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China aims for top of podium in women’s aerials

February 13, 2014

KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia (AP) — When China decided to hand over its fledgling aerials program to Peter Judge 11 years ago, the Canadian helped unleash what former Chinese coach Dustin Wilson called a “Pandora’s Box.”

One that’s taken over the sport that is basically gymnastics on skis.

The only place the Chinese haven’t ascended to over their slow, steady rise is the top of the Olympic podium.

China’s women’s team entered Sochi with four of the top spots in the World Cup standings and six of the top 11. Of the 12 podium spots available in the last four events leading up to Friday night’s Olympic aerials at Rosa Khutor Extreme Park, China has grabbed nine of them.

Veteran Li Nina began the wave that is cresting at aerials ramps all over the world. The two-time Olympic silver medalist, who turned 31 last month, won at Lake Placid last month, ahead of Danielle Scott of Australia and countrywomen Xin Zhang and Mengtao Xu.

Mengtao was expected to “change the sport” as Wilson put it when she burst onto the scene in 2009. She won consecutive World Cup season titles in 2012-13 but hasn’t been quite as sharp this winter.

Not that it matters since, as Ukrainian coach Yulia Forminykh put it, “everybody has a chance. The Olympics are like a lottery.”

Here are five athletes outside of the Chinese team who have a chance to pull an upset on Valentine’s Day.

LYDIA LASSILA — The defending Olympic gold medalist, Lassila is the safest bet to crash a potential Chinese sweep. The 32-year-old has been working on a quadruple-twisting triple-flip, territory long left to the men. If she nails it in competition, the judges will reward her handsomely and with gold already in her pocket, there’s no real reason to hold back.

DANIELLE SCOTT — The Australian has been making inroads on the sport’s elite since her debut in 2012. She sneaked into second in the last Olympic tuneup and is healthy. The 23-year-old Scott — like many of the other competitors — is a former gymnast who has mastered the art of speeding down a ramp then flinging herself three stories into the air while completing a dizzying series of flips and twists.

ASHLEY CALDWELL — The 20-year-old was the youngest member of the U.S. Olympic aerials team in Vancouver. Now she feels like one of the oldest. The Hamilton, Va., native tore the ACL in her right knee in 2011 then did the same thing to her left knee 363 days later. She soared in her return in China last month, finishing second in her first competition back.

EMILY COOK — A six-time U.S. champion, Cook is making her third Olympic appearance. The 34-year-old is a perennial top-10 finisher, though she has just three podium finishes over the last two years.

ALLA TSUPER — This one is for the moms. The 34-year-old is competing in her fifth and final Olympics so she can spend more time at home with her 18-month daughter. Far from her prime when she was a podium regular, the Belarusian is a sentimental choice. “Hopefully,” she said, “I can go out on a high.”

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