Eileen Gu,19, has taken the world by storm since becoming the first freestyle skier to win three medals at single Olympics last year at the 2022 Beijing Games. The gold medalist, who was born in San Francisco, California and represents China internationally, was named the 2023 Laureus World Action Sportsperson of the year last week (an encore presentation airs Sunday, May 21st on NBC), and has only added more to her plate after that Olympic success. Gu spoke with On Her Turf about success in Beijing, how the Olympics changed her life, her endeavors in fashion, and how she’s adjusting to life as a college student.
OnHerTurf: You’ve just won the Laureus World Action Sportsperson of the Year award – congratulations and what does this achievement mean to you?
Eileen Gu: It is such an honor to be winning best action sportsperson of the year with Laureus. I’ve always said since my first speech on Title Nine when I was age 11 or 12 that one of my biggest goals was to support upcoming girls and young people in sports and to help them foster their own passion, discover their own confidence and cultivate a sense of resilience through sport. And I think that those values align very well with Laureus’s purpose and mission. And so, it’s a huge honor to be recognized by an organization like Laureus who is affecting change on such a global scale. Mandela himself, who was the one of the founders, I believe, of Laureus, said that “Sports have the power to unite people” and I couldn’t agree more.
When we last saw you on the Olympic stage, you became the first freestyle skier to win three medals at a single Olympics. How has that performance impacted your life since?
Gu: The 1620 to me was a very, very special moment and the reason for that was I had never done before. I had actually never even trained it before on airbag, on trampoline, on any kind of dry land training, much less on snow and to have all the pressure in the world, my first Olympic event, my first Olympic final, my last run, my one opportunity, I decided to do this trick that I, and actually no other woman in the world had ever attempted before on snow. It really all came down to that moment. I think that the reason it stood out so much to me was that before I dropped in, I called my mum and I told her that the reason I wanted to do the trick was because I knew the magnitude that moment had and the impact that it had the capacity to affect.
With millions of people watching I knew that it was my time to practice what I preached in the context of not being afraid to try, in the sense that I always want to be pushing myself. I want to be doing better. I want to be learning. I want to become better through sport. And that’s everything that sport has represented to me thus far, and so I knew that in that moment it was the time for me to represent that for myself and that’s why I chose to do that trick despite the risks involved.
Being the first woman in history to land it as well as the youngest Olympic free ski gold medalist and actually the first big air woman’s winner ever, was all just icing on the cake. I think in that moment it was really about the message that I was hoping to send out and the platform that the Olympics gave me, which I’m very grateful for. Euphoria, bliss, joy, every synonym. I think that sport has this very unique connection to the human spirit in the sense that it is representative of all that it is to be human. That moment was the climax of so many hours, years of hard work that I’d put in dreaming of that moment. And so, being able to see it all come together in a way that I had been dreaming of since I was eight years old was a truly spectacular and life altering moment. My mum likes watching it a lot, she likes to watch it back.
You’ve been vocal about your goals to introduce more people, particularly young women and girls in China, to winter sports. Why is that so important to you?
Gu: I had heard about [China’s] goal to get 300 million people on snow several years before the Olympics and that was one of the main motivating factors for me to work so hard going into the Olympics because I knew that I had a very unique opportunity to represent the sport in a way that it had never been seen before. But the number afterwards, I believe it was in April or March when I heard the number 346 million and I can only imagine that it’s increased since then. The biggest thing really to me is that it has truly affected such widespread cultural change, in the sense that skiing has become so trendy. It has become the thing to be doing.
I think [this effort] has reinvigorated this idea of love for sport, sport for health, for confidence, for joy, for developing yourself, for hanging out with friends, being outside and all of those original values that I really love so much. I think that’s something really beautiful that I’ve seen happening in China and worldwide.
You began your studies at Stanford in fall 2022. What does that look like for you right now? What are your favorite parts of the college experience? What are you studying, and how do you balance it with sports?
Gu: School has been going great. I recently was named to the honor roll, or honor society through Stanford, and it has been a lot of fun. It’s been a great balancing moment for me. I continue to put in the hours in the gym for sure and have a big summer ahead for skiing. But at the moment, I’m really enjoying my time as a student. I have been focusing on cultivating really meaningful friendships, on enjoying my time in the classroom. Being out of school for two years, it really is such a luxury to have information given to me in such a structured environment and being able to do one assignment after another, and to be able to learn in that way. I’m really grateful for my time there.
You’ve said skiing makes you feel like you’re capable of anything and we’ve seen you excel at everything you touch whether its skiing, modeling, or education. Where does this standard of excellence come from and what are your future goals in general?
Gu: I feel like I should get better at this probably but I’m not very good at staying in a moment. I’m always looking to the next thing. And so, now I think of that moment and think, ok, what can I do with the platform that I’ve been afforded from that moment, as opposed to kind of going back and trying to relive something in the past, which, can be a good thing and a bad thing. I think my mum is really good at being more grateful for things in the moment and that’s something that I’m working on.
Fashion has played a huge role in my life in the last four or five years and it has given me this incredible outlet to learn about my femininity, and to equate power and strength with femininity, especially coming from a male dominated sport. That’s a really interesting dichotomy for me to be exploring and it’s a way for me to express myself. It’s a way for me to challenge myself, to ask questions, to learn from all the incredible industry masterminds that have come before me and just having fun, honestly. It’s a fun thing for me to do. I love it so much and I’m constantly learning on the job.
Watch an encore presentation of the Laureus Sport Awards, Sunday May 21st at 1pm ET.