ZHANGJIAKOU, China (Reuters) -China’s Xu Mengtao finally claimed her elusive Olympic gold medal when she triumphed in a dramatic final of the freestyle skiing women’s aerials on home snow on Monday, producing a spectacular jump as most of her main rivals faltered.
Xu, the Sochi silver medallist and World Cup leader, nailed a 108.61 effort to edge ahead of defending champion Hanna Huskova of Belarus, with Megan Nick taking a surprise bronze for the United States.
Xu then had to wait as Ashley Caldwell, the most impressive performer in qualifying, attempted to beat her score, only for the American to crash-land and spark wild celebrations among the Chinese supporters.
It was China’s first victory in the event after five silver medals since it was added to the Games programme in 1994.
Caldwell finished fourth, one place ahead of world champion and favourite Laura Peel of Australia who had a final to forget.
On a bitterly cold night, a gusting, northerly wind brought the temperature down to -23 Celsius and made jumping difficult – especially as so many contenders were opting for difficult triples.
Caldwell, full of confidence after her mixed team gold on Thursday, was the best of the 12 with a 105.60 score. The format meant the top six advanced to the final with all previous scores wiped out – with just one more jump each to decide the medals.
Huskova was the lowest-scorer of the six but roared out of the blocks with 107.95 points – then sat back to watch and wait.
Peel went all out for a triple but had another terrible landing and China’s Kong Fanyu tried the same jump, with an even more spectacular head-first wipeout.
Xu, however, bucked the trend and made no mistake with her high-risk Back Full Full Full, scoring 108.61, and Caldwell could not respond.
Xu, 31, won the world title in 2013 but then became the nearly-woman of the event, as, dogged by a series of serious knee and back injuries, she had to settle for three successive world bronzes and sixth, second and ninth positions in her three previous Olympic appearances.
When the heavily-favoured Chinese were edged out by the U.S. in last-week’s team event despite Xu giving them a healthy lead with her opening run, it appeared the gold might remain elusive.
“We were crying after the team silver and team were talking again today about all the silvers for the women but now I’m finally able to create history and feel so lucky to secure the gold for China in China,” Xu said.
“It’s been a hard and very emotional journey but I never lost faith or my drive and passion for the sport and I want to thank everybody who kept faith in me – I could never have made it here without that support.”
Asked what she was thinking as she let our a huge roar after nailing her landing, she said: “I was just so exhilarated, so happy. I wanted that moment to last forever.”
Huskova’s medal was Belarus’s second of the Games after Anton Smolski’s biathlon silver and maintained the country’s impressive run after winning gold in 2014 and 2018.
(Reporting by Mitch Phillips, editing by Shri Navaratnam and Ed Osmond)