She could be America’s next Olympian darling: a stunning 18-year-old skier who signed with Victoria’s Secret and plans to attend Stanford after competing for gold in Beijing.
But Eileen Gu will not compete for the US.
Instead, in a move that baffled members of the American ski community, Gu, born and raised in San Francisco, joined the China team.
“I have decided to compete for China at the 2022 Winter Olympics,” Gu announced in a 2019 tweet, months after he earned his first World Cup win in Italy at age 15.
“The opportunity to help inspire millions of young people where my mother was born, during the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics, is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to help promote the sport I love.”
Others in the sport wonder why Gu, an ultra-athletic skier and favorite to claim up to three gold medals when the games begin on Friday, would side with the host nation, accused of abusing human rights and engaging in unfair trade policies. . .
“It’s not for me to judge, but Eileen is from California, not China, and her decision [to ski for China] it seems opportunistic,” said Jen Hudak, a former Winter X Games gold medalist for the US women’s team.
“She became the athlete that she is because she grew up in the United States, where she had access to top-tier training camps and training that, as a woman, she might not have had in China,” Hudak told The Post. “I think she would be a different skier if she grew up in China.
“This makes me sad,” added Hudak, who retired in 2014 after knee injuries derailed her career and has since co-founded Escapod Trailers. “It would be nice to see the medals go to the United States.”
Gu, a US citizen, made her decision with input from her Chinese mother, Yan, an outspoken “tiger mom” and an American father who keeps a low profile, one of her former coaches said.
“All roads to Eileen go through Yan,” said Mike Hanley, principal at Wy’East Mountain Academy in Oregon, a training center for Olympic skiers like Nick Goepper and Alex Beaulieu.
“Yan is very nice but one of the most intense human beings I have ever met. She smiles and she tells you how great you are. But then you find out, after the fact, what the requests are. She loves her daughter and wants her daughter to take precedence.”
There could also be a financial incentive.
“She is the gold star for the country with the fastest growing economy,” Hanley said. “She can be the Tony Hawk of winter sports in China.”
Gu is not the first American to cross from west to east.
Beverly Zhu and Ashley Lin, both figure skaters, were born in the US and are now competing for China. But neither is at Gu’s level in his sport.
“Most people compete for other countries because they can’t make the American team,” Hudak said.
Gu’s talent is undeniable.
In November, at the Steamboat Freeski Big Air competition, she became the first woman to pull off a tricky trick that once seemed impossible for women to pull off: a “double cork 1440.” She shot down a ramp and soared into the sky, then completed four 360-degree rotations, before landing on her skis. An astonished NBC announcer said Gu “absolutely stomped the field.”
Freeskiing combines the gravity-defying stunts of snowboarding with the challenges of alpine racing. The event features the types of tricks, jumps and obstacles often seen in skateboarding competitions.
“She is the gold medal favourite,” said Hudak, noting that Gu will compete in three events in Beijing: big air, half-pipe and slopestyle.
“I don’t think anyone is at his level. I can see her getting medals in all three events this year.”
In the United States, Gu’s sponsors include Red Bull, Cadillac, Apple-owned Beats by Dre headphones and Victoria’s Secret. In the pages of Harpers Bazaar, Gu modeled the lingerie brand’s sportswear in an image that showed her flying through the air.
But those big names are overshadowed by deals being made in China, where the national broadcaster, CCTV, has described Gu as “the perfect kid next door”. Others in China have nicknamed her the “snow princess”.
So far he has signed more than 20 endorsement deals in his adopted homeland, signing with the likes of the Bank of China, China Mobile and dairy company Mengniu. She is also the spokesperson for Luckin’ Coffee, China’s Starbucks. According to Campaignasia.com, a single endorsement deal with the skier costs around $2.5 million.
When the Olympics begin, Gu’s biggest challenger could be France’s top air stuntman Tess Ledeux, who last week executed four and a half rotations for a 1620 double cork during an X Games competition.
That new record planted a seed of doubt among some Gu watchers. In a video that went viral on the Chinese equivalent of TikTok, a banner suggested: “Chinese fans, let’s not push Gu too hard.” Since she wasn’t used to skeptics, Gu responded to her fans, “Why don’t you have more faith in me?”
Gu’s success stems from his dedication, said Peter Olenick, who trained Gu at a Red Bull training camp.
“She is very talented and passionate about the sport, but in the end it is her work ethic,” he told The Post. “She is the first to train and the last to leave. She competes in multiple events; she then she goes home to run and train. That is unusual.
Being brave also helps.
“He came up with the mindset of following the guys and doing the tricks they do,” Elijah Teter, Wy’East Mountain Academy athletic director, told The Post.
“She is used to crashing and that is difficult for women. A couple of summers ago, at Mount Hood, Eileen hit the deck and suffered a very bad concussion. That took her out for a week. It is an injury that can make people afraid. Not Eileen. She overcomes fear”.
His intelligence is also obvious, Olenick said. Gu had a near-perfect 1580 SAT score, is fluent in Mandarin, and has already been accepted to Stanford.
“Eileen is incredibly smart and likes to make skiers feel silly,” he said. “She uses bigger words than them. She talks about things that go beyond skiing and hanging out. She throws chemistry stuff at them.”
Skiing is not his only sport. While attending a private school in the Bay Area, Gu became an elite runner. “She was one of the best long-distance runners in California,” Hanley said.
But Gu eventually focused on freeskiing because of his mother. Yan watched her daughter start downhill skiing at the age of 3 and she was worried about how fast she was going down the slopes. Hoping to temper her speed, Yan signed up her daughter in freestyle classes, not realizing that the sport involves even more risks and dangers than standard alpine ski racing.
But Gu took it all. He was focused on winning events and Yan was the biggest driver for him, according to Hanley.
“Yan is not going to back down,” he said. “These sports are very expensive. Many of the Americans ask for favors. Yan was willing to pay, which is very rare in the action sports industry. He paid for the training and the trip.”
Meanwhile, in China, Gu will have government support, said a former X Games athlete who asked not to be identified. “The amount of money and the amount of support that he receives from China will be much greater than what he would receive in the United States,” he said.
Two years after the World Cup victory in Italy, Gu became the first Chinese athlete to win X Games gold and the first rookie to claim the top medal in the superpipe event in January 2021.
And now it’s Beijing’s turn: compete for China.
It’s a decision that Hanley “seems practical and pragmatic, like all the decisions he makes.”
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism