When Eileen Gu turned down Team USA to represent China at the Beijing Olympics, she gained a legion of skeptics.
The 18-year-old freestyle skiing prodigy was asked about her status as a U.S. citizen, her opinions on Peng Shuai, and the relentless vitriol she’s gotten on social media just moments after making the biggest run of her life.
“It’s their loss if they don’t trust me, if they don’t like me,” Gu remarked. “They’ll never win an Olympic medal.”
Gu accomplished just that, startling Tess Ledeux of France to win the Olympic debut of women’s freeski big air, winning the first of what she and her many admirers in Beijing hope will be three gold medals by churning out the first 1620 of her career on her last round.
Gu, who was born in the United States, has never landed the double cork 1620, a move that requires skiers to spin 4 1/2 times while turning twice off-axis while hovering 20 feet in the air. In practice, no. There will be no competition.
Only with the weight of her chosen motherland pressed against her back.
“I want all the females to break their barriers,” she stated through an interpreter in Chinese. “I want them to believe that if Eileen can do it, then so can I.”
On Tuesday morning, a swarm of viewers gathered spontaneously in front of a large TV screen in Wangfujing, a well-known retail area in downtown Beijing.
“It’s extremely encouraging.” She is of Chinese descent and has returned to her homeland. “I’m proud of her,” Jiang Yu, 36, a Beijing resident, said.
The 5,000-seat Big Air Shougang — a defunct steel factory that Beijing has transformed into an eerie-yet-serene park, culture hub, and sports complex — has a capacity restriction. Even so, the reaction conveyed the story.
The “Snow Princess” was all set to take her throne.
Gu, whose mother is Chinese, thinks that she has lived in China for at least a quarter of her life. Her genesis tale, as she puts it, began when she was nine years old and won a pitch for China’s first slopestyle ski competition.
She has stated frequently since siding with China in 2019 that her objective is to encourage girls and women to participate in winter sports, coinciding with China’s commitment to inspire 300 million people to hit the ice or snow.
It’s a position akin to the one Peng has had for years in public.
As Gu clinched her third Olympic gold, Peng, a three-time Olympic tennis player, sat in the stands with IOC President Thomas Bach. Peng made the unusual public appearance only a day after declaring in a controlled interview that the sexual assault charges she leveled against a former senior member of China’s governing Communist Party were “an huge misunderstanding.”
Her answers, which she gave in front of a Chinese Olympic official, left many concerns unanswered regarding her health and what had transpired.
When asked if she shared international concerns about Peng’s safety, Gu sidestepped the question by claiming she was “very glad” Peng visited and thrilled that a celebrity from a major sport like tennis came to watch “niche sports like freeskiing.”
“I’m extremely pleased that she’s, yes, happy and well and out here doing her thing again,” Gu told a room full of Chinese volunteers and journalists, who fell silent when Peng’s name was spoken.
Gu also juggled queries regarding her citizenship status. Dual citizenship is illegal in China, but it’s unclear whether Gu, who is attending Stanford, actually turned up her American passport.
Gu’s decision appears to have paid off well for her, since modeling is her second passion. Her image may be seen on billboards around Beijing, and she’s been photographed for Vogue, Victoria’s Secret, Louis Vuitton, Tiffany, and other high-end brands.
When asked about her citizenship, she responded, “I feel that athletics is actually a method that we can unify people.” “It doesn’t have to have anything to do with nationality.” It isn’t anything that can be used to split people apart. We’re all out here pushing the human limit together.”
Gu, without a doubt, stretched those boundaries on Tuesday.
Ledeux became the first woman to land a 1620 in competition only a month ago, smashing one down while winning gold at the Winter X Games. The 20-year-old Frenchman pulled off another daring feat in the first of three rounds on Tuesday, quickly raising the bar higher than anybody else has before set.
Gu started with a clean double cork 1440, then followed up with a safe-but-stylish double cork 1080 on Run 2. By the time her third leap rolled around, she had already secured a bronze medal.
Gu said she pondered improving on her 1440, but the math told her that the only way to catch up to Ledeux was to aim for the 1620.
She yelled as soon as her skis touched the ground, drifting backward down the slope with her hands over her head, then hiding her face. When her score of 94.5 was given, she collapsed to her knees, giving her a combined total of 188.25, slightly ahead of Ledeux’s 187.5. Mathilde Gremaud of Switzerland won bronze.
With her last try, Ledeux attempted to enhance her switch 1440 but fell short. Gu is “very competitive” and a “great athlete,” she remarked via interpreter, but she grumbled that Gu had been practicing at the Big Air Shougang site in Beijing for weeks before the Games – a bonus of being with the host country.
“What I know is that she got lucky, which is only fair,” Ledeux said. “She was allowed to train in the venues before everyone else, which probably made a difference today.”
Gu’s coming-out celebration wasn’t going to be ruined by one more cynic.
“I’m not trying to please everyone,” Gu explained. “I’m an 18-year-old girl having the time of my life.” I’m having a terrific time, for example.”