The line between ecstasy and despair is a desperately fine one.
- Laura Peel has come fifth in the final of the women’s aerials
- Peel missed her landing in the final round, scoring 78.56
- China’s Xu Mengtao won gold, her nation’s first in the event
While home athlete and World Cup leader Xu Mengtao repeatedly screamed in joy, the hardy crowd and swarms of volunteers all cheering and clapping their hands, Laura Peel quietly accepted what she already knew and walked away from the scene with her head down.
Her Olympic dream was over.
Aerials is a brutal event. In the final, you only get one chance.
One chance at landing your jump. Once chance at glory. One chance to land a 20-metre jump involving three turns and multiple twists on crushed snow at a 37-degree angle.
“[I’m] pretty disappointed,” Peel said, shivering in the -27 degree temperatures, her breath freezing on her jacket and eyelashes as she spoke.
“I had everything I needed to perform today and unfortunately I just wasn’t able to.
“I don’t really think I have any excuses.”
Things had been looking so promising.
Peel nailed her qualifying jump earlier in the day, a triple back Full-Tuck-Full, scoring 104.54 points and sailing into the first of the night’s two finals in first place.
“I was happy with that [qualifying] jump, that’s the kind of jump I can do and I wish I would have done today in the final,” Peel said.
It was the only jump she would land on the day.
She had been joined in the top 12 by Danielle Scott, who had qualified fourth, with Olympic debutant Gabi Ash finishing just outside the qualification spots in 14th.
After a couple of hours off, Peel and teammate Scott both landed heavily on their backs after attempting a back Full-Tuck-Full and a back Lay-Tuck-Full respectively that left both on the cusp of elimination.
In a World Cup event, that would have been that. In Olympic competition, they had a rare second chance.
Peel would take it — not by landing her back Full-Tuck-Full perfectly after she put both hands down to save herself a fall — but by enough to score 100.02 and move into the second final as the fourth-best qualifier.
Scott though, would not, collapsing on the landing and ending her night in 10th place.
“Maybe the pressure just got to me,” Scott said.
“I didn’t get too many jumps on the triple here and I was still sort of figuring it out. It’s a bummer.”
Peel though had a chance – the reigning world champion who has the ability to land jumps so perfectly that the others would be left fighting for second and was desperate to improve on her fifth-place finish from four years ago.
Belarusian Hanna Huskova set the tone in the final six shoot out, landing a phenomenal back Lay-Full-Full to set an early marker of 107.95.
American Megan Nick then landed a back Full-Double-Full – the trick with the lowest difficulty of any attempt in the final. It got her 93.76 points.
Then Peel went with her ill-fated back Full-Full-Full.
“It was a big jump, I needed to stretch a little bit earlier, I waited until the last flip and that was a little bit too late and, yeah unfortunately couldn’t put it to my feet,” Peel said.
“I can do it a lot better than I did it tonight.”
Peel was still sitting third, a position she retained after home skier Kong Fanyu stunningly face-planted her attempt at the same trick, met by a stunned gasp that shuddered around the arena.
The crowd were not disappointed for long though as that devastation turned to exhilaration just a couple of minutes later, when Xu landed her own back Full-Full-Full to a stunning roar.
Xu continued to scream out the pent-up pressure that comes from being a home favourite while waiting for the scores with the crowd waiting in an expectant hush.
When the number 1 flashed up on the screen, pandemonium broke out, Xu’s scored just 0.66 ahead of Huskova’s effort and enough for provisional first with one skier left to fly.
Local journalists, who had previously been trotting on the spot to keep themselves warm in the frigid temperatures suddenly ran in every direction imaginable, the local volunteers beamed and applauded, scrambling to get a glimpse of who they were sure would be China’s first ever medal in women’s aerials.
All the while, Xu’s excitement had reached an even more heightened state as she continued to exalt in her impending triumph.
“I think she’s been eyeing off that Olympic gold for a long time.”
She only had to wait a matter of minutes before her triumph was confirmed, Ash Caldwell of the USA unable to record a score worthy of the podium to finish in fourth.
As the celebrations continued, Peel trudged into the mixed zone to complete her media duties, taking time to be consoled by two Australian Olympic champions she had been so desperate to emulate in Alisa Camplin and Lydia Lassila.
Peel now has a seventh and two fifths as the Winter Games, and while she thinks about what might have been, it’s too early to decide what happens next other.
“I don’t know. We’ll see.”