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A 17-year-old daredevil could be China’s next Olympic star

Eileen Gu

ASPEN, CO - JANUARY 30: Eileen Gu celebrates her second gold and third overall medal after the X Games Aspen women’s ski slopestyle final at Buttermilk Mountain on Saturday, January 30, 2021. Eileen Gu became the first X Games rookie to win three medals after she captured gold in slopestyle “u2013 an encore to a gold in superpipe and bronze big air on Friday. (Photo by AAron Ontiveroz/MediaNews Group/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

Denver Post via Getty Images

ASPEN, Colo. — When sports fans hear the name Eileen Gu over the next 12 months — and they will hear it a lot — it will not be by accident.

Hard work, laser-focused planning, an unworldly wealth of talent and a splendid bit of timing could turn this 17-year-old freeskier, who hails from San Francisco but whose mother is from China, into the most recognizable daredevil in the action-sports world.

She broke through this weekend to become a two-time Winter X Games champion — once on the halfpipe Friday, then again on the slopestyle course Saturday. Those victories place Gu squarely on the short list of gold-medal contenders at the Beijing Olympics next February.

Wins there could be nothing less than transformative for snow sports in China. Though Gu grew up in the United States and skied most of her childhood on the U.S. team, she will compete for the home team at the Beijing Olympics.

It was a difficult decision made less so because of the untapped audience in that country. When China was bidding to host the Olympics, it set a target of putting 300 million people on snow in a country of 1.4 billion.

Gu, who speaks fluent Mandarin and makes yearly trips to China with her mom, Yan, figures she could do her fair share to bring some young girls along for the ride.

“Some people retire with 10 gold medals and then, they’re 30 years old and don’t know what to do,” she said. “But I want to be able to have those medals and to be able to feel like I’ve changed someone’s life or changed the sport or introduced the sport to a country where it wasn’t before.”

It’s audacious talk for a teenager who has been doing this at the highest level for just a bit more than two years, and who was making her X Games debut this year. She also won bronze in big air on Friday night and will leave Aspen as the first woman to earn three X Games medals as a rookie.

But for most of her 17 years, Gu has been thinking big — and succeeding at almost everything she’s tried.

Her side job is modeling. Becoming a regular at fashion weeks in Paris and New York, she’s been all over the pages of Chinese versions of Vogue and Harper’s and Elle, and has more high-profile shoots set for later this year with American magazines.

“I love the sound of camera shutters,” she said.

She’s an accomplished piano player — you can find some of that on YouTube — an avid runner who headlined her high school team’s second-place finish at state championships. She graduated from the rigorous San Francisco University High School in three years and is enrolled at Stanford, where she’ll start in 2022.

“And,” she says, “I like to hang out with my friends, because I’m a teenager, and that’s important, too.”

She says she was able to bring some semblance of normalcy to her high-achieving childhood because she grew up in the non-ski-mecca of San Francisco. She’d get invited to parties over the weekend and tell friends sorry, but she was going skiing.

“They would pretty much be, ‘Skiing, OK, whatever,’” she said. “I think a lot of them still think I’m a ski racer, not in freestyle.”

It was mother Yan’s horror at seeing her daughter, then 8, straight-lining down the slopes during one of their frequent trips to the Northstar ski resort that urged her to find something different, and maybe less dangerous, for Eileen.

Eileen says her mom didn’t really know what “freestyle” was, or that the high-flying flips above the halfpipe and slopestyle kickers could be every bit as treacherous as tearing straight down the ski slopes. But Yan signed Eileen up, and thus began a journey that feels destined to make a career-defining stop in the mountains above Beijing next February.

It was in those early days that Gu faced what any talented girl encounters when entering a realm dominated by boys.

“It wasn’t until I was 14 that I had any female ski friends who were my level,” she said. “So, I was constantly thinking, ‘Do I have to prove myself? I’m the only girl here. Do I have to do a bigger trick? Do I have to make myself seem better so people won’t laugh at women’s skiing?’”

Regarding another thorny issue, Gu says she’s not naive about some of the hate she receives on her burgeoning social media accounts for choosing China over the U.S. for her ski career. She is well aware of how much more volume the detractors might command as her story edges closer to the Olympic flame.

“‘Difficult’ is the wrong word, but she weighed everything very heavily,” said her agent, Tom Yaps, who told of the U.S. team’s early recognition of Gu as someone with huge talent who would very much need representation. “At the end of the day, she really feels she can make an impact in these young women’s lives. She looked around and said, ‘There are so many brilliant role models in the U.S. already,’ and she felt her voice could really make an impact over there.”

Gu, who comes off as savvy as athletes twice her age, seems to grasp the weight of what she’s doing. That was her doing the voiceover on an Adidas ad about women’s empowerment, reading from a seventh-grade essay she wrote about America’s Title IX law, which was written to protect women from discrimination in college sports. Recently, Yaps said, Gu received a request to record a video for an upcoming diplomacy summit about improving China-U.S. relations.

“Things like that are literally the reason she’s doing this,” Yaps said.

Gu tells the story of her sixth-grade art project, when she made a duct-taped purse with the slogan “Celebrate Sarah” etched along the side — a shout-out to the late Sarah Burke, who blazed the trail for women in freestyle skiing and was central in getting the event placed on the Olympic program.

“I was terrible at art,” Gu said. “But I gave a little history lesson. I was pretty much a 12-year-old ranting about a woman in a sport that nobody did. But at the end, people said it was really inspiring. I got an ‘A’ on the wallet.”

The stakes are higher now.

Asked what she wanted her message to be as she embarks on a whirlwind year that figures to land her on a mountain in her other home country, Gu said she’d love to see more girls in China think about opportunities they didn’t know existed. She’d like to see a lot more people like her on the mountain — maybe one or two of them pushing her for a gold medal someday.

“Change is made from the bottom up,” she said. “All of us were little girls surrounded for the first time by people we were scared of in the beginning. But I just want to see more people out there.”

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