Twists and Shouts
With the gold medal favorite sidelined by an injury suffered last week, a 25-year-old electrical engineer from Switzerland could steal the show at aerials today
By Austin Murphy
On a raucous day at Deer Valley it never got any quieter than this. Bruised but unbowed, Xin Xin Guo of China stood 55 meters above the launching jump, or "kicker," hoping things would go better this time. On her first jump in the qualifying round of women's aerials, Guo had attempted a triple back somersault with a twist, only to drop from the sky like a red meteor, gouging a trench in the landing area and drawing a collective, horrified gasp from 14,000 spectators. (She was okay.) Now, as the 18-year-old prepared to once again take to the skies, a hush of anticipation fell over the venue. Hey, this is the girl who made like a lawn dart on her first jump. Let's see what she does for an encore.
Good for Guo, who pulled off the triple somersault, this time landing on her skis and remaining upright. The jump wasn't enough to get her to today's final, but at least she left the venue under her own power. Guo's yard sale, while frightening, was hardly shocking. In this ibuprofen-intensive sport, in which the competitors do multiple flips and twists while soaring 50 feet in the air, the only surprise is that more of them aren't hurt.
Indeed, a bad crash five days before the qualifying round left the competition wide open. Gold medal favorite Jacqui Cooper of Australia, a three-time World Cup champion, blew out her left knee on a landing on Feb. 11. Her injury, while disappointing, could hardly be described as shocking. Cooper's teammate, Shannon Leotta, broke her right leg in training in November 2000 (this after recovering from broken vertebrae suffered when she was hit by a car the year before). America's brightest hope in aerials, 22-year-old Emily Cook, fractured bones in her left foot in training four weeks ago, which knocked her out of the Games. When all the MRIs and X-rays had been taken, and crutches and medications dispensed, a new favorite in women's aerials had emerged. She was the serendipitously named Alla Tsuper of Belarus, a sprite-sized ex-gymnast from Minsk. Consistent and unflappable, she had three firsts and two second-place finishes in six international competitions this season.
Tsuper looked super in the first of two qualifying jumps that put her into today's competition. A triple-twisting double backflip earned her a 95.85. As skier after skier soared off the kicker, Tsuper's score seemed certain to hold up as the round's best. The 17th aerialist to stare down the runway seemed little threat to supplant her. Switzerland's Evelyne Leu is a shy 25-year-old who works as an electrical engineer at a train factory in her hometown of Mettmenstetten. You won't find her on anyone's list of Salt Lake medal contenders. Having (what else?) hurt her right knee earlier in the World Cup season, Leu had been limiting herself to double somersaults in competition -- until now.
As Leu admitted afterward, her knee had begun to feel better in the week before the Games. In practices, she said, "I moved on again [to the] triple, and it worked very well." Hurling herself off the lip of the kicker, she executed a tight, triple-back somersault with two full twists and drilled the landing. Her jump sent the crowd into a frenzy and pulled down a 103.74 from the judges. Although her second jump scored slightly less well, due to a minor misstep on landing, it was even more stunning: a "full-full-full" -- a triple flip with three twists. Until Leu pulled it off, Australia's Cooper had been the only woman to perform a full-full-full in competition. Leu's combined score of 203.16 set a world record and marked her as the favorite going into today's final.
Asked what she thought of the new favorite, the former favorite said, simply, "Nice jumps. Beautiful." And what had Tsuper thought of her own jumps? "So-so." She heads into the final in third place, behind Leu and surprising Alisa Camplin of Australia. Was she saving her best stuff for today? Tsuper shrugged and said nothing.
"Jacqui does a full-full-full, now Evelyne does one," said U.S. freestyle skiing coach Jeff Wintersteen. "I think it's great for the women."
He was speaking in very general terms. While these Olympics are shaping up nicely for women's aerial skiing, they have become quite forgettable for U.S. team members Brenda Petzold and Tracy Evans. Despite doing everything else right on her first qualifying jump, Petzold came in for a grotesque landing, the back of her helmet slapping the snow behind her en route to a minuscule 58.58 score from which she could not recover. After a solid first jump Evans reprised her teammate's whiplashed landing. Neither is in today's final. Petzold stood at the base of the hill on Saturday alternately planning her future and beating herself up. "Nerd" and "idiot" were two of the names she called herself before she brightened and said, "I'm jazzed to go see [U.S.] women's hockey kick some butt."
While America lacks representation in the final, North America doesn't. Three Canadians are in: Deidra Dionne, pride of Red Deer, Alberta; and the Flying Veronicas -- or, if you prefer, Veronikas. Veronica (Big Vee) Brenner, who has overcome a broken nose and a blown ACL, and Veronika (Little Vee) Bauer, a former trampoline champion.
After accepting congratulations for her country's strong performance -- "I coulda told you we'd do well," she said -- Little Vee turned her attention to the day's biggest surprise. "It's amazing," said Bauer of Leu. "Until today, Evelyne hadn't done those tricks this winter. For her to do two huge triples and stick 'em...." Bauer paused, then smiled. "What are the chances she's going to do that twice?"
Who knows? The way Leu looks right now, though, the rest of the women have their hands full, full, full.