During January’s Winter X Games, a Chinese-American freeskiing star was the talk of the town as she took home three medals in Colorado. The Aspen rookie made competition history, and at just 17 years of age, everyone is talking about the talented Eileen Gu.
A NEW SPORTS ICON IS BORN
The San Francisco native Eileen Gu started off with bronze in Women’s Ski Big Air behind Swiss star Mathilde Gremaud. Then she followed up with two gold medals in the Women’s Ski SuperPipe and Women’s Ski Slopestyle.
Eileen Gu, of both American and Chinese roots, earned her first FIS Freeski World Cup victory in Italy when she was 15 in January 2019. In the same year, she opted to represent China at the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics. That is now her biggest project in the year to come.
Eileen Gu reflects on X Games medals and future goals
Here is what the 2020 Winter Youth Olympic Games Halfpipe gold medallist Eileen Gu has to say after her success at Aspen:
No rookie has ever won three medals on their X Games debut. How was it to make history?
It was so much fun. Going into it, I was just expecting to gain a bunch of experience and have fun, and maybe podium once. I didn’t expect to win or get three podiums.
The medals aside, how was the X Games experience – everything you’d imagined watching it growing up?
It was everything. Obviously, the crowds weren’t there but, because it was my first one, I had nothing to compare it to. The organization was amazing with the COVID-19 testing and everything being closed off.
Of the two gold medals, was one more special than the other?
I would say the slopestyle one because I’ve been skiing that longer than halfpipe. The slopestyle field is deeper and bigger than the halfpipe, so being able to perform on that day was pretty special. Everyone in that event could theoretically win, so that felt really special.
After those medals, do things change for the rest of the year and going into next year as well?
I’m always the youngest in my contest. However, I’m used to it. People always ask me: “How does it feel being the youngest and being a rookie?”, so all the time I have that mindset of the underdog and least experienced, and most of the time that’s been where I am.
I like to keep the same thinking that every time I intend to win, but that’s not the expectation. I know I have the capability but being able to put it down in a stacked field is a mental game. It’s almost a surprise when it happens and then, I guess, it puts me more on the same level as the others, rather than thinking of myself as being smaller somehow or less experienced.
How do you think you’ll cope with going from underdog to favorite?
I grow and I change. I don’t think there will ever have to be a time where I’m complacent and think I’ll win. My mum always tells me there are seven billion people in the world, so to make it to a level where you can be the best in the world is incredible, but I will never expect to win anything – just take it one at a time and try to keep myself humble and gracious.
Next year’s even bigger than the X Games with Beijing 2022 looming, isn’t it?
I would say it’s bigger because the event’s only every four years. It’s the same level of competition as the X Games, but it’s rarer. Knowing China and the culture and the dedication that Chinese people have, I know it’s going to be big and go down in history.
I know how much resource and effort has been put, not just in the infrastructure, but introducing 300 million people to snow before the Olympics which is nearly the population of the USA. I know that, when it happens, it will be unlike anything else.
Competing for China, the spotlight’s going to be huge on you, isn’t it?
I think so but I learned a lot about managing pressure last year after the Youth Olympics when the attention started growing. I learned to take the positives and use that energy for motivation and not let it become pressure.
The only person that knows to be where I am and to have done what I’ve done is me, and everybody does it differently. At the end of the day when I perform, the only person that I want to ski for is me, although there are a lot of causes outside of myself that I want to dedicate that spotlight to.
And how does it feel to have two nations cheering for you in China and the US?
I’m so grateful to have peoples of two nations so different and be to have them come together and communicate and share my love for skiing. It’s an amazing example for the sport to be an international language. You don’t have to be the same race or gender to understand the sport.
Was the China nationality choice tough and do you feel happy with it on reflection?
It was one of the hardest choices in m life. Before that, it was trying to go ‘pro’ in running or skiing. At that point, I was a sophomore in a regular high school. Most sophomores are worried about physics tests and how their grades are going, or what parties to go to.
I always believed sport, especially extreme sport, has no boundaries. 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 just taking off.
I wanted to inspire and have fun along the way. Then, 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.
You fast-tracked your graduation. How good is it to get the studies all clear to focus on skiing?
I graduated in June 2020. The first person to graduate early in my school’s history. So we had to first see if it was even allowed. It was out of the question initially but, after checking my grades and my courses and the dean of students, I was told it could be possible. I’m taking a gap year, so not in school now and then another gap year. I don’t have to declare my major too soon, so I’ll try out a little bit of everything: molecular genetics, maybe journalism and writing as well, or computer science.
It’s amazing what you’ve already done by the age of 17 with skiing, school, and even modeling. Is there a danger of burnout?
People ask, “Don’t you get tired?”. If you get to hang out with your friends all day and do your favorite pastime, then you wouldn’t be that tired. It’s more like a play. Sure, I get physically tired. But I sleep 10 hours a night. I see friends, I’m a normal teenager and I went to parties before COVID-19.
I think I have a really fun life and enjoy it. In terms of resting and having a great time, I’ve done that since I was little but I’m goal-orientated. Even if the goal is to do well in a class or learn something new. It’s hard for me to sit and not do anything.
How big of a force has your Mum been in everything you’ve done?
My mom is awesome. She travels with me almost everywhere I go. Besides, she’s super supportive. The commonest idea is she’s a tiger mum but she’s not – she always says be careful and rest enough. She keeps me sane and makes sure I sleep enough, 10 plus hours per day, and is just the best.
Your mom struggles to watch, doesn’t she?
Of course, she is so super nervous and doesn’t like to watch me compete. She’s there in person but she just closes her eyes!
And 2022 is big for her too with you competing in Beijing, the city where she was born?
I’m really excited about that and it means a lot to me. To compete in the place where mum was born. I’m fluent in Mandarin and I spent every summer there since I was two so that’s a quarter of my life.
Learn more about Eileen Gu on her profile on Instagram.
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