ZHANGJIAKOU, China (AP) — His cry pierced the freezing night air. Not far away, a few cars parked near the Olympic jump course honked their horns in celebration.
Xu Mengtao – the daredevil they call “Tao-Tao” – has spent the past 16 years traveling the world in search of small victories wrapped up in all those twists and turns. On Monday evening, the most successful Chinese jumper of this generation took her biggest victory ever.
“It’s a sense of honor and a sense of mission accomplished,” Xu said after winning gold on home soil.
One of the few women to consistently attempt triple flips over the years in a sport full of daredevils, Xu notched the Chinese women’s first Olympic victory after years of close calls (five silver and two bronze since 1998). Defending champion Hanna Huskova of Belarus took silver and Megan Nick of the United States was the surprise bronze medalist.
It was not hard to see or hear what this meant for Xu and for China.
When she landed firmly and kept her foot on her final jump, she pointed one, then both index fingers skyward. She let out a scream, then another when the score – 108.61 – came with a “1” next to her name. Horns honked. The hundred fans allowed to enter the stadium cheered wildly. Chinese media in the interview area cheered and shouted.
“I want to say to the fans: you wanted immersive games. Today I gave you an immersive game,” Xu said.
Moments after the winning jump, American Ashley Caldwell, another stalwart of the triple flip, leaned back as she landed and her back hit the snow on the final run of the night. Four nights earlier, Caldwell had won gold in the mixed team competition. That night, she finished fourth.
“The worst and best positions you can get,” said the four-time Olympian.
She hugged Xu tightly from below. They’ve been battling it out for years, as they travel the world in a tight-knit sport that sometimes feels more like a family.
“She’s been pushing triples longer than I have,” Caldwell said. “And I respect her wholeheartedly for that. For her to win a gold medal in her own country is an incredible accomplishment, and it brought tears to my eyes as well as the sadness” of her own appeal.
Even losing, Caldwell knew it was a winning night for women’s aerials. It’s a sport full of risks, yes, but all the risks are very calculated.
Only a select few over the years – Huskova, as well as Olympic champions Lydia Lassila and Alla Tsuper come to mind – have been willing to give up the certainty of a solid scoreline with a brace for the high-risk, high-reward gambit that a triple flip entails.
In the last two Olympics, only four of the 12 finalists have attempted triples in the medal round. This time seven did.
“There were a lot of girls on the triple,” said Nick, whose back-full-double-full earned her the first women’s single jump medal for the United States since Nikki Stone won gold in 1998. “So I knew I had to do some nice triple twist doubles if I wanted to rank well in the competition.”
Twenty minutes after her victory, Xu covered her face with her gloves as she walked to the top step of the podium to receive her “Bing Dwen Dwen” doll.
Her victory came just hours before another freestyle skier, Eileen Gu, was set to hit the slopestyle course and go for her second gold medal at the Beijing Games. But on that chilly night at the action park, they were talking about another high-flying player winning gold for China – the daredevil they call “Tao-Tao”.
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