By Deborah Charles
VANCOUVER (Reuters) - Alexei Grishin of Belarus defied low expectations and a rival's high difficulty jump as he twisted through the air in the men's aerials on Thursday to win his country's first ever Winter Olympics gold.
Three days ago many believed Belarus' aerials gold medal hopes were over after Anton Kushnir, the World Cup leader and overwhelming favorite to win Olympic gold, crashed and failed to qualify for the finals.
"Some of my friends told me that a lot of people thought that Belarus had no hopes to win the Olympic Games. It's not true. There are more guys on the team who can make it," Grishin told reporters.
When he set off for his final run the 30-year-old Belarussian proved immune to the pressure laid down by American Jeret Peterson who had just landed the hardest jump performed by any of the men in the freestyle competition.
"I was up there and said to myself, 'I have to do it'."
But the Belarussian had to wait to see if he had won gold until Canada's Kyle Nissen completed his last jump.
With the fiercely partisan, flag-waving crowd yelling 'Go Canada, go', Nissen sailed down the hill and completed a slightly less difficult jump than Grishin. But his legs bent and his score dropped him down to fifth overall.
The American came down the hill roaring after landing his jump. But after finishing fifth in the first run, his two jump combined total was not enough to win and he took the silver.
"I'm ecstatic. I've had trouble landing it this year," said Peterson, whose jump had a degree of difficulty of 4.9 points out of 5. "This is the best day of my life ... to finally land the Hurricane in competition, especially in the Olympics."
In the 2006 Olympics Peterson performed the Hurricane but was penalized for a bad landing and finished seventh.
China's Liu Zhongqing, one of a growing number of high caliber Chinese aerialists, won bronze.
(Additional reporting by Larry Fine; Editing by Miles Evans)