Published: 09:49, February 1, 2021 | Updated: 02:58, June 5, 2023
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Gu makes X Games history with record 3-medal debut
By James Boylan

This handout photograph released by the Olympic Information Services (OIS) of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), shows China's Gu Ailing as she competes during the Freestyle Skiing Women's Freeski Big Air Finalat Leysin Park on Jan 22, 2020, during The Lausanne 2020 Winter Youth Olympic Games. (Chloe KNOTT / OIS/IOC / AFP)

Superstar-in-the-making Eileen Gu soared to global prominence with a breakthrough performance over the weekend-and now the freestyle skiing sensation is on a mission to spearhead China's winter sports push.

Gu, who was born in California, became the first Chinese athlete to triumph at the prestigious Winter X Games by winning superpipe gold on Friday on Aspen's Buttermilk Mountain in Colorado.

The 17-year-old, who also goes by her Chinese name, Gu Ailing, underlined her gigantic talent by adding slopestyle gold on Saturday. She also won bronze in Friday's Big Air competition, with her medal haul unrivaled for an X Games debutant in the event's 25-year history.

Gu's timing-both on the course and in a wider context-could hardly have been better, with her historic triumphs coming as Beijing prepares to begin this week the one-year countdown to the 2022 Winter Olympics.

"Some people retire with 10 gold medals and then, they're 30 years old and don't know what to do," said Gu, whosemother is Chinese and father is a US citizen.

Eileen Gu admits she's had to make plenty of sacrifices to balance all that with being a teenager, especially in San Francisco, where skiing isn't exactly the norm among her teenage friends

"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."

Having nailed superpipe gold by executing stunning 900-degree (two and a half full rotations) tricks in both directions, Gu fended off two-time X Games champ Cassie Sharpe, who took silver, and defending silver-medalist Rachael Karker, who claimed bronze. Superpipe is also known as halfpipe.

In the slopestyle final, Gu was aided by the withdrawal of Estonian defending champion Kelly Sildaru, but the Chinese star's stamina to reach the top of the podium again just 24 hours after her first win was truly remarkable.

Expectations are inevitably high that Gu will be able to repeat the feat in the mountains surrounding Beijing at next year's Olympics.

"This is something I wouldn't even dare to dream of. I came into this contest with a goal of getting one podium (medal), and I thought that was ambitious," Gu said after the slopestyle win.

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"It's really just the adrenaline of my first X Games and being so hyped to be here that it was able to get me through. I probably am going to go hibernate for 24 hours straight now and not talk to anybody because I'm exhausted now. But I couldn't be happier."

Gu isn't just a high achiever on the snow. Born and raised in San Francisco, she speaks fluent Mandarin, is an accomplished piano player, an avid runner, and graduated from the prestigious San Francisco University High School in just three years so she could focus on skiing. Boasting an exceptional SAT score of 1580 out of a possible 1600, she is enrolled at Stanford University, where she is due to start her studies-possibly molecular genetics-in the fall of 2022.

Gu admits she's had to make plenty of sacrifices to balance all that with being a teenager, especially in San Francisco, where skiing isn't exactly the norm among her teenage friends.

"They would pretty much be, 'Skiing, OK, whatever,'" she said of turning down social invitations to instead go training. "I think a lot of them still think I'm a ski racer, not in freestyle."

Gu and her mother, Gu Yan, make annual visits to China to connect with their roots, but it was the frequent trips to California's Northstar ski resort as an 8-year-old that sparked Eileen's love affair with the snow.

As her talent developed, she soon found herself competing mostly against the 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?'"

Eyeing 2022 Olympic

Now Gu is firmly focused on having the last laugh at next year's Olympics, with her rising profile sure to greatly help with the Chinese government's aim of getting 300 million people involved in ice and snow sports in the buildup to the Games.

"She looked around and said, 'There are so many brilliant role models in the US already,'" Gu's agent, Tom Yaps, said of her decision to compete for China in January 2019. "And she felt her voice could really make an impact over there."

Gu, who completed the Chinese naturalization process in June 2019, is even keen to extend her influence to the diplomatic sphere. Yaps revealed she recently received a request to appear in a video for a summit about improving China-US relations. "Things like that are literally the reason she's doing this," he said.

Asked what her message to the world is as the one-year countdown begins on her Olympic bid, Gu said she would love to inspire youngsters in China to follow their own dreams on the slopes.

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"All of us were little girls surrounded for the first time by people we were scared of in the beginning," she said. "But I just want to see more people out there."