Unpacking Eileen Gu’s decision to compete for China

Eileen Gu, who will compete for China at the 2022 Winter Olympics
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ZHANGJIAKOU, China (AP) — Eileen Gu was 8 when she started teaching young wannabe daredevils how to do backflips on trampolines during her summer visits to China.

“Back then, I would meet essentially the entire Chinese ski community at once,” Gu said. “There just weren’t that many people.”

In the tricky, sometimes unpleasant discussion about why this 18-year-old freeskiing force of nature who was born and raised in San Francisco is competing for her mother’s homeland of China at the Beijing Olympics, the most straightforward answer might just be hidden in that vignette.

Not that long ago, hardly anybody skied in China. These days, with the Olympics showcasing a whole new world of winter sports to the country of 1.4 billion, more people do. Girls, long marginalized, including in a sporting sense here, could really use a role model. Gu thinks she could be just the person.

“In the U.S., growing up, I had so many amazing idols to look up to,” she said in a wide-ranging interview with The Associated Press last winter. “But in China, I feel like there are a lot fewer of those. I’d have a much greater impact in China than in the U.S., and that’s ultimately why I made that decision.”

But there are no simple answers to any facet of a discussion involving relations between China and the United States, and why an athlete with options might choose one over the over. Meanwhile, a lot has changed in China in the 2 1/2 years since Gu made her decision — and in the way the rest of the world perceives it.

China’s human rights record has triggered a diplomatic boycott and become a focal point of the Games themselves. The well-being of tennis champion Peng Shuai is an ongoing concern. COVID-19 protocols have turned these Olympics into a closed-off affair filled with strict testing protocols. Critics say that by competing for China, and not the United States, Gu is, at the minimum, tacitly supporting the Communist government’s policies and turning her back on the team that helped her rise through the ranks.

“There’s something endearing and noble about her interest in promoting her sport to the world’s most populous country, and promoting herself as a strong female role model,” said Chad Carlson, who teaches about sports and society at Hope College in the U.S. “Every action has consequences, as well. This isn’t a usual transnational path. To go from an American athlete to a Chinese athlete just isn’t that common a roadway.”

Because of the baggage surrounding that decision, Gu has kept her media availabilities this winter to a minimum, and kept them tightly focused on the mission ahead — skiing. On Thursday, she did post an essay on Instagram, explaining her decision.

“I’ve always said my goal is to globally spread the sport I love to kids, especially girls, and to shift sport culture toward one motivated by passion,” she wrote, in part.

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In the conversation with the AP at last year’s Winter X Games, she also opened up about her choice to compete for China — one she started receiving flak for almost the instant she made it.

“I’ve gotten a lot of hate, a lot of people saying ‘It’s a question of loyalty and which country she likes more,'” Gu said. “It’s really not. It was really a big thing between the impact I would be able to have and what I’d be able to do with skiing.”

Another thing it certainly was not was a search for an easier path to the Olympics.

Gu had a firm spot on the U.S. freestyle team when she made her decision. She won gold medals in halfpipe and slopestyle at the 2021 Winter X Games and a bronze in big air. Since the start of this season, she has won four halfpipe contests, one in big air and finished second in her only slopestyle start. It’s no reach to think she could be the first action-sports athlete to win Olympic gold in three separate events, starting with the big air finals on Feb. 8.

“She’s unbeatable when she lands even her ‘B’- or ‘C’-level run right now,” U.S. coach Mike Riddle said. “If you’re trying to bet against her, it’s a bad call.”

Freestyle Skiing - Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics Day 2
BEIJING, CHINA -Eileen Gu (or Gu Ailing) of Team China during training of the women’s freeski big air competition. (Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images)

All of which has more than put Gu on the map in a country that loves its sports stars. Former NBA center Yao Ming is still a national hero. Hurdler Liu Xiang won a gold medal in 2004 that turned him into the poster child for the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

At last count, Gu — whose Chinese name is Gu Ailing — had 1.34 million followers on the Chinese social media platform Weibo. She is racking up sponsors — at least 23 by the AP’s count — and is finding support in a country that has captured a grand total of 13 gold medals in the history of the Winter Olympics but only one of those on snow.

“I just want to watch three shows for the upcoming Winter Olympics,” Zhang Dongwei, a 47-year-old Internet technology blogger living in Xiamen, posted on Weibo recently. “First, the opening ceremony. Second, Gu Ailing. Third, the closing ceremony.”

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No matter how she does over these next two weeks, her future upon heading home from China appears bright.

She has had covers on In Style and Vogue magazines. “I love the sound of camera shutters,” she said.

She is set to go to Stanford later this year, with a possible major in international studies in the offing.

