Beijing 2022: Eileen Gu soars in first Olympic moment | DW | 08.02.2022

Sitting in third with one jump remaining in the women’s freeski big air event at Beijing’s Shougang Park, Eileen Gu knew she needed deliver something big.

She had already landed her first two jumps, one of which was the double cork 1440 she revealed at a Red Bull camp in Austria last year, but she was still five points off Frenchwoman Tess Ledeux. 

So Gu, whose Chinese name is Gu Ailing, called her mom Gu Yan, who was in attendance. Yan is one of the few parents who travels to all events, according to Eileen, and told her daughter to play it safe and do one of the tricks she had done before.

“I was like ‘mmm no. Vetoed,'” Gu told the reporters afterward with a laugh.

Instead, she went for a double cork 1620 safety, a trick that involves four and a half rotations, two flips and a tail grab – a trick she had never attempted before. Upon landing, she did a double fist pump in the air, aware of the historic feat that she just achieved.

And when Ledeux failed to land her last jump, the few hundred home fans in the crowd, which included IOC president Thomas Bach and tennis star Peng Shuai, let out a huge cheer for their 18-year-old superstar.

“It is the biggest honor, the biggest dream to win gold here today, especially in front of this amazing crowd,” Gu, 18, told reporters afterward. “That was the best moment of my life. The happiest  moment, day, whatever … of my life. I just cannot believe what just happened.” 

The trick Eileen Gu had never tried

The Chinese freestyle skier admitted afterward that, though she had practiced the trick into an air bag, she had never attempted the trick in training or competition, but she had visualized it.

“If you consider that as training, then many hours,” Gu said with a laugh.

She added that she mentally prepares for an hour and a half before bed everyday. When asked by DW how she mentally prepares for a trick she’s never done before, she said she not only sees the trick, but tries to hear it.

“I played piano for nine years growing up, so to me, everything has a very strong sense of rhythm especially in the air when the wind is in your ears,” Gu said. “So the speed of each spin kind of changes, when you wrap the spin it speeds up. Hearing that rhythm over and over, envisioning it, it helps with my sense of timing and my sense of air awareness.”

With one jump left, she felt that doing the trick was worth the risk. “Even if I didn’t land it, it would have been an opportunity to represent myself and my spirit on the Olympic stage and to show that I’m always wanting to push myself to the absolute limit.” 

Though she disregarded her mom’s advice, she did defend her mother’s council afterward.

“She’s nothing of a tiger mom. She doesn’t really care that much about the level of difficulty,” Gu said of her mother, who got her into skiing while studying at Stanford University. “I feel like, in a sense, she’s definitely the voice of reason. She’s a sounding board, and we are very similar people.”

When DW asked Gu to characterize her relationship with her mother, she said she’s always been a “huge inspiration for me” as a “knowledgeable, confident, independent woman.”

“And now as I’ve gotten older, I feel like we’ve kind of become friends more so than a parent-kid relationship,” the freestyle skier added. “So she’s a critical, critical part of my team.”

The divisive face of the Olympics

There is no doubt that, with her first of potentially three gold medals in the bag, the 18-year-old is perhaps the biggest star in Beijing. Chinese television was continuously showing her in competitions leading up to the Olympics, and it seems one in three advertising spots have her in them.

Though she was born in San Francisco, Gu decided to switch allegiances from the USA to China when she was 15 years old. Some wondered whether she understood the decision she was making since Chinese athletes are often told not to be vocal and speak out. Many on social media have even called her a “traitor” for making the switch, while others have accused her of financial opportunism.

But Gu, who is set to begin studying at her mother’s alma mater after the Games, has done her best to take herself out of the discussion.

Eileen Gu could add two further gold medals to the one she won in the Big Air event

“I’m as Chinese as I’m American, and I’ve said how thankful I am to the American team,” she said. 
The 18-year-old has been more focused on Olympic glory – she showed reporters her phone screen with a gold medal backdrop – and using her platform to inspire more girls to join the sport.

“Hopefully I make some kind of positive impact, and now my biggest goal is to ride the wave and allow this moment to inspire more young girls,” Gu said. “That’s always been my biggest goal.”

The big air was the first of three events for Gu in Beijing. She is set to take part in the slopestyle and halfpipe events in Zhangjiakou on February 14 and 18 respectively. If she dares to be as bold as she was in the big air, more gold medals may await her, and China, in the near future.

Edited by: James Thorogood

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