Olympic odds, ends & trends: How the Soviet Union’s gymnasts of long ago currently influence American skiers

In this photo taken on Sunday, Feb. 4, 2018, a freestyle skier from Belarus practices at a national training base just north of Minsk, Belarus.
AP Photo / Sergei Grits | AP

In today’s Summit Daily Olympic odds, ends and trends, a Summit Stat shout-out to the first African American man to suit up for USA Hockey at the Olympics and a look at the U.S.’s Soviet-influenced change in aerial ski jumping strategy.

Summit Stat: 98

The number of years between the year the United States made its men’s hockey debut at the Olympics, in 1920, and when the first African-American played for the U.S. at the Olympics. Boston University junior and left-winger Jordan Greenway became that man on Wednesday. And not only did Greenway play for the U.S., the 6-foot-5 225-pounder — the biggest player on the U.S. team — scored for the Red, White and Blue in the second period to put the team up 2-0, though they’d eventually lose. His goal also means Greenway is the first black goal-scorer in Olympic history for any nation.

For success in Olympic aerial skiing, the secret seems to be a sport made famous in the summer Olympics: gymnastics.

From gymnasts to skiers

For success in Olympic aerial skiing, the secret seems to be a sport made famous in the summer Olympics: gymnastics.

The former Soviet state of Belarus enters the Pyeongchang women’s aerials competition — live at 4 a.m. MST on Friday — with perhaps the favorite for gold, Hanna Huskova. And the country’s success, including winning men’s and women’s aerials gold at the 2014 Sochi Olympics, seems to stem from age-old Olympic lessons learned from the vaunted Soviet gymnastics program.

The Soviet’s old secrets are out now, though, and have been for some time. China and Australia enter this year’s games with medal favorites as well as having recruited gymnasts to transfer their skills for the Olympic aerials sport.

And though the U.S. may be a bit behind the trend, the U.S.’s aerials program at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Lake Placid has, essentially, adopted the same strategy. Case in point, in 2016 14-year-old Dani Loeb of Montgomery, Alabama, became the youngest female member of the U.S. Freestyle Ski Team’s Aerials Development program — and also the first from Alabama.

Loeb, like other young athletes shipped up to Lake Placid, brought elite technical gymnastic skill to the training center. Loeb landed in Lake Placid thanks to a gymnastics friend in Texas who showed her videos of the Aerials Development Program’s tryout camp. She gave it a try, despite her lack of interest in skiing previously

“I hated ski school, I never wanted to go,” Loeb said. “But thought I could do this longer than I could do gymnastics — ski and travel the world, and meet cool people.”

The U.S.’s Elite Aerial Development Program coach Jaroslav Novak, is originally from Czechoslovakia and a former world-class trampoline athlete in the 1970s and 1980s. Novak said the new younger members of the program, like Loeb, hope to follow the path of Ashley Caldwell.

“We are choosing more gymnasts because it’s easier to teach a gymnast to ski than a skier to flip,” Novak said.

Caldwell was the youngest participant in the aerials competition at the 2010 Winter Olympics, where she reached the finals. Caldwell will be competing in South Korea on Friday as the U.S.’s strongest hope for an aerials medal. As for Loeb and the other younger former-gymnasts like her, she is focused on earning her way into the 2022 and 2026 Olympics.

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