BEIJING (Reuters) - Having beaten the world and a personal battle with weight, China’s baby-faced vaulter Cheng Fei is striving for three perfect landings on the winner’s podium in Beijing.
The pint-sized 20-year-old is rated a strong contender to take her first Olympic gold in the vault, an exercise she has made her own since unveiling her signature maneuver, “The Cheng,” at the 2005 world championships in Melbourne.
The maneuver, a round-off half-turn on to the vault followed by a 540-degree forward flip, set the gymnastics world alight and propelled Cheng to back-to-back world titles in 2005 and 2006.
It also became a serious problem for Cheng in the first half of 2007, a period in which the gymnast battled with weight and confidence issues.
Tired and flat after nearly two years at the top, Cheng found herself struggling to land her own maneuver, even as other athletes began performing it with aplomb.
But a diet of fruit and water helped her clinch her third world championship gold at Stuttgart last September and set her back on the path to glory in front of home fans in Beijing.
“The Beijing Olympics is an opportunity once in a hundred years. But when I am in the competition, I will think of it as nothing more than an ordinary competition,” Cheng told Chinese media.
With China standing a good chance of taking team gold, Cheng will also face arch-rival and world champion Shawn Johnson of the United States in a battle for the floor title.
Cheng, who at 16 was disappointed to come fourth in the floor exercise at the 2004 Athens Games, will also be keen to erase the memories of her final day at Stuttgart, where a rare stumble outside the area gifted Johnson gold.
Raised in Huangshi, a small town in the heartland province of Hubei, Cheng was fed into the country’s state-run sport system as a five-year-old.
Unlike her team mates, she would eschew shopping excursions for snacks and dresses during rare breaks from the rigors of training, preferring to stay in the gymnasium to hone her craft.
The unflinching work ethic helped Cheng lead China to team gold at the 2006 worlds and clinch individual titles for the vault and floor exercise.
“The young generation of Chinese gymnasts are really capable, with very high starting scores on degree of difficulties, but it is also a risk,” Mo Huilan, the only Chinese female to win an Olympic vault medal, a silver in Atlanta, told Reuters on Tuesday.
“The gymnastics is all about on-site performance, so their biggest rivals will not be the Americans, but themselves,” Mo said.
Shrugging off the Chinese women’s surprise failure to win team gold at last year’s worlds, Cheng said she and her team mates would relish the pressure of competition.
“Competing on home soil will surely be an advantage. No matter where I compete, I will keep a calm mood to reduce mistakes and bring out my abilities,” Cheng said.
(Additional reporting by Liu Zhen; Editing by Ed Osmond)