Eileen Gu: The teenage gold medalist with geopolitical ambitions

by Ann Scott Tyson, CSM Staff writer from United States

147011Gold medallist Gu Ailing Eileen of China – known as Eileen Gu in the United States – celebrates on the podium during the women's freestyle big air medal ceremony in Beijing, Feb. 8, 2022. The U.S.-born freestyle skiing champion chose to compete for China in 2019, though it's unclear if the rising star has had to relinquish her U.S. citizenship.Tyrone Siu/Reuters

Eileen Gu, the Chinese American freestyle skiing ace who won her first Olympic gold medal on Monday, draws a kitten on her hand before competitions for good luck and travels with her safety-conscious mother, who makes sure she eats well and sleeps 10 hours each night. On the Twitter-like Chinese social media app Weibo, where the freshly minted gold medalist uses the handle Frog Princess, she posts goofy and prolific selfies. But she is hardly a typical teen.

Ms. Gu is accomplished beyond her years, having taken on challenges demanding poise and maturity that have won her respect as an elite athlete willing to take on a larger cause.

Three years ago, in what she called an “incredibly tough decision,” she chose to compete for China instead of the United States, where she was born, was raised, and still primarily lives. Her goal? To promote the dynamic, creative sport she loves among millions of young Chinese, especially women, and even more ambitiously, to help better connect China and the U.S.

“Sport is a way that we can unite people. It’s something that doesn’t have to be related to nationality,” she said at a press conference after her Olympic win. “I definitely feel as though I am just as American as I am Chinese,” said Ms. Gu, who plans to study international relations at Stanford University after a gap year. “My mission is to use sport as a force for unity.” 

At the 2022 Games, Ms. Gu is already breaking new ground, to the delight of millions of Chinese, American, and international fans.

Even after admitting she’s finding her first Olympics “terrifying,” Ms. Gu clinched her first gold medal competing for China in the women’s big air event at a repurposed steel mill west of Beijing. 

She won in part by becoming only the second woman in the world to pull off a multiple-rotation flip known as the 1620, performing the stunt in her third and final run, and for her first time in a contest. Ms. Gu will contend for the gold in two other freestyle skiing events, the slopestyle and halfpipe, and is favored to win both.

“The most important thing to do in life is to find something you like to do and enjoy it,” she said in a Chinese-language documentary released in 2021. “The second is to change the world.”

147011Matt Slocum/APEileen Gu trains ahead of the women's freestyle skiing big air finals at the Beijing Winter Olympics, Feb. 8, 2022. She is expected to win gold in upcoming slopestyle and halfpipe events.

Road to China

Ms. Gu has landed at the height of freestyle skiing at a moment of huge opportunity, with the opening of a vast new winter sports market in China. But it is also a time of intense geopolitical competition between her native country and her adoptive one.

“I applaud her for taking what is not the easier road,” says Mike Mallon, executive director of the United States of America Snowboard and Freeski Association, who has watched Ms. Gu’s rise as a competitor from her days as an amateur. “She chose a road she knew would have conflict and controversy.”

Growing up in San Francisco, Ms. Gu credits her Chinese mother, a first-generation immigrant from Beijing and private investor, and her Chinese grandmother – whom she describes as “die-hard competitive” – with instilling in her a powerful work ethic and drive to win.

“They are both super confident, empowered women,” Ms. Gu said in a recent podcast, giving her a feminist streak and motivating her to excel in everything from running and piano to school and skiing. Her mother, Yan Gu, also took her to Beijing each summer and ensured she spoke fluent Mandarin Chinese. (Ms. Gu, her mother, and her agent, didn’t respond to interview requests.)

Ms. Gu was the only girl on her team when she started competing at the age of 8 at Northstar resort at Lake Tahoe, and says she enjoyed beating the boys.

As she excelled in freestyle skiing, her American coaches recognized her potential and trained her for national competitions. “When an athlete like Eileen starts to achieve success at a much higher level, they disappear very quickly” as they advance into elite ranks, says Mr. Mallon, whose organization is the first step in the Olympic pipeline for snowboarding and freeskiing.

Meanwhile, Beijing prepared for the 2022 Winter Olympics by launching a drive to build hundreds of ski resorts and skating rinks with the goal of attracting 300 million residents to winter sports. It hired North American coaches and consultants to help build winter sports pipelines.

Beijing also actively recruited foreign and especially ethnic Chinese athletes to join China’s team. Together with other athletes, Ms. Gu met with Chinese leader Xi Jinping in February 2019, and four months later announced her decision to compete for China, prompting support but also regret from the U.S. freeski community that had nurtured her.

“I am a little disappointed in that all the training, all the resources have been here,” says Jack Hutt, who runs a large team ski racing program at CityLeague Sports, based in Shoreline, Washington.

147011Tingshu Wang/ReutersEileen Gu appears on an advertisement for one of China's largest online retailers, at a bus stop in Beijing, Jan. 11, 2022. Ms. Gu has represented numerous Chinese and luxury brands, and as her stardom grows, so will her commercial endorsement opportunities.

Rising star

In China, though, Ms. Gu’s popularity is soaring. As her gold medals in world championships accumulate, her social media following on Weibo has exploded to more than 3.6 million as she helps motivate young skiers in China.

“There is definitely a connection to Gu Ailing [Ms. Gu’s Chinese name], especially among the young people,” says Samuel Zhang, an amateur snowboarder in Beijing.

“Now it’s very crowded [on the slopes], even at night,” says Mr. Zhang, who enjoys skiing as an escape from urban life.

She is an idol of the Chinese young generation,” says Wang Li, a skier and Olympics researcher, using a pseudonym to protect his identity.

Amber Qiu, a customer relations worker, took up indoor skiing a few years ago with her friends in the southern city of Guangzhou. “It’s exciting and fun,” she says.

Endorsements have also piled up for Ms. Gu, who regularly promotes major Chinese brands from sportswear to dairy on her social media.

Ms. Gu’s decision to compete for China “is a very smart move as an athlete, from a financial perspective,” says Xu Guoqi, a history professor at the University of Hong Kong and author of “Olympic Dreams: China and Sports, 1895-2008.”

“If she wins two gold medals for China, she will be buried in a gold mountain,” predicts Dr. Xu. “Talk about commercial endorsement, talk about popularity, there is only one way for that lady to go – up!”

Yet as for her bigger goal of promoting better U.S.-China relations, Ms. Gu faces an uphill battle. She has chosen to remain silent on any issues that could be perceived as sensitive by China’s government, in contrast with her vocal advocacy for women and minorities in the U.S., and her celebration of the free-spirited self-expression inherent in her sport.

At a press conference after her gold medal win, she refused to answer basic questions about whether she has relinquished her U.S. citizenship to compete for China, as China does not allow dual citizenship.

Instead, Ms. Gu often emphasizes how she feels American in the U.S., and Chinese in China. That formula seems to reflect how Ms. Gu, rather than trying to help bridge the two countries, is maintaining distinct personas in each place, analysts say.

“I think she is trying to straddle this,” says David Bachman, an expert in U.S.-China relations at the University of Washington. For the young, high-flying skier, sports diplomacy may have to wait.

Page created on 2/9/2022 2:32:50 PM

Last edited 2/9/2022 2:47:36 PM

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