” she said.
“Doing tricks you’ve never done before… I always felt like a top level competitive jumper and I proved it today alongside Justin and Chris and it feels surreal.”
The success tasted particularly sweet for Lillis, whose dream of appearing alongside his brother in the 2018 Olympics were dashed by a serious knee injury two months before the Games – suffered less than a mile away from Thursday’s venue.
“That injury gave me so much motivation,” he said. “I was going through a tremendous amount of personal loss at the time (his younger brother had died unexpectedly two months earlier) so I’m not the same young guy I was then.
“I came here with a lot higher expectations than I would have had in 2018,” he added.
Caldwell has had a different Olympic journey but was equally delighted with the outcome. “I couldn’t be more excited,” she said. “This is my fourth Games and I’ve been hunting for a gold medal my entire career. To do it with these guys is incredible.”
(Reporting by Mitch Phillips; Editing by Ed Osmond, Andrew Cawthorne and Bill Berkrot)