Beijing 2022: Cai Xuetong believes snowboarding will once again capture the imagination of the world
- Fear is no factor as veteran turns to the UFC to help put on the muscle needed to try new tricks
- ‘I want the people to see this sport, and after the Olympics I hope more people will join us,’ says Cai
“It’s a challenge, the fear,” said the 27-year-old Cai. “You can feel it straight away when you stand up on the half-pipe. But after you overcome the fear, that [feeling] is very enjoyable. After you overcome [the fear] it makes you happier.”
The women’s half-pipe promises to again be the showcase event at the XXIV Olympic Winter Games. For sheer spectacular visuals, the sport has few equals as competitors shoot skywards and seemingly defy the laws of gravity.
Interest in the sport had been building in the years since Cai made her Olympic debut as a 17-year-old at the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver. But it was at Pyeongchang, South Korea, in 2018, and the appearance of another 17-year-old in Korean-American sensation Chloe Kim that really saw things explode.
Kim stole the show, and her tricks – including her signature back-to-back 1080s – took her to gold in front of China’s Liu Jiayu. That helped lift snowboarding’s exposure globally and it also helped breathe life into the Winter Olympics, especially in terms of them reaching the younger demographic all sports crave.
Cai was there in South Korea, finishing fifth behind Kim and already looking towards helping to bring the Winter Games to China for the first time as an elder statesman of the sport, despite the fact the Harbin-born snowboarder is still in her 20s.
“This is my fourth Olympics and I just want to enjoy the sport,” she said. “I hope I can just show the people what I’ve got, finish all my performances with good gravity.
“I’m looking forward to the Olympics as well. I know China will show the world something really big. I think China will do it really well. And I always want to show my best performance to the people of China. I want the people to see this sport, and to know more about snowboarding. And after the Olympics, I hope more people will join us.”
After more than a decade on the international circuit, Cai was in the form of her life before the global pandemic. There was a US Open win in Colorado in March 2020, a first for a snowboarder, who has across her career captured 12 World Cup events along with world titles in 2015 and 2017. But then Covid-19 saw everything put on hold.
The facility was built primarily as a base to fine-tune China and Asia’s mixed martial artists but since opening in August 2019 it has established itself also as a base for Olympians.
“In the half-pipe, I always challenge myself to do the harder tricks. That’s why we’re at the UFC,” explained Cai, speaking via Zoom during a break in her training. “Physical conditioning will help me get in better condition for the snow so I can try more difficult tricks. Mentally this sport sometimes is difficult but sometimes you just have to find a way to overcome this. But we Chinese athletes, we travel together and we push each other to get better and better.”
Having grown up in China’s far north, Cai was surrounded by snow, but it wasn’t until she was spotted at age 10 by a talent scout – roller-skating, of all things – that she came to see a future on those snowfields.
“It’s so free when you go on the mountain,” she said. “You can choose wherever you go, from the white powder, or you can go to the half-pipe. Everything is just fun. One of the reasons I like this sport is that it has taken me around the world, everywhere. Going to different mountains, visiting different countries – that is something that is really cool.”
She has checked out the half-pipe built in Zhangjiakou that will be used at the Beijing Games and says it’s “pretty good.” Now she’s hoping she can head overseas for some time in the snow, and to see the results of the extra work she is putting in at the UFC PI.
“Now I have got really good physical condition but I have to do more training on the snow,” she said. “That will help me get more tricks and prepare me for the Olympics.”