ZHANGJIAKOU, China (Reuters) -A spectacular run by Chris Lillis helped propel the United States to victory in the first ever Olympic freestyle skiing mixed team aerials event on Thursday, leaving favourites China to settle for silver.
China led after the first of three rounds in the four-team medals final but, after Ashley Caldwell kept the U.S. in range, last year’s world championship individual silver medallist Lillis scored a huge 135 points and Justin Schoenefeld did enough on the third jump to secure the gold medal.
Canada edged out Switzerland for the bronze.
Earlier, the team representing the Russian Olympic Committee (ROC), the reigning world champions, failed to advance to the medal final, being eliminated alongside Belarus.
Belarussian Hanna Huskova, the individual champion in 2018, had the honour of being the first to take to the air in the new Olympic event under lights at the Genting Snow Park.
China qualified first for the medal round and led after the opening jump by four-time Olympian Xu Mengtao but Lillis put it all on the line by nailing a level five degree of difficulty Back Double Full-Full-Double Full.
When the stunning score came up, he screamed “let’s go”, knowing he had put the U.S. in pole position.
China then lost ground when Jia Zongyang was forced into an ungainly front somersault on landing and scored only 96.2 before Schoenefeld piled on the pressure with an impressive 114.8 score for a team tally of 338.34.
That left China’s Qi Guangpu needing an unlikely 136-pointer for victory and though he achieved huge amplification for 122.17 – the second highest score of the medals final – it left the host nation in second place on 324.22.
“This has been a three-year process for us, for me getting ready for this Olympic Games and being able to throw those quintuple twisting triples,” said Lillis.
His dreams of appearing alongside his brother in the 2018 Olympics were dashed by a serious knee injury two months before the Games.
Cauldwell said: “I couldn’t be more excited. 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.”
It was an exciting finale to the first edition of the event, which claims a unique selling point that teams consist of three athletes with a minimum of one of each sex – so teams can choose two men or two women.
(Reporting by Mitch Phillips;Editing by Ed Osmond and Andrew Cawthorne)