Feb. 10, 2010, 3:48 a.m. (ET)

BEIJING (AP) When Liu Jiayu and her teammates turned up for snowboard camp in trendy Whistler, Canada, people stared at the awkward, aloof teenagers with identical short haircuts.

But it wasn't long before the former martial artists and gymnasts were grabbing attention for their mad skills - developing from novices who had never been in a halfpipe to World Cup-level riders in the span of two months.

"It was happening so fast, everyone wanted to see these Chinese riders who were seemingly out of nowhere doing so well," instructor Ben Wainwright recently recalled about the 2005 camp. "It was crazy, I've never seen anything like it ... Since then, they've just been getting better."

It's all part of China's well-established plan for Olympic success, where the state-run sports system plucks young athletes from its sports schools and trains them in events where they could excel based on physical traits or athletic background. They generally practice year-round, often under foreign coaches.

The country's success with this strategy will be on display during the Vancouver Games. The Chinese are seeking to improve on their performance in Turin - where they finished with 11 medals, including two golds - in part by winning in events they've been able to dominate in a short amount of time.

The 18-year-old Liu roared onto the snowboarding scene after that camp in Whistler and is a contender for halfpipe gold in her Olympic debut.

China is participating in women's curling for the first time but is favored to win after taking the world championship last year with a team that includes a former hockey player and three ex-speed skaters.

In women's aerials, a sport described as gymnastics on skis, the Chinese could be looking at a medals sweep.

"They all came from gymnastics or acrobatics. None of them are skiers per se, they've all learned skiing through jumping," said coach Dustin Wilson, a former World Cup competitor for Canada. "They retired from gymnastics when they were 11 or 12 years old ... because they're already in the sports schools, they just change sports."

This system was a major contributor to China's success at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, where the host gobbled up 51 gold medals, more than any other country, in events including gymnastics, diving and weightlifting.

China has yet to develop into a winter sports powerhouse but has been making steady progress since winning its first Winter Olympics medal in 1992. The Associated Press projects that China will win 14 medals in Vancouver, including seven golds.

"The Chinese system is very important for guaranteeing the development of sports in our country. Because we've stuck to this system, in recent years we've made continuous progress and breakthroughs in competitive sports," said Zhao Yinggang, director of the Winter Sports Management Center at China's General Administration of Sport.

Liu is one of China's most exciting young athletes, taking up snowboarding after spending most of her life practicing martial arts.

"My grandma took me to learn martial arts at sports schools since I was little. Knives, swords, spears, halberds, I've worked with all of those weapons," she told Xinhua News Agency last year.

Wainwright said Liu, whom he nicknamed Birdie, stood out immediately in that group of 12 teenagers, even though her only experience with halfpipe up to that point was jumping on a trampoline with her snowboard strapped on.

"She goes big, really big in the halfpipe. She rides her board so well up the transition and letting all of that energy get transferred up in the air, which is very rare in girls' snowboarding," he said.

Beijing has focused on snowboard halfpipe because it's considered a technical sport where the relatively smaller Chinese athletes tend to excel, as opposed to events where size or strength are more important.

Within two months, Liu and her teammates were landing 720s and McTwists. Training with his team in the same area, Canadian coach Tom Hutchinson was inspired to copy the Chinese and started recruiting gymnasts, trampolinists and divers.

"This was an initiative I had wanted to do for several years. When I saw the Chinese do it I knew it would surely work," he said in an e-mail.

But the program did not last.

"We did this program for a year and then the funding fell through. We had to decide to fund this or fund our top athletes. There is only so much money to go around," he said.

Liu won the 2008-2009 World Cup halfpipe title and also finished first at the World Championships in South Korea. She'll pose a stiff challenge to longtime stars Kelly Clark, Hannah Teter and Gretchen Blieler of the United States, as well as Torah Bright of Australia.

Wainwright, owner of Glacier Snowboard Camp and a former member of the Canadian national team, remembers that his Chinese students didn't fit into the snowboarding crowd at Whistler, practicing martial arts and sword routines in the park after practice instead of skateboarding or swimming like others their age.

But he said they were always smiling and enthusiastic, eager to learn as much as they could about their new sport.

"They weren't that different, they just worked a little harder," he said.