DAY #4 SPORTS FOCUS: Scintillating show at Shougang as Big Air delivers big moments

San Francisco born and raised Chinese skier Eileen Gu outdueled French compatriot Tessa Ledeux with a marvelously performed 1620 to capture gold on a sunny morning in Beijing. High marks for freeski big air as it made a rousing, high-flying, Olympic debut.

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2022 Beijing Olympics - Freestyle Skiing - Women's Freeski Big Air - Qualification - Run 1 - Big Air Shougang, Beijing, China - February 7, 2022. Gu Ailing Eileen of China in action. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
2022 Beijing Olympics - Freestyle Skiing - Women's Freeski Big Air - Qualification - Run 1 - Big Air Shougang, Beijing, China - February 7, 2022. Gu Ailing Eileen of China in action. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

It certainly lived up to expectations. Both the new Olympic discipline and competition itself – dramatically unfolding in an unlikely urban setting with Beijing as a backdrop.

The Olympic debut of freeski big air was a big hit!

Twelve acrobatic, talented and fearless female skiers launched wide-ranging and innovative tricks off a well-sculpted five-meter high jump, upon cruising down an 85-meter in-run with a 30-degree pitch. Competitions soared and spiraled through the air, delivering jaw-dropping aerial maneuvers, in a three-round competition that moved along swiftly.

Tricks named Kangaroo, Japan and Screamin’ Seaman added flavor to the high-flying, colorful and compelling competition.

Chinese American freeskiing superstar and part-time model Eileen Gu embraced the moment, descending the ramp without ski poles and launching skyward on her third and final jump. She dazzled everyone below, ultimately nailing her landing on the double cork 1620 safety grab to snatch the lead. Gu, nicknamed the “snow princess” had only thrown the new trick for the first time two weeks ago at the X Games.

2022 Beijing Olympics - Freestyle Skiing - Women's Freeski Big Air - Final - Run 2 - Big Air Shougang, Beijing, China - February 8, 2022. Gu Ailing Eileen of China in action. REUTERS/Phil Noble
2022 Beijing Olympics - Freestyle Skiing - Women's Freeski Big Air - Final - Run 2 - Big Air Shougang, Beijing, China - February 8, 2022. Gu Ailing Eileen of China in action. REUTERS/Phil Noble

Swiss Matilde Gremaud faltered, having trouble in the air, landing hard on her right side and crashing. Finally, France’s Tess Ledeux couldn’t exceed or equal Gu’s near-perfect trick, just a tad off with her landing, and ultimately relinquished her two round lead, settling for silver by the slightest of margins - .75 behind Gu. The two-time Youth Olympic Games champion from Lausanne 2020, became the People’s Republic of China’s first gold medalist of the Beijing 2022 Games.

The 18-year-old Gu dropped to her knees overcome with emotion also as the first-ever Olympic freeski big air champion.

Gu’s winning score, the calculation of her best two tricks was 188.25 to Ledeux’s 187.50.

“I was guaranteed a podium spot when I dropped in, I was only 0.25 points behind Mathilde (Gremaud) and I was thinking, ‘Should I improve on my previous one and go for the silver or should I whip out this random trick I’d never done before and go for gold?,” Gu said.

2022 Beijing Olympics - Freestyle Skiing - Women's Freeski Big Air - Final - Run 2 - Big Air Shougang, Beijing, China - February 8, 2022. Gu Ailing Eileen of China reacts after her run. REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch
2022 Beijing Olympics - Freestyle Skiing - Women's Freeski Big Air - Final - Run 2 - Big Air Shougang, Beijing, China - February 8, 2022. Gu Ailing Eileen of China reacts after her run. REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch

“That was a trick I have never attempted before. Yes, I’ve thought about it a lot, but to put it down on my third run in the first Olympic freeski final in history means the world to me.

“Even if I didn’t land it, I felt it would send a message out to the world and hopefully encourage more girls to break their own boundaries.”

Gu and Ledeux consoled the bronze medalist Gremaud, who shed tears, overcome by the moment, in a poignant scene on the snow.

The Chinese-American athlete is far from done yet, on a mission for more gold medals in halfpipe and slopestyle. Gu, born to an American father and Chinese mother, switched allegiance from the United States to China in 2019.

The vast majority of competitors in the field were no older then in their late teens or early 20′s. Freeski big air is the Olympic Winter Games’ answer to surfing, skateboarding and sport climbing, which all made their debuts at the Tokyo Summer Games.

The freeski venue in West Beijing is essentially one gigantic ski-ramp in the middle of a repurposed industrial park. Some fans of the sport, accustomed to seeing snow-capped mountains and forests, were not compelled by the urban look and site of cooling towers.

