Gu Ailing Eileen: I've learned to win for myself, not other people

The freestyle skier tells Olympic Channel that she has 'gold on her mind' at Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics, shares how Chloe Kim mentored her, reveals Chinese New Year cooking challenges, and why her grandma is the secret to her success!

By Ashlee Tulloch and Andrew Binner
Picture by 2020 Getty Images

She’s only 17-years-old, but Gu Ailing Eileen is already one of the world’s most exciting freestyle skiers.

The American-born athlete first gained global attention in 2019 when she won the slopestyle World Cup event at Seiser Alm, before switching allegiances to her mother’s birth country, China.

A year later, she lit up the Lausanne 2020 Winter Youth Olympics, with gold medals in the big air and halfpipe events, as well as a silver in slopestyle.

In January 2021, Gu won China’s first gold at the Winter X Games. In her debut at the Aspen event, she finished with the halfpipe and slopestyle titles as well as big air bronze.

In an Instagram live interview with Olympic Channel, below, the winter sports prodigy reveals her goals for the Beijing 2022 Winter Games, when she'll reveal her secret foodie social media account, her aims for college, a possible future career in government policy, and why her grandma is central to her success!

Olympic Channel: Congratulations for your recent X Games performance. On top of that, you’re a Youth Winter Olympic Games champion, you're going to [study at] Stanford [university], you're a pianist, and a model. How do you do all of these things?

Eileen Gu: It's such a surreal thing for me to say out loud that I won the X Games twice! But you know what? When I do something, I focus super wholeheartedly on it. I guess that's the only thing I can say. Growing up, I could only ski on weekends and holidays, so I didn't even think about skiing at all. I was a full-time student. I wanted to get good grades. I wanted to do well in school. I wanted to learn about the things that were exciting to me. I was asking questions about calculus and physics and I wasn't thinking about, ‘How am I supposed to do a double cork?’ It wasn't really in my head at all. I was thinking the whole time about school.

When I was skiing on the weekends, I would do my homework on the four-hour drive up to Tahoe. On Saturday and Sunday [I was] skiing all the time and I wouldn't think at all about school. And so I think that four-hour drive might be the answer. I did all my homework then, so over the weekend, I would focus on skiing.

I've always thought education was super important. Growing up, my two biggest goals in life were to get into Stanford and to go to the Olympics. So hopefully, fingers crossed, I'll be able to do the second one. I'm really excited just at the thought of it.

OC: What are you going to be studying?

EG: One thing I'm super excited about is that I actually don't have to declare my major until the end of my sophomore year. So I will be able to try all the classes I want, and figure out what I'm interested in. I have a couple of ideas. I am really interested in molecular genetics. Food connoisseur, I'm actually pretty serious about that for the most part. Perhaps journalism, I think [that course] would be really helpful. I really love writing, so that'll be just fun to take in general. I know that Stanford offers a wine tasting course in your junior year, after you turn twenty-one of course, but they will fly you out to France and they'll teach you how to taste different wines and cheeses. So that sounds right up my alley. Hopefully, I'll be able to do some of that when I get older. And there's just a lot of things that I haven't even tried like computer science, which I know is a really amazing major to take at Stanford. You know, more than anything, I'm just excited to be on campus in a little over a year's time, be living the college life, and meet some new friends.

OC: Chloe Kim knows what it’s like to be a professional athlete and a student. Have you ever spoken to her about it?

EG: Yes, I have. Chloe is super nice. She's helped mentor me in a lot of ways, but she actually took a year off of snowboarding. So she was a full-time student through her first year. I think she's leaving Princeton for this year to snowboard full time. Plans are always changing, but I think I would want to be able to do both at the same time because you know, this whole time I've been doing school and skiing. I got this far, so we'll see, it really is up in the air. Hopefully, I'll be able to do the weekends and holidays situation that I'm used to.

OC: Where do you think that that drive and that focus comes from?

EG: My grandma lives with us, my mom's mom. And I think she instilled that competitive drive in me when I was three or four years old. She's Chinese and doesn't speak any English, so we would be sitting at the kitchen table and she would be teaching me multiplication tables and three-by-three digit multiplication and division in Chinese. When I went to school, I would show my teachers, and I'm like, ‘Four and four is sixteen’. And the teacher is like, ‘No, it’s eight.’ So then they eventually figured out that I was talking about multiplication and they would say, ‘That's third grade math when I was in kindergarten!’.

My grandma would always want me to be the best in the class if I took a test. It was those little bits of motivation for me that instilled that competitive drive. She’s actually turning 86 in a few days and is going really strong. She actually started running this year because I've always been super into running, and now she runs every day. She always tells me that she wants me to be the president, but is concerned that I can’t be the president if I injure my knee skiing! I always push myself to go bigger and better with my jumps. But to be able to stay safe and question, ‘Is this safe? Am I ready for this trick?’ is a really good thing to ask myself in the long run, in order to stay safe.

OC: Do you want to be president?

