RAUBICHI, Belarus (AP) — The lessons learned from the vaunted Soviet gymnastics program all those years ago are still producing Olympic gold medalists — in freestyle skiing.
Competitors from Belarus won the men's and women's aerials gold at the 2014 Sochi Olympics, and they will be in contention again this year in Pyeongchang.
"The team's getting ready to compete at the very highest level," Belarus freestyle skiing head coach Nikolai Kozeko, who has trained three Olympic champions, told The Associated Press in a recent interview.
The roots of Belarus' success in aerials — a contest of spectacular twisting jumps off a steep ramp — lie with an eccentric group of Soviet athletes.
Back in 1985, a group of amateur coaches started mixing ski training with lessons from the Soviet Union's formidable gymnastics program. The result was the first Belarusian freestyle team, as Alpine skiers rubbed shoulders with former divers and trampolinists.
The former Soviet nation, with a population of just under 10 million, has won at least one aerials medal at every Olympics since 1998.
In Pyeongchang, Kozeko hinted that the team could spring a new jump in its quest for more gold.
"It's a secret so far," the coach said. "Wait a few days and you'll see for yourself."
Defending Olympic champion Anton Kushnir, however, was tight-lipped about his chances for a repeat, saying only that "preparations for the Olympics are going as planned."
The freestyle skiers practice at a national training base just north of Minsk, supported by generous government investment. And it's there where the athletes learn how to deal with the dangerous jumps they need to master to win.
"Apart from great technique," said world junior champion Dmitry Mazurkevich, who has been left out of the Pyeongchang team, "we're taught to conquer ourselves, to conquer the fear that rises in me every time before the jump."
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