BEIJING, 14 December (BelTA - China Daily). - Spearheaded by snowboarder Cai Xuetong's World Cup gold, Chinese athletes enjoyed a triumphant week on the ice and snow to keep the momentum soaring for Beijing 2022.
After missing out on international events for almost two years, halfpipe specialist Cai made a stylish return to the World Cup series on Saturday by winning the season opener to claim her 13th title in the elite circuit and cement her status as a hot medal favorite for next year's Olympics.
Despite the plummeting temperatures at Copper Mountain, Colorado, Cai needed only two runs to warm up before stomping an outstanding third run, thrilling the crowd by starting with a high-flying backside air, followed by frontside 900, backside 540 grabs and a cab 900 melon.
The two-time world champion finished with a winning score of 80.50 points at the meet, the first of three World Cup legs this season.
Cai's previous Cup appearance was in February 2020 before the pandemic resulted in her 21-month hiatus from international competition. So, she was delighted to shake off the rust quickly ahead of the all-important home Olympics.
"I was really excited about the competition because last year we (the Chinese team) were just training the whole time. I'm just excited to come back and compete," Cai told the International Ski Federation's website, fis-ski.com, following the eight-woman final.
"I'm just taking it one step at a time heading toward Beijing 2022. I hope I can do well in every competition and head into the Olympics feeling confident," added the 27-year-old Heilongjiang native, who secured her fourth Olympic appearance with the win.
Japan's Sena Tomita landed a 76.00-point first run to win silver while Spanish veteran Queralt Castellet finished third with a final run that scored 70.50.
Led by Cai and 2018 Olympic silver medalist Liu Jiayu, China has filled its four-berth Beijing 2022 quota for women's snowboard halfpipe, which involves riders performing spinning tricks after launching themselves skyward off a semicircular ramp. Judges score performances based on trick execution, variety, amplitude and creativity.
The victory moved Cai up to second on the all-time FIS snowboard halfpipe World Cup honors list－just two behind the record held by retired United States legend Tricia Byrnes. Cai also extended her lead on the all-time podium rankings with her 28th top-three finish from 38 Cup appearances.
Defending Olympic champion Chloe Kim and 2021 world championship silver medalist Maddie Mastro, both of the US, skipped the first leg but are expected to return at the Dew Tour event later this week at the same Colorado resort.
Cai's triumph followed an equally stunning performance from teammate Gu Ailing. The 18-year-old grabbed her second World Cup title this season in freeski halfpipe on Friday, only six days after her brilliant Big Air win at the Steamboat Resort, also in Colorado. As an exceptionally versatile freestyle skier, Gu harbors legitimate gold-medal hopes in multiple disciplines at Beijing 2022 after edging out Canada's Rachael Karker and Kelly Sildaru of Estonia with a jaw-dropping set of tricks to land on top of the podium.
Gu began with a right side 900 with the Buick grab－a trick currently unique to her in the women's field. She followed that up with a string of crowd-pleasing maneuvers, including a left 900 Japan, a left alley-oop flat 540 mute and a 540 double grab, to score 90.50.
Afterward, Gu insisted she has plenty more to offer, given that the heavy snowfall had hampered her routines.
"Today the conditions were really tough," she said. "It snowed overnight and it's still snowing right now, so that affected me a lot and I had to make some last-minute changes to my run. I wasn't able to do a lot of the tricks I've been working on early in the season."
Born in California to a Chinese mother and American father, Gu, known as Eileen in the States, chose to represent China in 2019 and has emerged a major star to watch at the Beijing Games, which open on Feb 4.
Meanwhile, long-track speed skater Ning Zhongyan claimed his first 1,000m World Cup gold medal in Calgary, Canada, clocking a personal best of 1 minute and 6.65 seconds for victory. The surprise win concluded the 22-year-old's four-leg Cup campaign during which he has delivered five podium finishes, including another individual gold in his strongest event, the 1,500m, in Norway.
With Ning leading the way together with men's sprinter Gao Tingyu, the Chinese speed skating squad is aiming to at least compete for a second Olympic gold on the long track in Beijing to add to retired speedster Zhang Hong's women's 1,000m title from the 2014 Sochi Games in Russia.
Gao, a bronze medalist in men's 500m four years ago in South Korea, impressed with a gold-silver combo in both the opening and final legs of the World Cup circuit.