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Olympics

Mountain springers are here to stay

By Deborah Charles

VANCOUVER (Reuters) - Though Mother Nature provided very little help, the Olympics freestyle skiing events established themselves as a real focal point at Cypress Mountain, providing some of the most exciting moments of the Vancouver Games.

But these Olympics also showed that competition is just as tough here as anywhere in the Games and that some countries are targeting them as a rich seam of gold to be plundered, notably China in the aerials.

After an unusually warm January, Olympics organizers had to launch a massive effort to bring snow by helicopter and hundreds of truckloads to the barren mountain. The effort paid off as skiers from all events had praise for the courses.

Cypress was rocking with excitement on the second night of competition when Alexandre Bilodeau shrugged off the pressure in a thrilling finale to win gold -- driving the flag-waving crowd so wild with his near flawless moguls run that they spontaneously burst into singing the national anthem.

DISABLED BROTHER

The 22-year-old said he had no pressure to win Canada's first gold medal of the Games and do away with a jinx that kept the host from winning gold at their own Olympics, having failed in Montreal (1976) and Calgary (1988).

He also won over millions of Canadians by speaking of how his disabled brother gave him inspiration.

The American women dominated in the women's moguls, winning gold and bronze while Canadian Jennifer Heil -- who had been tipped to win the host country's first gold on the first day of competition -- settled for silver despite the backing of a raucous crowd cheering and waving flags.

Cypress was also host to the debut of ski cross racing -- a mix of roller derby, NASCAR and motocross where four skiers start off shoulder-to-shoulder and careen race down a rolling, steeply banked course while trying to avoid crashing or tangling with the skis and poles of their opponents.

The rough and tumble event resulted in another gold medal for Canada when Ashleigh McIvor won the women's competition easily by propelling herself off to a strong start and never looking back.

"Ski cross is the newest form of ski racing but in essence it's been around forever -- racing your friends from the top of the mountain to the bottom," McIvor said.

"The IOC is really interested in keeping up with the next generation and keeping the Olympics cool and ski cross is a great way to do that."

Aerialists weathered sun, snow, rain and thick fog -- all in one week -- as they launched themselves off icy ramps and twisted and flipped the air several storeys high.

Though the women's event was won by an Australian and the men's by a Belarusian, the deep Chinese team proved they were a force to be reckoned in freestyle as acrobats and gymnasts have successfully transitioned to the skiing event.

American Jeret Peterson, who landed the "Hurricane" -- a triple back flip with five twists which is the hardest jump attempted in aerials -- called the Chinese a growing threat.

"The Chinese athletes are too damn young and too damn good. They have really come into our sport and attacked it and they are really good," said Peterson, the silver medalist.

(Editing by Jon Bramley