Han Xiaopeng has made history by becoming the first Chinese skier to win an Olympic gold medal. Han's shock victory came in the men's freestyle aerials event Thursday night at Sauze d'Oulx, Italy.
Han went into his first-ever aerials final without ever having won a World Cup title. But that did not stop him from surprising everyone by taking the gold medal ahead of Dmitri Dashinski of Belarus and Russia's Vladimir Lebedev.
The freestyle aerial event is a high-energy competition that is punctuated by the heavy beat of loud rock music. Skiers come down a steep, snow-cover ramp and go over the so-called kicker, which launches them high into the air. Once airborne, they twist, spin and somersault before coming down for their landing.
The movements they make in the air are very similar to what you might see from top divers.
The 12 finalists each made two jumps Thursday night, with Han in second place after the first. But his second leap, known as a back-lay-double-full-full, gave him a total of 250.77 points. Han, 22, who also became the youngest gold medalist in men's aerials, was not surprised that someone from China could win the event.
"The freestyle, especially the aerial, is very fit for Chinese, because we are very good at gymnastics and diving. [And he thinks], the Chinese can do it!," he said.
Dmitri Dashinski of Belarus was the leader after the first round of jumps. But he made a small error on his second jump. He ended up with the silver medal, Belarus' first at these Games, just over two points (248.68) behind Han. Even though he was somewhat disappointed not to win the gold, Dashinski said he enjoys the growing trend of competing at night.
"I like it a lot more than the day because I can see the landing a lot better. I think the conditions are not too windy, not snowing at night. I don't know - more stable. Plus this season we are having more and more competitions at night. I think it is more like a show. Good for the people who are watching it," he said.
Russia's Vladimir Lebedev, who failed to qualify for the finals at the 2002 Salt Lake City Games, took the bronze, less than two points behind Dashinski.
Unlike other skiing disciplines, which are usually dominated by European athletes, freestyle aerialists cover a wider range. The 12 finalists Thursday night came from seven different countries.
Olga Ivanova of Moscow, who is a huge sports fan and attends as many major events as she can, thinks she knows why. "I think it can be done pretty much in every country. People in this sport come from different sports beforehand, diving or like acrobatics or whatever. So they can do practice just about everywhere," she said.
American Jeret Speedy Peterson was disappointed he did not place higher. Third after the first jump, he executed the Hurricane, which includes an unprecedented three flips and five twists, on his second leap. But he failed to land cleanly and ended up seventh.