Unpacking Eileen Gu’s decision to compete for China

Eileen Gu, who will compete for China at the 2022 Winter Olympics
Getty Images
0 Comments

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.

MORE OLYMPICS COVERAGE: Zoi Sadowski-Synnott makes history for New Zealand with slopestyle gold

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.”

ALSO FROM ON HER TURF: Jessie Diggins’ legacy extends far beyond her historic Olympic gold

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

Diana Flores looks to break down gender barriers with turn as AFC defensive coordinator in 2023 Pro Bowl

Courtesy Diana Flores
0 Comments

Diana Flores admits she was surprised when she became a viral sensation last spring, courtesy of a 15-second slow-motion clip showcasing her evasive maneuvers and fancy footwork while leaving at least three defenders in the dirt during Mexico’s 2022 national collegiate flag football championship.

“I never expected someone to record that moment,” said Mexico City native Flores, who led her team – the Monterrey Tech Borregos – to their third consecutive national title as a senior last May. “I was just having fun. I was just playing the game I love and then days later to see that it was viral on the internet — it was crazy. But at the same time, it was exciting because I remember when I was younger, I didn’t have a lot of flag football role models to follow. So now, for me to be a role model for many boys and girls that play my sport is something that really makes me happy and proud and also motivates me to keep getting better.”

Flores, who led the Mexico Women’s National Flag Football Team to a gold medal at the 2022 World Games, will have the chance to promote her sport on one of the world’s biggest stages this weekend when she serves as the AFC defensive coordinator for the NFL’s 2023 Pro Bowl Games, featuring the first-ever AFC vs. NFC Flag football games on Sunday in Las Vegas.

Organized in partnership with RCX Sports, the NFL’s flag football operating partner, and the International Federation of American Football (IFAF), Sunday’s Pro Bowl event will feature three 7-on-7 AFC vs. NFC flag games. Each game will be 20 minutes in length (two halves) and played on a 50-yard field with 10-yard end zones. Flores will be joined by Peyton Manning as the AFC head coach and Ray Lewis as defensive coordinator. On the NFC side, U.S. Women’s National Flag Football team quarterback Vanita Krouch will serve as offensive coordinator, with Eli Manning as NFC head coach and DeMarcus Ware as defensive coordinator.

“I think that this has been one of the best things in my life,” she recently told On Her Turf about her Pro Bowl appointment. “It is like a dream. I mean, I grew up watching football, watching the NFL, playing flag football. And now to be able to be part of all of this — it is bigger than my biggest dreams.”

Flores’ football dreams began as when she was just 8 years old. Her father — who played quarterback for the perennial football powerhouse Monterrey Tech program — took her to a practice and she fell in love with the sport. But as the time there were no teams for girls her age, so she played with girls twice her age and used it to her advantage, focusing on her own abilities and sharpening her skills. By age 14 she was playing NFL Flag in Mexico, where she was the only girl in the league, and at 15 she started playing NFL Flag in the U.S, where she finally played on an all-girls team.

ALSO FROM ON HER TURF: U.S. flag football star Vanita Krouch ‘living the dream’ ahead of NFL Pro Bowl debut as NFC coordinator

“I remember when I started playing, I used to receive a lot of like comments, directly and indirectly from other people, like, ‘Why do you play that sport? That’s not a girls’ sport, that sport is for boys, you’re get injured, you’re going to get hurt, don’t play with boys, that’s too rude.’ And the list keeps going. But my mom and dad were so supportive. They always encouraged me not to listen to anybody, to just follow my passion.

“And I think thanks to them, I’ve always had this mentality that gender doesn’t matter. It just matters how passionate you are about your dreams, how hard you work for what you want to achieve. And that you will always demonstrate what you’re made for, depending on the hard work you do. So, I’ve lived through that [negativity], I have experienced that. And I think that it has been one of my biggest blessings to be able to experience — for myself — what sport can do and how gender barriers get broken when you follow your dreams and you connect with other people through your passion.”

At just 16 years old, Flores made Mexico’s national team, playing in the first of four Flag Football World Championships – so far. Last summer at the World Games in Birmingham, Alabama, the 24-year-old Flores led Mexico to a 6-0 record, which included two wins over the U.S. women, who took silver. In the gold medal game against the United States, she completed 20 of 28 pass attempts for 210 yards and four touchdowns in Mexico’s 39-6 victory. She finished the tournament with 23 touchdown passes, the third-most among women’s teams, and she was the only starting quarterback to beat USA’s star QB, Krouch, who is 19-1 in international tournament play.

All that international experience so early in her career has given Flores a wise-beyond-her-years approach to playing flag football, a sport where she was frequently the only female player on the field and often the only Latin American as well.

