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Freestyle Skiers

American Freeskiing Phenom Eileen Gu Is Changing the Face of Skiing in China

The 18-year-old U.S.-born and -trained skier is competing for China during the 2022 Beijing Olympic Games.

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Discipline

Slopestyle, Halfpipe, and Big Air

Hometown

San Francisco, California

Age

18

Career Highlight

The first rookie to win three medals at X Games in 2021

Chinese-American freeski sensation Eileen Gu is busy. So busy that we couldn’t get an interview with her. But when reading about her and watching her in videos online, one understands why the 18-year-old ski prodigy and professional model for IMG Models, one of the biggest agencies in the world, doesn’t have time to talk, but not because she sees herself as above it. On her way to Stanford in the summer of 2022, she’s currently training for the Olympics, doing photo and video shoots for the likes of Tiffany & Co., Louis Vuitton, and Theragun, all while competing at every major ski event leading up to the Olympics.

In early December, she became the first female freeskier to land a double cork 1440 in competition, winning the Big Air World Cup in Steamboat, Colo. It was a strong showing and indicator of what she has in store for Beijing. So yes, with the whole world knocking on her door, she’s busy. 

But let’s back up. How did she get here? 

Eileen Gu
Model, Ivy Leaguer, X Games champ … now Olympian: Eileen Gu heads to Beijing to compete for her mother’s native China. Photo: Matt Power

At her X Games debut in 2021, Gu made history by winning three medals—slopestyle and halfpipe golds and big air bronze—a feat that hadn’t before been achieved by a rookie. She also became the first person of Chinese descent to ever win at the X Games. She’s won world titles—while injured, with no poles. She graduated from high school early after completing two years in one. More controversially, she made headlines by choosing to compete for her mother’s native China at the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, despite being a U.S. trained athlete.

She shared her decision in an Instagram post in June 2019.

“I have decided to compete for China in the upcoming 2022 Winter Olympics. This was an incredibly tough decision for me to make. I am extremely thankful for U.S. Ski & Snowboard and the Chinese Ski Association for having the vision and belief in me to make my dreams come true. I am proud of my heritage and equally proud of my American upbringing. The opportunity to help inspire millions of young people where my mom was born, during the 2022 Beijing Olympic Winter Games, is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to help to promote the sport I love. Through skiing, I hope to unite people, promote common understanding, create communication, and forge friendships between nations. If I can help to inspire one young girl to break a boundary, my wishes will have come true.” 

Also known by her Chinese name, Gu Ailing is a fluent Mandarin speaker who was born in San Francisco where she was raised by her mother, native to Beijing, and grandmother, a Chinese immigrant, who she says have both had a huge impact on her. Gu often credits her grandmother for being fiercely confident and instilling in her a competitive nature while her “pragmatic and hard-working mother” taught her ambition and work ethic. 

So it’s easy to understand why Gu feels she wants to give back to her Chinese heritage.  

“I’ve always dreamed big. My mom taught me that from day one. She taught me that the first person to believe in you must be yourself,” she told high-fashion brand Brunello Cucinelli. “I learned that the only way to fit a mold is to create one for yourself. And that takes courage. And now I want to be a strong female role model for all young girls. To show them what they can accomplish in sport through skiing. To show them what is possible when you have the courage to dream big and follow those dreams. One of my mottos is: If it were easy, it wouldn’t be a dream.”

This not-so-easy dream—to win Olympic gold at Beijing—has evolved quickly in the last three years. At 15 years old, Gu won her first World Cup victory at the FIS Freeski World Cup Slopestyle in Seiser Alm, Italy, in 2019. Then at the 2020 Youth Games in Lausanne, Switzerland, she took halfpipe gold and slopestyle silver. Then came the 2021 X Games trifecta. Two months after that, she sealed her reputation with a bronze in big air and gold in halfpipe and slopestyle at the FIS Freestyle Skiing World Championship in Aspen.

“I’ve been following Eileen’s career for the past couple of years. She’s a phenom,” says Mike Douglas, the godfather of freeskiing, producer/director of Salomon TV, and former longtime X Games announcer. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen a young skier with so many layers of talent. I think she has the potential to become one of the biggest stars the sport of skiing has ever seen.” 

And it would seem that’s exactly Gu’s plan.  

“[Olympic gold] to me is just representative of excellence in sport; it’s the top achievement undisputedly. And so, that would be so rewarding for all the work that I’ve done to achieve greatness in the sport,” Gu told the International Olympic Committee a year before the Games. “Beyond that, I really want to be able to do something and make a difference with the platform that I have earned and hopefully will expand on in the future.”

When it comes to her skiing skills, Gu’s bag of tricks is as full as that of a seasoned veteran: mirrored cork 900s in the halfpipe, switch left misty 900s in slopestyle, double cork 1260s in big air. The fact that she’s only 18 and just getting started is startling.

 “I always believed sport, especially extreme sport, has no boundaries,” Gu said in an interview with Red Bull, one of her biggest sponsors. “It’s one of the best vehicles to unite people, forge friendships and push human limits. I wanted to help with change and to introduce freeskiing to girls and kids in China, where the sport is only just taking off. I want to inspire and have fun along the way. I get so many messages from Chinese kids saying I’m the reason for them to take up skiing. I know how much it can change a life as it changed mine.”

It’s quite clear that Eileen Gu is busy. Very busy. And for all the right reasons.

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