|Cai Xuetong in action during her final run in the halfpipe competition of the World Cup event at Genting Resort in Zhangjiakou, Hebei province on Friday. Cai won China's first snowboarding gold medal of the 2018-19 campaign with a score of 88.75. [China Daily]|
China's freestyle skiers and snowboarders are already reaping the benefits of the nation's ahead-of-schedule preparations for the 2022 Winter Olympics.
Weeks of training on the Olympic halfpipe course, completed last year, at Games co-host Genting Resort, paid off on Friday for Cai Xuetong, who produced a dazzling final run to win China's first snowboarding gold medal of this season's World Cup with a score of 88.75 points.
Swiss rider Verena Rohere (85.25) and Kurumi Imai (82.25) of Japan finished second and third respectively.
Cai, a back-to-back halfpipe world champion in 2015 and 2017, has now climbed to top the Cup rankings after opening with a third-place finish in Copper Mountain, Colorado earlier this month.
She said her familiarity with the Genting pipe gave her an edge.
"I've been able to compete here fully relaxed, just like riding in my backyard," said the three-time Olympian. "To be able to test my tricks at the Olympic venue four seasons ahead of the Games is really helpful."
A total of 20 golds will be up for grabs in freestyle ski and snowboarding at Genting.
Construction of the halfpipe, slope-style and parallel giant slalom courses has been completed at the resort, with multiple World Cup events lined up to test them.
Li Yang, manager of China's snowboard team, said the quality and accessibility of the course has improved the efficiency of his riders' training.
"We are so lucky to have the pipe ready at such an early stage," Li told China Daily at Genting.
"In between our traditional summer training in New Zealand and the start of the very first World Cup event, we can now stay home to have our riders' trick consistency and difficulty honed over and over again."
Cai's teenage compatriot Zhang Kexin also attributed her winning performance in Thursday's freeski halfpipe to her training at Genting.
"I think I've grown really confident having gotten used to the speed and height of the pipe," said Zhang, 16, who topped the podium ahead of Canada's Rachael Karker and teammate Li Fanghui.
Zhang first rose to prominence by winning World Cup gold at the series' Genting debut last year, before becoming China's youngest team member at the Pyeongchang Olympics.
She finished ninth overall in South Korea but has now set her sights on a podium finish in 2022, having raised her trick-difficulty level and improved her execution.
Freeski team manager Li Zhi reckons Zhang is now possibly the only female rider in the world capable of throwing two consecutive 900 spins (two and a half rotations).
"She still needs to work more on the execution and connection of the tricks to be able to stomp them in competitions, but she's definitely on her way to becoming the world's best in the event," said Li.
Home advantage also proved key for China's victorious freestyle ski halfpipe team, which was only assembled after Beijing and Zhangjiakou won the Olympic bid in 2015.
The nation's steady stream of new talent has not gone unnoticed by the world's elite.
"This is definitely the right set-up here," said New Zealand's Nico Porteous, a runnerup in the men's freeski halfpipe on Thursday at Genting.
"They have the equipment and everything. I hope that the Chinese public gets into this sport because this is what everybody should enjoy.
"I am excited to see what they bring to the table here in China. We saw two girls on the podium today. So China is definitely making its presence felt on the world stage."
(Source: China Daily)