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Posted: Feb 20, 12:51p ET | Updated: Feb 24, 10:25p ET

Reigning champ out, China dominates qualifying

Americans get past Olympic qualifying for first time since 1998

WEST VANCOUVER, British Columbia (AP) -- Defending Olympic champion Evelyne Leu of Switzerland failed to advance to the final in women's freestyle aerials on Saturday, falling on the second of her two jumps.

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Leu, who hit her head hard on the ground in training earlier in the week, did not make the final 12, who will return to Cypress Mountain on Wednesday. Alla Tsuper of Belarus won the qualifying, followed by China's Li Nina, the 2006 silver medalist.

Also qualifying for the finals in 11th place was veteran Jacqui Cooper of Australia, who in 2007 won her unprecedented fourth World Cup title, a tribute to her longevity and willingness to take ever-increasing risks in a sport that demands it.

"I am so passionate and so in love with what I do," Cooper said. "It's being able to be the best at something. I'm the best that's ever lived in my sport and that's enough to keep me going."

Her Olympic resume, though, is missing something -- she has qualified for her fifth games but has yet to win a medal.

A crash during qualifying in 1998 left her with leg and head injuries, unable to compete. In 2002, she was a favorite, but shattered her knee a few weeks before the games and was also on the sideline. Finally healthy to compete in 2006, she scored a world-record 213.56 points in her two qualifying jumps but crashed twice in the finals.

On Saturday, she went with a pair of conservative jumps, kept her skis in perfect unison and landed them both cleanly -- good enough to take the second-to-last spot for Wednesday's finals.

"I'm old and I'm tired," Cooper said. "I'm going to go and have a nap this afternoon, another nap and then I'm going to relax tomorrow and I'm going to relax the next day and then I'm going to fire up."

Led by Emily Cook, the United States placed three women in the final -- the first time the Americans have moved anyone past qualifying at the Olympics since 1998. Also making it for the United States were Lacy Schnoor and 16-year-old Ashley Caldwell.

Caldwell, a member of the U.S.'s developmental Elite Air Program, started showing promise late last year, then suddenly found herself on the Olympic team.

The landing on her first jump was messy -- sideways with split skis and needing a huge effort simply to stay up. She thought that would wipe her out of the final, but when several other women fell, Caldwell stayed in the top 12. It was good enough for an extension on what has been a week full of Olympic excitement -- including a brief, exciting meeting with snowboarder Shaun White.

"Making it feels like every other experience I've been talking about, except 10 times better," Caldwell said. "It's hard to put into words how excited I am."

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