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China aerialists clean up in LP

January 21, 2019
By LOU REUTER - Senior Sports Writer , Lake Placid News

LAKE PLACID - Chinese freestyle skiers were feeling the power on a cold, snowy Saturday in Lake Placid, as they claimed four of the six medals up for grabs in the World Cup aerials competition at the Olympic Ski Jumping Complex.

The contest was the aerials World Cup season-opener, and included qualifying rounds in the afternoon and the finals held under the lights at night. China was particularly dominant in the women's event, as its athletes swept the top four spots with gold medalist Xu Mengtao leading the way.

Meanwhile, Russia had a strong showing in the men's competition, with Maxim Burov taking the gold and Stanislav Nikitin claiming bronze. China's Xindi Wang finished runner-up to win the silver medal.

Article Photos

Christopher Lillis flies above the American flag during Saturday’s men’s aerials World Cup competition in Lake Placid.
(News photo — Lou Reuter)

Both of Saturday's winners, Mengtao and Burov, are the defending World Cup points champions, and they triumphed by wide margins.

Since the competition was held at a United States site, the field featured lots of Americans, including a handful appearing in their first World Cup event. Eight American men and eight women participated, and for the most part, they turned in solid showings despite not reaching the podium. The women, in particular, had a good day. Three U.S. women got past the qualifying stage to move into the round of 12, and two then reached the super final of the top six in the field to battle with the Chinese. In the end, Madison Varmette finished fifth and Winter Vinecki placed sixth, which were career-best results for both skiers.

Varmette, a 22-year-old Virginia native who now lives in Park City, actually finished first in the round of 12, and was the last athlete to jump in the women's super final. Unfortunately, she crashed on her landing, which dropped her into fifth in the final standings.

Mengtao won the competition with 89.88 points, Shao Qi was runner-up with 71.92 points and Xu Nuo rounded out the top three with 67.28 points. Varmette finished with 52.49 points. Vinecki, who is back in action after ACL surgery, also missed her landing in the super final and finished with 48.14 points.

"The sport is a total gamble. I was good but I looked a little too high on the hill and piked it down a little bit and just couldn't save it," Varmette said describing her final jump. "Going in first was just super cool. Last year at Deer Valley I went in (to the super final) second, so to beat the yellow bib, to know you can do it is awesome.

"There was a lot of emotions," Varmette added. "Going into first was awesome and then ending up fifth was a little hard but it's still my best outcome yet. Definitely a big boost of confidence."

Not only did Vinecki, a Michigan native who is also a triathlete, reach the first World Cup super final of her career, she also advanced to the round of 12 for the first time.

"It was a good comp. I'm pretty excited," said the 20-year-old, who lives and trains in Park City. "This is my first finals and super finals for a World Cup, so I'm pretty excited, and this is my first World Cup back since ACL recovery this past year. I didn't really get to compete much last year, so I'm happy just to be here competing and healthy.

"Obviously, I would have loved to stick that last lay-full, but I'm just happy to get into that top six," Vinecki added. "I think is just shows me that hard work pays off getting through injuries. I fractured my face and then did my knee, but everything is feeling good now."

Kerenna Elliott was the third American to reach the women's round of 12, and she finished in 12th place.

Ashley Caldwell, a three-time Olympian, is the most veteran member of the U.S. aerials team and another athlete returning to action after an injury. The 25-year-old won her first World Cup event on the same hill in Lake Placid in 2011, and was only one of two female skiers who soared off the triples jump on Saturday. Caldwell's jump had the highest degree of difficulty in the competition, but she was unable to land her jump and finished in 14th place.

Despite coming up short in the qualifications, Caldwell was excited to be back jumping again, and said just getting on the hill for training before the competition was a pretty big deal.

"Yesterday was my first day of triples since the Olympics. It was about a year ago, so I was really happy to come out here and get off the jump," Caldwell said. "It was a big struggle for me. I was pretty scared just coming into this season just because I hadn't done any triples on water. Coming back from shoulder surgery, I was pretty nervous, so to get some off at this event was an achievement and success in itself.

"The goal this year is just to be ready for World Championships coming up in two weeks," Caldwell added. "I think I made a big step toward that, which was going to be a really hard first step, so to do that was a goal we were having this week, and I got that goal accomplished."

In the men's competition, Christopher Lillis was the lone American to move on from the qualifying round. The 20-year-old from Pittsford came up one spot short of reaching the super final and finished seventh overall with a score of 85.86.

Alex Bowen and Eric Loughran were the next-highest U.S. finishers, placing 15th and 16th, respectively.

Burov won the competition with 129.86 points, Wang was runner-up with 121.27 points and Nikitin took third with 116.29 points.

The American athletes are staying in Lake Placid while training for the U.S. national championships, which take place at the same venue on Saturday. Many of the skiers will then head west to compete in the FIS Freestyle World Championships aerials individual and team events, which take place in Deer Valley, Utah Feb. 6-7.



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