“When I first came to the U.S., it was a little shocking to notice that I was probably the only Latin American girl playing,” she recalls. “But I think that it was easy for me because I got all the support from my coaches and my teammates. And since a young age, I think that I started to realize that sometimes what you do is for something bigger than yourself. That’s why you have to always give your best, in any situation. Even at that young age, I understood that I was representing more than myself on the field, I was representing Latin American people, Latin American girls in a sport that [many people thought] was meant to be for boys.”

RELATED: NFL still pushing for Olympic flag football with a chance ahead

One door Flores hopes to help open is the one leading to the Olympics. Flag football is on the short list being considered for inclusion in Los Angeles in 2028 Los Angeles. As an ambassador for flag football for the NFL and the International Federation of American Football (IFAF), she’s participated in talks with the International Olympic Committee, and just last month she was joined by First Lady Dr. Jill Biden in Mexico City where they joined forced to promote women’s empowerment and inclusion.

“I think for me, that experience is one of my top three,” she said of spending time with Biden. “I call them gifts from life, something that you didn’t expect it to happen, and somehow, one day, you’re right there in front of the First Lady. I admire her for what she does for boys and girls, for empowering woman and giving opportunities for everybody to achieve their dreams. So it was truly an honor to meet her, and also to be able to keep impacting my sport, not only on the field, but [off] the field, and have the opportunity keep inspiring others and keep impacting the world.”

As for what she hopes fans at the Pro Bowl and viewers at home take away from Sunday’s flag football showcase, Flores hopes they’ll see the characteristics that made her fall in love with flag in the first place: creativity, speed, agility, teamwork, passion and a lot of heart.

“I hope to show to all little girls and women that dreams come true, that nothing is impossible, to keep inspiring and opening opportunities and doors for women in sports, especially in the world of the NFL and football and flag football,” she says. “We’re going to make history, and I am so proud and happy for that. I’m really hoping that it is just the first step, not only for me, but for all the women that are coming after me.”

MORE FROM ON HER TURF: Paula Moltzan talks first World Cup podium, being Mikaela Shiffrin’s teammate and unconventional path to the U.S. Ski Team

Flag football star Vanita Krouch ‘living the dream’ ahead of NFL Pro Bowl debut as NFC coordinator

0 Comments

When Vanita Krouch got the news that she was named NFC defensive coordinator for the 2023 Pro Bowl Games, featuring the first-ever AFC vs. NFC Flag football games on Sunday, the U.S. Women’s National Flag Football team quarterback admits her jaw nearly hit the ground.

And then she realized something even more profound.

“For the longest time, thinking about the moment, everything, you’re like, ‘Oh, my gosh, this is a dream come true. Is this really happening?’” said the 42-year-old Krouch, known as the “Tom Brady of flag football” with a 19-1 record as USA’s starting quarterback in international tournaments since 2018.

“But then I started thinking to myself: You know what? None of us grew up thinking of this as a dream to obtain. So really, it’s kind of reversed where I’m living a dream. I get to be a pioneer in this growth of flag football for all and inclusion for all, youth and adults, [women and men]. It’s such an inclusive sport, and I get to be a part of this growth and still actively play. It’s exciting. I’m literally living the dream. I’m very much like, ‘Guys, don’t pinch me. Let me keep sleeping.’”

Organized in partnership with RCX Sports, the NFL’s flag football operating partner, and the International Federation of American Football (IFAF), Sunday’s Pro Bowl event will feature three 7-on-7 AFC vs. NFC flag games. Each game will be 20 minutes in length (two halves) and played on a 50-yard field with 10-yard end zones. Krouch will be joined by Eli Manning as NFC head coach and DeMarcus Ware as NFC defensive coordinator. On the AFC side, Mexico Women’s National Flag Football quarterback Diana Flores will serve as offensive coordinator, with Peyton Manning as head coach and Ray Lewis as defensive coordinator.

But Krouch’s journey to the Pro Bowl stage began under the unlikeliest of circumstances and was inspired by her own family odyssey, which began in Cambodia during the horrific regime of the Khmer Rouge in the late 1970s. Krouch’s mother, Phonnary Krouch, fled the country with three young sons in tow, running by night and hiding by day to escape, finding safety initially at a refugee camp in the Philippines. That’s where she welcomed Vanita, in September 1980, and two months later the family made its way to the United States. Krouch’s father exited the picture upon their arrival in America, leaving Phonnary to raise four children alone.

“In a nutshell, my mom is an amazing woman,” said Krouch, who first found sports via an elementary school flyer advertising youth soccer in Carrollton, Texas. “On the journey, she had a lot of trials, tribulations, … and after our dad left us, it was just mom and four kids in this little one-bedroom apartment. So, it was a challenge. I’m just so amazed by her strength and will to never give up.”

She also credits her mom for standing up to then-stereotypical notions that Asian girls should not play sports.

