As her platform grows, Eileen Gu wants to inspire young girls to pursue freeskiing

Eileen Gu
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By Rachel Thompson

When Eileen Gu was a budding skier, she was drawn in by the speed and adrenaline of her sport.

But her mother, Yan, thought ski racing sounded too dangerous.

The alternative? Freestyle skiing. According to Gu, her mother didn’t know what freestyle skiing was, but she assumed it must be safer than ski racing.

“So yeah, it was kind of an accident, honestly,” Gu recalled of her start in freestyle.

The 17-year-old from San Francisco is poised to be one of the biggest stars of the 2022 Olympic Winter Games, where she’ll be competing for China, the host nation. Fluent in Mandarin, Gu grew up taking yearly trips to Beijing with her mother, who was born there.

Gu had a breakout moment earlier this year at the X Games, where she made the podium in three events, with wins in slopestyle and halfpipe. She’s competing this week at the 2021 World Championships in Aspen, Colorado.

Gu started skiing at Northstar in Tahoe, California, during weekend trips with her mom. She was drawn to slopestyle, an event with jumps, rails and other park elements athletes navigate as they move through a course. But since slopestyle contests occasionally meant skipping school for a day or two, Gu optimized her time and tried her skills in halfpipe, too. In September 2019, just a few days past her sixteenth birthday, Gu competed in her first halfpipe World Cup and finished second.

“I was like, whoa, I can actually do this,” she said during a phone interview in January. “This is something that I can be good at and be relevant in.”

She is now one of only a handful of top-level skiers to compete in all three freeskiing events – halfpipe, slopestyle and big air – and she plans to enter all three at the Olympics next year. While it is rare for freeskiers to compete in all three events, Gu insists there is a positive to a packed schedule during contest weeks.

“They’re totally helping each other out,” she said, noting the overlap of skills between events. “I think it’s really an advantage. And it’s fun for me. I think it takes the pressure off of each event.”

[HOW TO WATCH THE 2021 WORLD CHAMPIONSHIPS: FULL SCHEDULE AND STREAMING OPTIONS]

While Gu honed her skiing skills on the scenic slopes of Lake Tahoe and initially represented the U.S. in competition, she found a ski community across the globe in Beijing. On one of her yearly trips to China as a child, Gu said she found a small indoor ski resort with a trampoline she could practice on.

“At the time, the Chinese ski community was so small,” she said. “I pretty much knew everybody…and I grew up with them.”

In 2019, Gu announced that she was switching her national affiliation in order to represent China at the 2022 Olympic Winter Games. She posted about the decision on Instagram, saying, “I am proud of my heritage, and equally proud of my American upbringings…Through skiing, I hope to unite people, promote common understanding, create communication, and forge friendships between nations.”

At the time, Gu had already made the podium at two World Cup events in slopestyle. Her high-level competition experience was still limited, but it’s likely she would have been a frontrunner to make the U.S. team for 2022.

Asked why she made the change when she did, Gu spoke about her ties to the ski community in Beijing and the chance to inspire new Chinese skiers, particularly women and girls.

“In China, where the extreme sports scene is so underdeveloped compared to the U.S., there are almost none of those idols to look up to in skiing, and there are no female ones,” she said. “I wanted to introduce snow sports and freeskiing in particular to Chinese people, and particularly to youth and girls… if I can just change one young girl’s life and show her one new passion or help break one boundary, then the decision was worth it.”

Since 2015, when Beijing was chosen to host the 2022 Olympic Winter Games, the Chinese government has been pushing for more involvement in winter sports, carving out an ambitious plan to have 300 million people participating by 2022.

“That just means to me that there’s that much of an audience that is paying attention to snow sports, which never would have happened without the Olympics,” she said.

Gu graduated high school early last year and was accepted to Stanford, where she plans to enroll in 2022. She’s aware of the pressure she’ll face competing for the host country at the Olympics, where she could contend for three medals. But for Gu, it’s a welcome challenge to showcase her sport to the next generation of girls and women who may be inspired to ski.

“I guess my biggest message is for the young people out there, especially like young girls, to not feel discouraged, especially in extreme sports,” she said. “I just wanted to encourage all those young girls out there to keep it up and keep doing their own thing.”

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Kaillie Humphries elevates another fresh U.S. face to podium status in two-woman bobsled World Cup

Kaillie Humphries of USA, Kaysha Love of USA in action at the 2 women's bobsleigh during Beijing 2022 Winter Olympic Games.
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PARK CITY, UTAH – Kaillie Humphries extended her podium streak on Saturday at the IBSF World Cup, where she and U.S. push athlete Jasmine Jones finished third in the two-woman bobsled.

