The Sochi Network

50 to watch: Xu looking for soft landing in Sochi

In the run up to the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, Reuters is highlighting the athletes to watch during the Games.

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Nail that landing.

Not so easy to do after performing a series of complicated somersaults and twists high above an icy slope, perhaps, but Xu Mengtao knows getting two skis down safely on the landing hill is key to her winning Olympic gold in Sochi next month.

It was a botched landing with her final jump in the Canadian fog on Cypress Mountain four years ago that robbed the then 19-year-old Chinese of the freestyle skiing aerials title at the Vancouver Games.

Xu has responded with utterly dominant form over the past few seasons, ramping up the already imposing levels of difficulty in her jumps and claiming her first world title in Norway last year.

She was in a league of her own in the World Cup series in 2011-12 and 2012-13, making the podium in 18 successive events with 11 wins, four second places and two thirds.

The level of difficulty Xu takes on in her jumps is a high-risk, high-reward strategy, especially with 30 percent of the judges' marks being awarded for landing.

"Why I am always under pressure? Because I am always taking the hardest task," she said in Beijing last month.

Her success has been enough to give her some profile back home but Xu, like every Chinese athlete, knows that Olympic gold far out-values any other sporting currency in the world's most populous nation.

By contrast with its superpower status at the Summer Games, China is a developing nation in winter sport and it was only 12 years ago that short track speed skater Yang Yang made herself a national hero by winning their first Olympic title.

After that breakthrough, winter success was soon being pursued with the same resources as summer sports and aerials had been identified as an event in which China, with its long tradition of acrobatics, could quickly make progress.

Canadian Peter Judge, who was later followed by compatriot Dustin Wilson, was brought in as an advisor in 2003 and Han Xiaopeng, a former acrobat, won China its first ever Olympic gold on snow in the men's aerials at Turin three years later.

Xu was born in the sporting powerhouse province of Liaoning in 1990, just 10 years after China made its Winter Olympic debut at Lake Placid.

Her home city of Anshan holds the largest reserves of talcum on the planet but it was on a different type of white powder that Xu was destined to make her name.

A gymnast until the age of 11, Xu was not quite good enough to make the grade at the top level and instead transferred the flexibility, athleticism and appetite for hard work she learned on the mat into the aerials programme.

Third place in her first World Cup outing as a 16-year-old in 2006 marked her out as one to watch and Wilson was soon predicting that she would go on to change the sport.

Xu was the first woman to land a "lay double-full full" in competition in late 2009 but even that was not enough to make her favourite to win gold in Vancouver given the strength of the Chinese team.

Jumping last in the final round after her leading the way all competition, Xu wiped out on landing leaving Australian Lydia Lassila to pip Turin silver medallist Li Nina for gold with another Chinese, Guo Xinxin, winning bronze.

Lassila is back after taking time out to have a child and again was the only non-Chinese in the final mix at a World Cup event at Beijing's Bird's Nest Olympic Stadium last month featuring the new knockout format that will be used in Sochi.

Xu and Lassila, though, both failed to execute their triple flip jumps - Xu's as usual had the highest degree of difficulty - leaving Zhang Xin to top the podium when she nailed an easier double flip manoevre.

"I told her we should see each other in the final," Xu said of her Australian rival. "She is more mature than four years ago. As long as she makes to the final, she will be our biggest competitor."