She’s a strong musician, and something of a ham at heart. “When you see the piano in the airport, and there’s a kid sitting there playing it, that’s me,” she said.

She is well-spoken in two languages. Her fluency in Mandarin is the result of being raised in part by her grandmother, who does not speak English.

She is also, undoubtedly, on her way to being rich, which might be the case regardless of which country’s colors she is wearing this month. That punches a hole in the argument that she made the move simply for the money. But the decision was always more complex than that.

“She’s stepping into this because she says she wants to be a role model for young girls, but in terms of the social issues having to do with America criticizing China, she’s not stepping in to answer for those particular issues,” Carlson said. “It’s unique because in the current climate we’re in, we have a lot of athletes who are stepping into that willingly without even being prompted.”

Instead, the social issue she cares about most is trying to help girls connect with sports. Anyone who thinks she’s just arriving at this party could be pointed to the Adidas commercial that features a speech she gave in seventh grade about women’s equity in sports.

“Some people retire with 10 gold medals and then they’re 30 years old and don’t know what to do,” Gu said. “But I want to be able to have those medals and to be able to feel like I changed someone’s life, or changed the sport, or introduced the sport to a country where it wasn’t before.”

MORE ON EILEEN GU: Eileen Gu wins Olympic debut of women’s freeski big air

Eileen Gu’s Busy Freeskiing Schedule at the 2022 Winter Olympics:

Event  Date/Time (U.S. Eastern Time) Date/Time (Beijing, China)
Women’s Freeski Big Air (Qualifying) 2/6/22 8:30 PM 2/7/22 9:30 AM
Women’s Freeski Big Air (Final) 2/7/22 9:00 PM 2/8/22 10:00 AM
Women’s Freeski Slopestyle (Qualifying) 2/12/22 9:00 PM 2/13/22 10:00 AM
Women’s Freeski Slopestyle (Final) 2/13/22 8:30 PM 2/14/22 9:30 AM
Women’s Freeski Halfpipe (Qualifying) 2/16/22 8:30 PM 2/17/22 9:30 AM
Women’s Freeski Halfpipe (Final) 2/17/22 8:30 PM 2/18/22 9:30 AM

MORE FROM ON HER TURF: 2022 Winter Olympics Schedule – How to watch every women’s event

Crystal Dunn returns to USWNT roster five months after giving birth

Nigeria v USWNT
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Crystal Dunn was named to the USWNT roster for two upcoming friendlies against England and Spain, marking her first official selection since giving birth to son Marcel in May.

Dunn made her NWSL return with the Portland Thorns earlier this month and also trained with the U.S. team as a non-rostered player ahead of friendlies vs. Nigeria.

In addition to Dunn, the 24-player roster features a veteran core of Alyssa Naeher, Becky Sauerbrunn, Rose Lavelle, Lindsey Horan, Mallory Pugh, and Megan Rapinoe.

Alex Morgan was not named to the USWNT roster due to a knee injury. While U.S. head coach Vlatko Andonovski did not provide details of the injury, he noted that “if this was a World Cup final, Alex was going to be on this trip and was going to play, no question.”

Other roster highlights include 17-year-old Alyssa Thompson, who becomes the first player born in 2004 to receive a USWNT call-up. Thomas, a high senior, plays club soccer for the U-17 Total Futbol Academy boys’ team.

“We are very excited for her, very excited about her potential and qualities and looking forward to seeing how she will turn out in our environment,” Andonovski said of Thompson. “This camp is not make it or break it. It’s a first experience for her, it’s just something that she shouldn’t even worry about.”

The USWNT also includes a handful of players who have made their USWNT breakthrough this season — thanks in part to both strong NWSL play and injuries to more veteran players. That list includes the likes of Naomi Girma (7 caps), Taylor Kornieck (5 caps), Hailie Mace (5 caps), Sam Coffey (1 cap), and Savannah DeMelo (0 caps).

Andonovski on Thursday called Coffey, a midfielder for the Portland Thorns, a candidate for NWSL MVP.


USWNT Roster for October 2022 Friendlies vs. England and Spain

Goalkeepers (3):

  • Aubrey Kingsbury (Washington Spirit)
  • Casey Murphy (North Carolina Courage)
  • Alyssa Naeher (Chicago Red Stars)

Defenders(7):

  • Alana Cook (OL Reign)
  • Crystal Dunn (Portland Thorns FC)
  • Emily Fox (Racing Louisville FC)
  • Naomi Girma (San Diego Wave FC)
  • Sofia Huerta (OL Reign)
  • Hailie Mace (Kansas City Current)
  • Becky Sauerbrunn (Portland Thorns FC)

Midfielders (8):