The third-place finish in Park City marked the sixth podium for Humphries at the Park City track, which hosted the 2002 Olympics, and was Jones’ career-first World Cup podium in just her second World Cup start.

“This is our first race together, so really excited about that,” said the 37-year-old Humphries, considered the greatest female driver in history with three Olympic gold medals (2010, 2014 and 2022) and five world championships titles. She earned her 29th career World Cup win on Friday in Park City in the women’s monobob.

“Definitely a work in progress. … The runs weren’t perfect, but I’m really happy with our starts, happy with our drives minus a few little mistakes. It’s a good starting point, and we’ll look to grow from here.”

Humphries and Jones finished with a combined, two-run time of 1:37.69, 0.32 behind winners Kim Kalicki and brakewoman Leonie Fiebig of Germany at 1:37.37. Fellow Germans Laura Nolte and Lena Neunecker were second at 0.23 back.

Kalicki and Fiebig broke a 16-year-old track record with their first run, laying down a time of 48.60 seconds and besting the time set by Americans Shauna Rohbock and Valerie Fleming – the 2006 Olympic silver medalists – in December 2006 (48.73). It also marked the second straight victory for Kalicki, who’s won five career World Cup titles including last week’s two-woman bobsled race in Whistler, Canada.

“I was hoping Kaillie would get [the record],” said Rohbock, who is now a U.S. team coach and was on hand to see her record fall. “That first run there, she had that little skid in the bottom, so that didn’t help, but Kailee’s always putting up a great performance. And Jasmine, another great brakewoman, so we’re really lucky that we have that depth.”

For Team USA, it marked the second straight week that a fresh face earned her first podium finish while competing with Humphries. Last week in Whistler, push athlete Emily Renna and Humphries placed third in Renna’s first-ever World Cup appearance.

MORE IBSF WORLD CUP COVERAGE: Kelly Curtis notches career-best finish with top five at Park City skeleton World Cup

“Being able to race with her was really special,” said the 29-year-old Renna, who was a college track athlete at University of Rhode Island. “It’s really nice to be around seasoned veterans. It definitely makes you feel better in the back sled with you when you’ve got a good pilot who knows the track.”

Renna finished in eighth place in Park City with 12-year U.S. team veteran and pilot Nicole Vogt (1:39.04). Vogt partnered with Jones in her first World Cup last week where they finished seventh in Whistler, 1.33 seconds behind winners Kalicki and German teammate Anabel Galander.

“To have an opportunity to be with Kaillie in my World Cup debut – it’s exciting,” said the 26-year-old Jones, who was a collegiate track and field athlete at Eastern Michigan. “I just feel like I have so much more in the tank to give, and I’m just hungry for it.”

Jones is particularly gratified with her performance after returning full-time to bobsled less than 18 months ago following the birth of her daughter, Jade Quinn Jones, in February 2021. The Greensburg, Pa., native returned to training just five months postpartum, having sat out the 2020-21 season. She competed on the North American Cup last year, finishing the season with a win (the third NA Cup title of her career) and a third place in Lake Placid.

“I’m thankful,” said Jones. “Opportunity is the main thing, and I just feel blessed to have my first World Cup podium. I’m screaming on the inside. I may not show it, but I am jumping for joy because I’m just that excited and happy to have this accomplishment.”

She admits, however, it’s not always easy to compete balance a full-time competitive career with being a mom.

“Sometimes it’s a struggle being away from my daughter,” said Jones, whose mom takes care of Jade while she travels. “I try to get my facetimes in every night and just know that when I’m pushing, I’m doing it for her. Hopefully sometime in the future I’ll have her around on the sidelines cheering me on, and that’s my main motivation – that this is for her.”

The BMW IBSF World Cup continues its North American swing Dec. 16-18 in Lake Placid, N.Y.

Kaillie Humphries faces IVF journey head on — and collects monobob World Cup win along the way

Gold medallist Kaillie Humphries of Team United States celebrates during the Women's Monobob.
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PARK CITY, UTAH — Kaillie Humphries knew the quest to start a family would impact her 2022-23 season, but it’s certainly not slowing down Team USA’s reigning monobob Olympic gold medalist, who captured her first World Cup title in the discipline on Friday.

