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Abramenko’s aerials win gives Ukraine rare Olympic gold

February 18, 2018

Gold medal winner Oleksandr Abramenko, of Ukraine, celebrates after the men's aerial final at Phoenix Snow Park at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, Sunday, Feb. 18, 2018. (AP Photo/Kin Cheung)

PYEONGCHANG, South Korea (AP) — Growing up in Ukraine, Oleksandr Abramenko’s father pushed him toward sports. Well, one sport actually. Soccer.

The problem? His son wasn’t feeling it.

“I felt like extreme sports were my thing,” Abramenko said.

Good call.

The 29-year-old made history on Sunday night, becoming the first man to win an individual Winter Olympic medal for Ukraine when he edged China’s Jia Zongyang in a tight aerials final. Abramenko and Jia both attempted the same jump in the last round, a back full, double full. Both of them executed it with precision. Both of them left Abramenko and Jia believing they had won.

Abramenko turned a Ukrainian flag into a cape and raced around when his score of 128.51 was posted. The score stood after Canada’s Olivier Rochon and Stanislau Hladchenko of Belarus both washed out in their last attempts, leaving only Jia.

Jumping last, Jia drilled his attempt and turned toward the landing hill with his arms raised in triumph.

Abramenko seemed to cede he’d been beat, scooting over a bit toward the silver-medal position while waiting for Jia’s score to flash.

There was no need. Jia’s score of 128.05 was just short of gold and just enough for Abramenko to celebrate a milestone achievement.

“I still can’t believe that I actually earned a gold medal,” Abramenko said. “I was hoping for any medal really.”

The only other gold medals won by the Ukraine at the Winter Games came in 1994, when Oksana Baiul captured the title in women’s figure skating, and in 2014, when the women’s biathlon team earned the top spot in a relay. Ukraine is a force at the Summer Games, capturing 11 medals in Rio de Janeiro in 2016 in sports ranging from fencing to wrestling to canoeing to gymnastics.

Success in the Winter Olympics has been more difficult to come by, which made Abramenko’s breakthrough all the more stunning. Maybe it shouldn’t have been. Sunday night marked a slow, steady climb to the podium. He was 27th in Turin in 2006, 24th in Vancouver in 2010 and sixth in Sochi four years ago.

“This is historic for me and I am actually writing the history of Ukrainian sport and the history of my sport as well,” Abramenko said.

Jia initially seemed less than thrilled with silver. He stuck his index finger out while on the medal stand, seeming to signal he was No. 1. He downplayed it afterward, saying the score indicated there’s still a little bit of room for improvement.

“For me myself, I’m quite satisfied but for my country and my team there is still a bit of pity,” Jia said.

The silver gave China three medals in aerials in Pyeongchang after Zhang Xin and Kong Fanyu took silver and bronze in the women’s event on Friday night. Still, it also continued a weird trend for the Chinese, one of the strongest aerial teams in the world. The Chinese women have seven Olympic medals but no gold. The men’s program has four Olympic medals, but just one gold, something Jia hopes will change when the Games head to Beijing in 2022.

Ilia Burov, an Olympic athlete from Russia, earned bronze. The Russian contingent remains without a gold in South Korea after winning 13 in Sochi four years ago, though that number has dropped to 11 after two were stripped due to doping.

American Jon Lillis topped qualifying on Saturday and advanced to the second round of elimination but ran into form issues in the semifinals. Belarus, which had won at least one medal in every men’s aerials competition since 1998, failed to reach the podium when Hladchenko’s final jump ended with a spectacular wipeout.

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More AP Olympic coverage: https://wintergames.ap.org

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