ZHANGJIAKOU, Hebei: China's Xu Mengtao finally claimed Olympic gold when she triumphed in a dramatic final of the freestyle skiing women's aerials on home snow on Monday (Feb 14), producing a spectacular jump as most of her main rivals faltered.
Xu, the Sochi silver medallist and current World Cup leader, nailed a 108.61 effort to edge ahead of defending champion Hanna Huskova of Belarus, with Megan Nick taking a surprise bronze for the United States.
Xu had to wait as American Ashley Caldwell, the most impressive performer in qualifying, attempted to beat her score, only to crash-land and spark wild celebrations among the Chinese supporters.
It was China's first victory in the event after five silver medals since it was added to the Games programme in 1994.
Caldwell finished fourth, one place ahead of world champion and favourite Laura Peel of Australia, who had a final to forget.
On a bitterly cold night, a gusting, northerly wind brought the temperature down to -23 degrees Celsius and made jumping difficult.
Peel had laid down a marker in the qualifying competition earlier in the day – held over from Sunday because of bad weather – with a monster 104.54 score. But she had a scare in the final as she disappeared into a cloud of fresh snow in a mess of a landing to sit ninth of the 12 finalists after the first round.
She flirted with disaster again with her second jump, both hands touching down after her triple, but the difficulty level earned her 100.02 and a place in the final.
Caldwell did not need to take her second effort but, full of confidence after her mixed team gold on Thursday, did so – and improved her score to 105.60.
The format meant that the top six advanced to the final with all previous scores wiped out – with just one more jump each to decide the medals.
Huskova was the lowest scorer of the six but roared out of the blocks with 107.95 points – then sat back to watch and wait.
Peel went all out for a triple but had another terrible landing, and China's Kong Fanyu tried the same jump, with an even more spectacular head-first wipeout.
Xu, however, bucked the trend and made no mistake, scoring 108.61, and Caldwell could not respond – reversing the pair's fortunes from the team event when the US pipped China for gold.