EG: You know, I'm really interested in becoming involved somewhere in government policy, perhaps as an ambassador to China, maybe because I have some experience culturally between both countries. Obviously, I'm bilingual. So I think that could be really exciting for me after skiing, and modelling, and all the things I want to do while I’m young. I'm only seventeen now, and I have a lot of time to figure it out. I do run a secret food review account, though. I think I'll drop it right before the Olympics, so keep your eyes peeled for it! I only have like nine posts on it right now and I don't follow it on my main account.

OC: Do you have to be quite strict with the diet that you eat, the things you eat?

EG: So as an athlete and model, it's something that I have thought about a lot in the past. And I think it took a while to fully understand what my body needed. I naturally have a really, really fast metabolism. I do have a nutritionist who helps me structure my eating based around my training. I definitely snack, and I brought cookies up to the mountain. I’m a huge chocolate fan and my dream job when I grow up is to be a food connoisseur. I think it's all about balance. Last night I had this great chocolate chip cookie bake with ice cream on it. It was mind-blowing. But a little bit of everything just keeps me happy and keeps me focused on skiing and not craving all sorts of food.

OC: I know that you and your grandmother like cooking together. What are you going to do for Chinese New Year?

EG: Oh, so normally growing up, I would always make dumplings with my grandma. And that was our big tradition. It is so cute because she is really good at it, she will roll out the dough for the dumplings and always would teach me to put as much filling as you can, so that the dumpling would obviously be bursting with flavour.

But the problem with me is they would always explode because I would put too much or too little in. And it was just so frustrating because she would do it so effortlessly. She's like, roll up, it'll be perfect and super thin, and then she'd throw like, this gigantic, enormous amount of stuff in there, and you'd be like, "there's no way that will close." And then she'll close it up perfectly. And then I would try it, and [it would] explode every time. So we're still working on it. I've gotten better growing up. I was not very good at it at all. Like I couldn't even make the dumpling. And so I would take the dough and make little shapes with it. So I would make a cat or like skis or try to make like a person skiing. I'm not artistic at all, so it wouldn't look like anything. It looked like a little ball of dough.

But I'd be like, "there's like the little ears," and she's like, "did you put the dumpling inside it as well or were you just playing with the dough?" I was playing with the dough. I was not very good The last couple of years I've actually improved a lot. I have a lot of videos of making dumplings with my grandmother. It's really cute. I've gotten a lot better. They're not as good as hers, but at least they don't explode anymore.

OC: Let’s talk about Beijing 2022. What are your goals for your first Winter Olympic Games?

EG: I think every athlete entering the Olympics wants to win gold. And I think that gold is on the minds of many, and myself included. It's the biggest contest in the world, I've worked so, so hard and I also have so long to go before then. My biggest goal, honestly, is to enjoy the journey and enjoy the process because I'm so young. Every day in my life I learn something new. Being able to have the Olympics as a long-term goal to drive that passion is something that I'm so grateful for. When I actually get to the Olympics, hopefully through that process, through that zest for life, through that passion for the sport, I will have prepared to the best of my ability so that on the day I can perform the way that I hope to.

OC: How do you think that the Lausanne 2020 Youth Winter Olympics helped prepare you for Beijing?

EG: It was so helpful. It was actually my first big air contest ever, so I was really nervous for that. It was my first time doing all three events at the same contest. The two biggest things were time management and pressure management.

It was such a big production and there were so many cameras and ceremonies that it really felt like a world-class event. Last week at the X Games, I did all three events and podiumed all three. A lot of that I actually attribute to the Youth Olympics, because it taught me how to stand at the start gate three different times within 26 hours and how to be able to manage the pressure and the fatigue and keep the adrenaline high, but also remain safe throughout the whole process.

Eileen Gu (centre) celebrates after winning big air gold at the Lausanne 2020 Winter Youth Olympics.
Picture by 2020 Getty Images

OC: Are there any athletes that you are interested in meeting?

EG: What's really cool about the ski community is that we're really tight knit. I am one of the younger people and, even though I've competed a lot now, I still think of myself as the underdog. I really look up to people like Gus Kenworthy, obviously Chloe Kim, Shaun (White). But what's crazy is that I see them all the time because we're always in the same training camps. It’s really exciting. I definitely think I would love to meet some people from the racing side or the mogul side or the aerial side just because it's so different from what I do.

OC: How do you cope with pressure?

EG: I think that I've learned a lot about it at the Youth Olympics. I used to always think about the crowds at the bottom or the media or sponsors and friends that were there, and that I needed to make them proud, or I needed to do well for them. But I think after the Youth Olympics, and after big air in particular when I messed up my first jump, I think and I had to land both of my later jumps with 100 per cent success rate. That actually taught me that I didn't want to win for other people. I wanted to win for myself, and I wanted to prove how hard I had worked in the past. Nobody really sees behind the scenes. Nobody sees the hours and hours of hard work and mental preparation that I put into the sport. So at the end of the day, I want to be proud of myself and in that work that I've done, and have it show on the day. So I think I've learned to manage pressure and to feel the positive energy from other people who are there. But at the end of the day, when I'm feeling pressure to focus on performing to the best of my ability on that day.


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