China's strong aerial force set to take off

By Liu Zhen and Nick Mulvenney

BEIJING (Reuters) - When freestyle skier Han Xiaopeng leapt and twisted his way to becoming the first Chinese man to win a Winter Olympic gold medal in Turin, most people back home had never heard of his sport.

Four years on and China's strength in freestyle skiing aerials is such that Han is not even guaranteed a place in the team to defend his gold at next month's Vancouver Games, while the women's line-up is even stronger.

A combination of a well-resourced state sport system investing in success, and a pool of talented acrobats and gymnasts who could be retrained to perform on skis has turned China into an aerials powerhouse.

"Our team is getting stronger and stronger. I am confident in them," Dustin Wilson, who has coached the Chinese since 2004, told state media recently.

"Thanks to Han's Turin victory, we have enjoyed great support over the last four years. Now we can match every other country in training standards, facilities and medical care," the Canadian added.

"My bottom line is one gold medal. If they perform well, both golds could be ours."

After struggling with a knee injury for the last year, Han is ranked behind younger compatriots Jia Zongyang, Liu Zhongqing, Qi Guangpu and Wu Chao in the race to secure one of four tickets for the February 12-28 Games.

MENTAL APPROACH

"I am glad that the younger athletes are improving very quickly to the world standard," said the 27-year-old former acrobat.

"I have experienced one Games. I have no problem in my mental approach or my physical preparations. What I need is to get back into the rhythm of competition and recover from injury. I am confident in myself."

The pick of the Chinese men on form alone is teenager Jia, who has won back-to-back World Cup events this season.

"The Chinese men's team is strong and unified, I believe we can get the best results through our collective effort."

China's leading woman is Li Nina, a silver medalist in Turin and World Cup winner in Calgary last weekend, who will be taking part in her third Games in Vancouver.

"I smiled happily at the Salt Lake City Games because I had no goal for my first Olympics, and I smiled politely at the Turin Games," said the 27-year-old. "I hope to be laughing like mad after the Vancouver Games."

THREE FLIPS

Like Han, Li faces strong competition from an in-form teenager in Xu Mengtao, who in December was the first woman to land a "lay double-full full" -- three flips and three spins -- in competition.

The 19-year-old former gymnast is convinced that she will be transformed by taking part in the Olympics, and can perhaps even bring a medal back to China.

"I am full of passion now," said Xu. "It feels so exciting to imagine that I will be so different when I came back home after the Winter Games."

Guo Xinxin, the world number three, is also one of the favorites for gold because of her consistency.

So if Han makes it to the Cypress Mountain venue for the freestyle skiing finals, he should have plenty of company.

"Last time I felt I was fighting alone," Han recalled. "At that time we were not strong enough as a whole team...but I won't be alone in Vancouver."

(Editing by Clare Fallon)