Turning the world Upside down

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There are plenty of sports at the Winter Olympics that inspire a mixture of admiration and, frankly, bewilderment. What on earth, we wonder, propels athletes to careen headfirst down an icy chute or punctuate intense skiing sessions with bursts of rifle fire? No sport generates this reaction of bemused awe quite so acutely as aerial freestyle skiing, in which jumpers twist and turn in midair from the height of a five-story building, and then, on descent, hope to avoid landing on frozen chunks of snow known as "death cookies."

Li Nina, a 23-year-old Chinese dynamo, seems surprised not only to find that this kamikaze sport is her full-time job but that she's heading to Torino as the reigning aerials world champion. At age six, Li had been recruited as the top of a human pyramid for an acrobatic troupe in China's northeastern rust belt. Training was tough, but this was the kind of occupation that could lift a Chinese girl out of poverty. Then, at age 12, Li sprouted. She was too tall for the top of the pyramid but too slender to support the base. Luckily, the officials at the sports academy Li attended had other plans. From that day on, she would strap on a pair of skis, fling herself into the frosty air and twirl for her bowl of rice. "It was an internal adjustment at the school," says Li of her abrupt career change. "For me, it didn't matter. I was curious to try something new."

China's athletic juggernaut depends on the flexibility—both physical and mental—of thousands of youngsters like Li. Intent on burnishing its reputation on the international sporting stage, China has developed an ingeniously pragmatic strategy for harvesting gold medals: it targets sports that are relatively new or underfunded in other countries, then creates insta-athletes who are relentlessly driven to complete their Olympic mission. Women's aerial freestyle skiing was a perfect candidate. Unlike center-stage disciplines such as figure skating or downhill skiing, aerials was low-profile, cash-poor and had only become an Olympic event in 1992, so competition wasn't as stiff as in more established sports. Even better, China already had a stable of talented acrobats, gymnasts and divers who could be repurposed as aerial skiers. Like Li, the two other Chinese aerials medal-contenders in Torino, Guo Xinxin and Xu Nannan, were also recruited from acrobatic troupes. The first national-level team was set up in 1996 and, in less than a decade, the Chinese were vying with the top-ranked Canadians and Australians.

Despite the Chinese skiers' rapid ascent, the squad has encountered pockets of turbulence along the way. Motivating athletes was tough at first. Guo, who captured a bronze at the 2005 World Championships with her bold triple-somersault routine, had joined the fledgling aerials team not because of a love of snow—she still admits to hating cold weather—but because her family thought skiing offered her greater educational opportunities than acrobatics. Training to become a contortionist was so intense that at age 11, Guo attended school for only a couple of hours per week. The freestyle coaches promised half-day study sessions five days a week. The 22-year-old is now enrolled as a college student at the Shenyang Institute of Physical Education and is on track to graduate in July. Nevertheless, Guo lets slip that her athletic schedule is so packed that she doesn't actually attend classes. Her major, unsurprisingly, is skiing; time on the slopes counts as credit.

Older teammates chafe even more at the unremitting training. Team veteran Xu, who won silver at the 1998 Nagano Winter Olympics, grumbles that at age 27 she still must relinquish her computer and cell phone to team officials at 9 p.m. to ensure a good night's sleep. "We have very little free time," she says. "We can't just go into town on our own when we feel like it." Nevertheless, the team appears genuinely close-knit. Li and Guo have shared a room for a decade now, and Guo hints that she feels closer to her roommate than to her family members, whom she sees only a few times a year. While lunching on cumin-scented lamb and braised eggplant—no special power bars or energy drinks on their menu—the women tease their coach and don't seem bound by the Confucian hierarchy that stratifies many Chinese athletic squads. On a rare afternoon off, Xu pads around in pajamas and Garfield slippers before joining her coaches for a friendly game of mah-jongg.

The squad's sheltered existence has made entry into the international sporting arena more than a little bracing. When Li first competed abroad in 2001, she had no idea that snow could have a different consistency than the icy crystals back home. The powdery conditions threw her performance. More embarrassing, Li didn't know that in international tournaments skiers compete in a set order, so she attempted a run during someone else's turn. "All the other athletes started yelling at me," recalls Li. "But I didn't speak any English so all I understood was the word 'China' and all these very angry voices."

In Torino, the team expects to hear the word "China" uttered more appreciatively. Li, Guo and Xu are all rated in the world's top 10; up-and-comer Zhang Xin, who placed second to Guo in a World Cup competition in December, rounds out this formidable Olympic squad. Beijing sports officials are already predicting gold in women's freestyle aerials, along with possible triumphs in short-track speed skating and pairs figure skating. Such pressure can overwhelm athletes, but the skiing squad is somewhat insulated by the Chinese public's ignorance about winter sports. Although the Chinese have caught Olympic fever, especially with the advent of 2008 in Beijing, their focus rests almost solely on the Summer Games. Li recalls a Chinese man on the street spotting her national-team jacket and asking her in which sport she competed. When Li told him she represented China by catapulting herself off a snowy platform at 55 kph and spinning down to the ground, the man frowned. "He told me, 'The thing about skiing is that even if you're the best in the world, you still can't compete in the Olympics,'" recalls Li. "I guess he hadn't heard of the Winter Olympics."