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Freestyle skiing

Australia's Lassila shines brightest

Belmont’s Emily Cook got plenty high enough on her first jump, but couldn’t land cleanly, finishing 11th. Belmont’s Emily Cook got plenty high enough on her first jump, but couldn’t land cleanly, finishing 11th. (Mike Blake/Reuters)
By Eddie Pells
Associated Press / February 25, 2010

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WEST VANCOUVER, British Columbia - Australia’s Lydia Lassila flew pencil-straight through the dreary fog last night to bring another Olympic gold medal back to her land of sun and sand.

The 27-year-old from Melbourne, who shredded her knee during qualifying at the Turin Games, enjoyed a much better go-round this time, nailing a pair of jumps to not only prevent a Chinese sweep, but knock the world’s up-and-coming aerials power off the top of the podium.

Lassila landed her second jump for a total of 214.74 points, a 7.5-point margin over Li Nina, who earned her second straight Olympic silver.

“After Torino, I knew that I didn’t want to give up,’’ Lassila said. “I knew there was more left in me, and at that point I didn’t think I was done with this sport. I knew I could jump like this. I wanted to achieve that; it was self-satisfying what I did tonight.’’

Li’s teammate, Guo Xinxin, took bronze.

This marked Australia’s second gold of these Olympics and second gold in Olympic aerials. In 2002, Alisa Camplin pulled off an upset victory. At the bottom of the mountain that day, covered in snow, she admitted she fell on the way down because, well, she wasn’t all that accomplished a skier.

No big deal.

Aerials is essentially gymnastics on snow, and any top jumper does a good bit of training by landing in water, which there’s plenty of Down Under.

“Every girl that blows out a knee in this sport is by themselves in a very lonely place trying to decide whether it’s worth the effort,’’ said Camplin, also a veteran of knee injuries. “The knee just struggles on and on for years. This is when you’ve got to come from the absolute bottom to the absolute top, and Lydia worked her way every single day with gritted teeth.’’

Indeed, Lassila has been working at it for a while, pushing to fourth in the world this season - two years after her return from her knee surgery following the 2006 accident.

Lassila was the star on a night where the dense fog in Cypress threatened to ruin the whole show.

For most of the night, the skiers could barely see the takeoff ramp from the top of the run where they begin the trek that sends them flying through the air for a series of twists and flips, ending with a hard landing on the sugary snow below.

American Emily Cook of Belmont fell on her first jump, ruining a chance to write a perfect closing chapter to a career filled with injuries, comebacks, and great attitude. She finished 11th.

Her teammate, 16-year-old Ashley Caldwell, finished 10th, landing both her jumps, though they were nowhere near as difficult as those of the leaders. But this was a learning experience for Caldwell, who came out of America’s Elite Air Program, which was designed, in part, to combat China’s rapid rise in this sport.

Li and Guo won the fourth and fifth Olympic aerials medals for China, which saw a sport with a lot of medal opportunities and many good chances to resurrect careers of high-level gymnasts who couldn’t take the final step in that sport.

They came into the Olympics ranked first and second in the world and had the package to win a gold here. Li, who has the words “Too Fast To Live, Too Young To Die’’ printed on her skis, was the only woman in this competition to cram four spins into her jump. But she only did two flips.

She landed it, but her body and skis were less-than-perfectly aligned, which made a difference when compared with Lassila’s jump - skis perfectly straight, arms to her side and a buttery smooth landing.

Having three flips, compared with two for Li, sealed the deal.

“That’s the most difficult jump that she can do,’’ Lassila said. “Ever since I saw this sport, I wanted to jump like a man. I saw how wonderful they were, and triple somersaults and that was always my goal.’’