The 37-year-old Humphries, considered the greatest female driver in history with three Olympic golds (2010, 2014 and 2022) and five world championships, earned her 29th career World Cup win and her third victory on the Park City track, where she won the two-woman bobsled competitions in 2012 and 2016. Competing in Utah – as well as North American World Cup stops in Whistler last week and in Lake Placid, N.Y., on Dec. 17-18 – is one of the reasons that Humphries pushed pause on her journey to motherhood.

“I’m excited,” Humphries said following the win, marking her second straight podium in monobob following a third-place finish last week in Whistler. “I was excited for this year before it started. It’s part and parcel of why my husband and I delayed the IVF process and starting a family this season. To be able to be back in North America and have the first half of the season here – it’s been a long time since we’ve had that, so I wanted to be able to compete and it feels awesome.”

That’s not to say the leadup to this season has been without its share of hiccups. In fact, Humphries admits that following the Beijing Olympics, she had hoped to get pregnant immediately, but she and husband Travis Armbruster had to pivot when a diagnosis of stage 4 endometriosis made it clear that in vitro fertilization would be the best path for pregnancy.

“Right after the Olympics, I was like, ‘We’re going to get pregnant; it’s gonna be all good,’” she said. “I thought, my body has always performed, and it wasn’t going to be an issue. Fast forward to I find out we have to do IVF. We do the first egg retrieval, and it doesn’t go as well as I had hoped — which anybody that’s done this process knows, you can’t control any aspect of it. And so having to do a second round of egg retrieval, …it pushed everything back.”

What’s more, it brought Humphries’ training to a standstill at times, when she would have to limit all physical activity during the three-week period surrounding the egg-retrieval process.

“It impacted my training coming into this year a lot,” she says, “but I also think it definitely reset my hormones, which turns out I needed. I don’t think was a bad thing. I knew coming into this year, I wasn’t going to be in the same shape as I have been in the past, and I had to make peace with that. I know that each and every race I’m racing myself into shape, and each race is a preparation for January’s World Championships.”

Humphries also chose to share her IVF journey publicly, and she’s documented every step of the way, believing that her story makes it less scary not just for her but also for other women and female athletes who might be facing the same thing.

MORE IBSF WORLD CUP: Kelly Curtis notches career-best finish with top five at Park City skeleton World Cup

“My husband and I weren’t sure that we wanted to share it at first,” she admits. “But I felt it was important just to showcase this. I have nothing to hide. And as much as there are parts of me certain days when I think, ‘What’s wrong with me?’ At the end of the day, I know I’m not alone in this.

“It’s important, I do have a voice, and I want other people to know, as an Olympic gold medalist, if it can happen to me, it can happen to anybody. Infertility exists in the female body, and it’s important that I talk about it in my journey and hopefully that’s inspired other people.”

She says she’s received an outpouring of support, which has been particularly gratifying as she continues to put a painful breakup with Team Canada in the rearview mirror. Humphries, who was born in Calgary, competed for Canada for 16 years, winning three Olympic medals including a bronze in Pyeongchang in 2018. But the relationship came to an abrupt end later just five months after the 2018 Games, after Humphries alleged emotional and mental harassment by a former coach.

Winning a gold medal in Beijing just two months after her U.S. citizenship was finalized proved to be turning point for Humphries, who commemorated the milestone with two new tattoos. She first added the date of her win – Feb. 14, 2022 – to the back of her left hand and a larger rose and skull illustration to the back of her right knee and calf, all of which commemorate her triumph over that darker period.

“The skull represents a rebirth and a growth, overcoming challenges and/or obstacles and turning something negative into something positive,” explains Humphries, who says she chose the rose because it’s the national flower of the U.S. as well as a symbol of love won or lost. She notes that she has “an actual Olympic one” planned for August 2024, which is when her favorite tattoo artist is next available.

Humphries has also found the silver lining in her IVF journey, as the competition season has been a welcome break from some of the self-imposed pressure.

“By pushing pause for four or five months and competing, it allowed me mentally to know that we can go into all of next summer and all winter focusing on just doing the actual embryo transfers and having a good pregnancy,” she says. “I don’t feel stressed to try and get pregnant right away. I felt like I was becoming competitive with myself, wondering why isn’t this working? Why can’t I do this? I tried to control too many things, and I started to get really frustrated. Mentally, it was hard. So, by pushing pause, going back to what I know — which is the sport, which is what I love – it’s allowed me to control a little bit of my future.”

Humphries’ season continues Saturday as the IBSF World Cup from Park City concludes with the two-woman bobsleigh.