Since her performance at Beida Lake (CHN) on 17 December 2010, Xu Mengtao has only twice failed to finish on the podium in the FIS Freestyle Skiing World Cup. In Deer Valley, on 10 January 2014, the Jilin-born aerialist extended her number of top-three finishes during that period to 20 (including11 victories).
In total, since finishing third on her international debut as a 16-year-old in 2006 (also at Beida Lake), she has amassed 14 wins and 26 podium appearances in 36 competitive outings. She also has a World Cup title to her name, having topped the overall standings in 2012-2013, to go with two 'small' crystal globes in the aerial in 2012 and 2013. And on top of that, she boasts a gold from the 2013 FIS Freestyle World Ski Championships in Voss (NOR), to go with the silvers she won in 2009 and 2011.
Mengtao’s first taste of sporting competition came in the gymnastics hall at the age of four. Subsequently, she devoted herself to freestyle skiing, and aerials in particular, becoming world junior champion in Airolo (SUI) in March 2007.
Since the Vancouver Games, where she finished outside the medals, her remarkable technique and ability to pull off jaw-dropping triple flips have seen her open up a significant gap between herself and the chasing pack.
Lessons of Vancouver
At Vancouver, then just 19, Mengtao experienced the full gamut of highs and lows. After her first jump from the Cypress Mountain ‘kicker’ on 24 February 2010, she enjoyed a precious lead over her rivals. But a fall after her second jump demoted her to sixth place in the contest, which was eventually won by Australia’s Lydia Lassila.
Two years later, having risen to the top of her sport, the Chinese freestylist was able to reflect on that disappointment. “If I’d landed correctly in Vancouver, I’d have been Olympic champion. I’ve not got a problem with the difficulty of my routines, but I need to improve the stability of my landings. I’m preparing for the Sochi Games in 2014, where I’ll be fighting hard to win the gold medal,” she said.
The majority of China’s medals at the Olympic Winter Games have tended to be won on the ice, but freestyle skiing has yielded a rich haul on the piste in recent years. Since Nagano 1998, Chinese athletes have netted three silvers and two bronze, with Xiaopeng Han winning gold in the men’s competition at Turin 2006.
However, Xu Mengtao would be the first woman from the People’s Republic to obtain an Olympic title in aerial skiing. “I’m hungry for success!” she exclaims with a smile. Having prepared brand new moves to impress the judges at Rosa Khutor Extreme Park, she will arrive in Sochi as a huge favourite for the gold, but she is under no illusions about the difficulty of her task. “The Games are the culmination of all of our work over the past four years,” she reflects. “But there’s only one gold medal available – it’s an important one, and extremely difficult to get your hands on.”