American-born sensation earns stunning Olympic gold for China
In a triumph that many are calling the most dramatic moment of the Winter Olympics so far, Chinese-American sensation Eileen Gu – a former Team USA prospect who was one of the most hyped stars before the Beijing Games – won big air freestyle skiing gold for China with an audacious last-gasp move to secure her first medal.
Pre-Olympics favorite Eileen Gu was in third place behind France's Tess Ledeux and Swiss star Sarah Hoefflin ahead of her final run, guaranteeing the 18-year-old model and cross-cultural sponsors' dream a medal.
Ledeux had posted the largest rotation in women's freeski history with a double 1620, leaving Gu needing a spectacular swansong in Shijingshan to overhaul her rivals and land gold for the hosts, who she switched to as a 15-year-old in 2019.
Gu delivered with the first 1620 of her career on her first ever effort to complete the four-and-a-half-turn trick in competition, looking shocked on the slopes as the scale of her achievement sunk in among her crestfallen challengers.
“That was a trick I have never done before – had never attempted before,” said the hugely-followed prodigy with a following of more than 542,000 on Instagram.
“I’ve thought about it a lot but to put it down on my third run in the first Olympic freeski final in history means the world to me.
"Even if I didn’t land it, I felt it would send a message out to the world and hopefully encourage more girls to break their own boundaries.
"That was my biggest goal going into my last run. I reminded myself to have fun and enjoy the moment and that, no matter what, I was so grateful to even have this opportunity to even be here.”
The California-born starlet had been criticized by some before the Games, including suggestions that her switch to her mother and grandparents' nation, having represented and spent years training with Team USA, was ill-judged in the light of widespread accusations of human rights crimes by China.
“I honestly feel like I’ve managed it well,” Gu said after becoming the youngest ever gold medal winner for China at the Winter Olympics.
“I don’t feel like I’ve absorbed much of the external pressure. I feel really grateful for all the support I’ve received.
"But also, I feel like I compete for myself – and I’m the one who did the work. I’m the one who put in the hours. There were no cameras in the gym when I worked eight hours on fashion work and then went to the gym afterwards.
“There were no cameras when I was hiking up before the lifts closed at 4pm to get another hit in.
"There were no cameras when I was I was running a half-marathon every week over the entire summer. Those are the hours that I put in.”
Pre-Games promotional clips had claimed that Gu would change the face of the sport, and her backers – said to include luxury jewelers Tiffany's, Visa, Cadillac and Bank of China – have now watched the halfpipe and slopestyle World Champion's brand value rise even higher.
"Congratulations to the greatest of all time," said 2018 slopestyle Olympic champion Hoefflin. "I'm speechless and so impressed – you push the boundaries like no other. Enjoy it, girl."
Gu responded by calling the 31-year-old her "forever inspo", adding: "Amazing skier and even better person."
The cover star for top fashion magazines including Vogue and Elle called Ledeux and bronze medalist Mathilde Gremaud "so inspiring" and said they had "pushed the sport to another level".
She could now earn a hat-trick of medals in the slopestyle and halfpipe. “I was guaranteed a podium spot when I dropped in," Gu said of her immensely pressurized final run.
"I was only 0.25 points behind Mathilde and I was thinking, ‘Should I improve on my previous one and go for the sliver or should I whip out this random trick I’d never done before and go for gold?’
“In my head, I wanted to represent myself and this competitive style that I really take pride in and that desire to push myself and push the sport.”