“It’s quite impressive - we do big airs at inner cities a few times a year,” Ledeux said. “It’s not my favorite kind of venue. I’d rather be in the mountains but I’m not going to complain. It is an incredible venue to ski. It’s very pleasant. I’d rather have a lot of snow and mountains around me.”

The youth-oriented event, although absolutely compelling to watch for all ages, provided many cool and captivating moments from the one-hour long competition. Freestyle skiers’ unpredictable and comedic words uttered to the finish area cameraman were an added bonus.

After American Darian Stevens botched the landing of her second jump she smiled and said to the camera: “Gotta go big, in Big Air.” She one-upped herself after a more severe, yet harmless, third run crash, she revealed: “I tried that trick for the first time in practice today.” You felt for her, but it was a fun moment.

2022 Beijing Olympics - Freestyle Skiing - Women's Freeski Big Air - Final - Run 3 - Big Air Shougang, Beijing, China - February 8, 2022. Darian Stevens of the United States in action. REUTERS/Phil Noble
2022 Beijing Olympics - Freestyle Skiing - Women's Freeski Big Air - Final - Run 3 - Big Air Shougang, Beijing, China - February 8, 2022. Darian Stevens of the United States in action. REUTERS/Phil Noble

It was also nice to see every skier at the top of the massive course receive a hug from their respective coaches before launching down the in-run. Another warm and fuzzy element of this new discipline, not seen at similar style events like freestyle moguls or aerials.

International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach was seen looking on and cheering standing directly behind Gu, just outside the finish corral. Bach was been shown on the world broadcast chatting with Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai earlier that morning.

2022 Beijing Olympics - Freestyle Skiing - Women's Freeski Big Air - Final - Run 3 - Big Air Shougang, Beijing, China - February 8, 2022.  IOC President Thomas Bach talks with China's Peng Shuai during the event. REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch
2022 Beijing Olympics - Freestyle Skiing - Women's Freeski Big Air - Final - Run 3 - Big Air Shougang, Beijing, China - February 8, 2022. IOC President Thomas Bach talks with China's Peng Shuai during the event. REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch

Both ski and snowboard Big Air come Milano-Cortina 2026 is planned to be held in Livigno, in the venue cluster for freestyle ski and snowboard events.

The Olympic future of this fresh, compelling and captivating youth-oriented event is undoubtedly bright.

It appears here to stay. As they say – “Go Big or Go Home”

Austrian Mayer wins men’s super-G, Chen leads figure skating

2022 Beijing Olympics - Alpine Skiing - Men's Super-G - National Alpine Skiing Centre, Yanqing district, Beijing, China - February 8, 2022.  Matthias Mayer of Austria in action. REUTERS/Denis Balibouse
2022 Beijing Olympics - Alpine Skiing - Men's Super-G - National Alpine Skiing Centre, Yanqing district, Beijing, China - February 8, 2022. Matthias Mayer of Austria in action. REUTERS/Denis Balibouse

Matthias Mayer charged to super-G gold, one day after attaining a downhill bronze at the Chinese National Skiing Center in Yanqing. The 31-year-old Austrian defended his Olympic super-G title from PyeongChang 2018, while collecting his fourth Olympic medal over the past three Games.

American Ryan Cochran-Siegle nearly stole the lead from Mayer, finishing a mere .04 seconds off the Austrian’s wining time. Cochran Siegle, referred to as RCS, joined his mother as an Olympic skiing medalist. Barbara Ann Cochran won gold in slalom 50-years ago at Sapporo 1972.

“I’ve approached it as the fact that she had Olympic success and such a storied career it shows that it’s possible for anyone, and using it positively following in her footsteps and trusting my own path has allowed me to be here,” Cochran-Siegle said, about his mother’s Olympic success. " I’ve taken the positives from it.”

In what was an all-around good day for Team USA. Nathan Chen is the first day leader in men’s figure skating having performed a new world record of 108.12. Japan’s Kagiyama Yuma stands second and Uno Shoma is in third with the free skate still to come.

2022 Beijing Olympics - Snowboard - Women's Parallel Giant Slalom Medal Ceremony - Genting Snow Park, Zhangjiakou, China - February 8, 2022. Ester Ledecka of the Czech Republic celebrates on the podium. REUTERS/Dylan Martinez
2022 Beijing Olympics - Snowboard - Women's Parallel Giant Slalom Medal Ceremony - Genting Snow Park, Zhangjiakou, China - February 8, 2022. Ester Ledecka of the Czech Republic celebrates on the podium. REUTERS/Dylan Martinez

Czech Republic skier/snowboarder Ester Ledecka succeeded with the first step of her quest to repeat as a parallel giant slalom snowboard and alpine skiing super-G champion. The multi-talented athlete cruised to PGS gold on Tuesday. The super-G is still to come.

Follow Brian Pinelli on Twitter: @Brian_pinelli

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