  • Sam Coffey (Portland Thorns FC)
  • Savannah DeMelo (Racing Louisville FC)
  • Lindsey Horan (Olympique Lyon, FRA)
  • Taylor Kornieck (San Diego Wave FC)
  • Rose Lavelle (OL Reign)
  • Kristie Mewis (NJ/NY Gotham FC)
  • Ashley Sanchez (Washington Spirit)
  • Andi Sullivan (Washington Spirit)

Forwards (6):

  • Ashley Hatch (Washington Spirit)
  • Mallory Pugh (Chicago Red Stars)
  • Megan Rapinoe (OL Reign)
  • Trinity Rodman (Washington Spirit)
  • Sophia Smith (Portland Thorns FC)
  • Alyssa Thompson (Total Futbol Academy)

Follow Alex Azzi on Twitter @AlexAzziNBC

Justine Wong-Orantes’ atypical path to becoming one of the best liberos in the world

Justine Wong-Orantes hits the ball in the women's semi-final volleyball match between USA and Serbia during the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.
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It’s been 20 years since the same nation held both the Olympic and world volleyball titles at the same time, but libero Justine Wong-Orantes is looking to help lead Team USA accomplish that very feat at the 2022 FIVB Volleyball Women’s World Championships in the Netherlands and Poland. Competition began on Friday and the U.S. is currently 2-0 after group play wins against Kazakhstan and Canada.

“We’re trying to win, for sure,” Wong-Orantes told On Her Turf. “I think, especially with the new turn of the program and the new year of the quad, we just have a really nice blend of veterans and also newcomers on the team.”

The 14-woman roster for Team USA, which is ranked No. 1 in the world and won its first Olympic title last summer, features six players from that gold-medal-winning team. And while Wong-Orantes is among the 2021 U.S. Olympic team veterans, she’s still a relative newcomer to international play.

The Southern California native enjoyed a notable junior career – she was 12 when she became the youngest female to ever earn an AAA rating in beach volleyball – and was a standout collegian at Nebraska, where she was a member of the 2015 NCAA championship team. But Wong-Orantes followed a different path upon graduation, initially choosing not to go overseas to play professionally.

While she was first selected for the U.S. national team in 2016 and played a handful of international tournaments in the following years, it wasn’t until she started playing professionally in Germany in 2019 that she saw the potential to elevate her position on the roster. In particular, the pandemic-delayed Tokyo Olympics gave her an additional year of overseas experience, which she calls “a blessing in disguise.”

“I just felt like I was still in that developmental stage,” she said. “And a whole year postponement allowed me to go overseas and really get all the touches, all the repetitions, and just kind of expose myself to international volleyball another year. So I was, in hindsight, pretty thankful for that COVID season because I got an extra year under my belt, and I think that just gave me a ton of confidence.”

Ahead of the Olympics, Wong-Orantes earned “best libero” honors at the 2021 FIVB Volleyball National League in Rimini, Italy, which helped secure her spot on the Olympic roster. In Tokyo, she followed up with another standout performance and was named best libero of the Olympic tournament.

As to how the Wong-Orantes transformed into one of the world’s top liberos, she points to her background as a beach volleyball player. She began competing at age 8, and her first partner was Sara Hughes, a star on the AVP Pro Tour who also won two NCAA titles with USC.

“I think having that background and just the court awareness that beach volleyball forces you to have allowed me to really have a good read on the game,” said Wong-Orantes. “I think that’s what makes a great libero is just reading and always being reactive towards the ball.”

Wong-Orantes also credits the assistance of mental coach Sue Enquist, a former UCLA softball coach and U.S. national team coach, who now helps teams work on their culture and relationships. Enquist began working with the U.S. volleyball team during the pandemic and has continued in her role ever since.

“We just worked on a lot of stuff within ourselves, within our program, how to communicate with each other off the court, and I think that honestly propelled us into such a high, high level with how we worked with each other, and then that transferred onto the court,” explained Wong-Orantes, who noted the team has Enquist on speed dial while at the World Championship. “I really commend Sue. I just really give a lot of praise to her because I think our culture was never bad, but I think [she] just transformed into a different level.”

2022-09-26 - FIVB Volleyball Womens World Championship 2022 - Day 4
ARNHEM, NETHERLANDS – Justine Wong-Orantes (far right) poses for a photo with her U.S. teammates after defeating Canada at the 2022 FIVB Volleyball Women’s World Championship on September 26, 2022. (Photo by Rene Nijhuis/Orange Pictures/BSR Agency/Getty Images)

Wong-Orantes said she and her U.S. teammates are on their toes for the world championships, which features twice as many teams (24) as the Olympics and a “more grueling” format.

“It’s going to be a long tournament, and I think we’re really going to need all 14 of us that are here. I’m pretty certain that, at any given moment, someone’s going to be called on and someone’s going to need to step up in big moments.”