“I’m just thankful, honestly, that my mom allowed me to break the Asian culture barriers of a woman playing sports because that’s not easy,” she said. “She faced a lot of backlash from the community. But she said, ‘Hey, my child’s making good grades. She’s healthy, she’s good. She’s staying off the streets. I don’t see a problem.’ And she just let me do it. I was just lucky to have a mom that let me spread my wings.”

Krouch also had a few mentors along the way. Her elementary school PE teacher, Toni Neibes, stepped in to pay for those initial soccer fees and continued her support as Krouch transitioned to basketball in the fourth grade. She fell in love with the sport and excelled at it as well, eventually earning a full scholarship to play college basketball at Southern Methodist University. She wears the No. 4 to this day in honor of Niebes, who wore the same number as a young athlete. She also credits her fourth-grade teacher, Judy Ward, as having a lasting impact after the teacher made a habit out of showing up for her youth basketball games.

She pays tribute to them both through her clothing line, 4Ward Apparel, which features ever-changing collections emblazoned with relevant slogans encouraging female empowerment, inclusion and her personal mantra of “paying it forward” – something she does with the line itself. Each month, Krouch donates a portion of the sales to individuals, families or organizations in need.

After graduating SMU in 2003, Krouch continued to play basketball in semi-pro and adult leagues, but she was still searching for something to satisfy her competitive drive. She and a former college teammate stumbled on flag football during a Google search for local Dallas-area activities, and the rest – as they say – is history.

“It was like I drank the Kool Aid and I never looked back,” she says of her start in flag in 2006. “It’s just like every game, every play is a new challenge, and it’s addictive for a competitor, so I just fell in love with flag. I actually think I’m way better at flag than I was at basketball.”

She moved into the quarterback position through some sly maneuvering by current USA Women’s Flag Football head coach Chris Lankford. They were playing together in a local tournament when he “tricked” her into the QB position, despite Krouch knowing “zero football language.”

ALSO FROM ON HER TURF: U.S. freeskier Maggie Voisin gets candid about grief, loss and finding motivation on the mountain

“One day I showed up for a tournament and I asked, ‘All right, guys, who’s our quarterback?’ And he says, ‘We’re looking at her,’” she remembers. They kept the plays simple, and her team made it to the playoffs that season. Krouch has been a QB ever since.

Krouch joined the national team in 2016 and was inducted into the National Flag and Touch Football Hall Fame that same year. Last year at the 2022 World Games in Birmingham, Alabama, a 41-year-old Krouch set a new mark as the oldest Flag football player, man or woman, in the games, and she ranked second among women with 25 touchdown passes at the tournament where USA won silver.

She aims to bring that expertise to the field at the Pro Bowl games, where she’s looking forward to seeing NFL players take on the flag football style type of plays. “Flag is a very finesse, quick game, a lot of footwork, and these guys can’t grab or hold, no downfield contact or downfield block or anything off the line,” she explains. “So it’s going to be exciting just to see skill for skill, footwork for footwork, defense to offense, and to see flag football language with those type of elite athletes.”

As for the biggest challenge, Krouch believes it will be crafting a concise playbook and language that puts everyone on the same page. “A challenge for me is getting a coach’s mindset,” she adds, “I have to actually come up with plays ahead of time and I don’t usually have premeditated plays in my head. I just read it so for me to tell Kirk Cousins or Geno Smith [what to do], it will be different, you know?”

But beyond the Pro Bowl, Krouch is excited that flag is being considered for inclusion as an exhibition sport in the 2028 Summer Olympics. While she’s keeping a hopeful eye on that development, she’s also working to shape the next generation of potential athletes as a physical education teacher at La Villita Elementary in Irving, Texas.

RELATED: NFL still pushing for Olympic flag football with a chance ahead

“It’s an honor to be a role model – for other youth flag football players, for my students, both boys and girls,” says Krouch. “Then at my campus and in my community, it’s amazing to be able to break the barrier of like, ‘Asian women can’t do this.’ And then to be at my age, still doing this, I feel very lucky and blessed. …I think I still got some years in me.”

As for what she hopes viewers and fans walk away with after watching the Pro Bowl flag games this weekend, Krouch feels confident folks will walk away enlightened by the show.

“I just hope that they have fun with it,” says Krouch. “And for those who don’t know flag to be like, ‘Wow, that’s really amazing. Maybe that’s something I really can get my son or daughter into at a young age.’ So I just hope that they see that the sport is real – it’s not just something we play at recess. It’s a real thing now. I think they’ll see that the world loves it, the world can play it and is playing it.”

Be sure to check back with On Her Turf later this week when we catch up with AFC coordinator and Mexico Women’s National Flag Football Team quarterback Diana Flores.  

MORE FROM ON HER TURF: Paula Moltzan talks first World Cup podium, being Mikaela Shiffrin’s teammate and unconventional path to the U.S. Ski Team