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.”
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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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