Beijing 2022 medal favourite Eileen Gu inspired by YOG experience
China’s multi-talented freeskier Eileen Gu is carrying the hopes of the host nation on her young shoulders ahead of the Beijing 2022 Olympics. But, as the 18-year-old explains to Olympics.com, she can draw on her medal-winning exploits at the Winter Youth Olympic Games Lausanne 2020 as she targets the podium once again.
Eileen Gu may be the most talented teenager in the world.
When the US-based Chinese freestyle skier isn’t breaking boundaries on the slopes – like becoming the first X Games rookie to win medals in three events on debut and the first freeskier in history to win multiple world titles in a single year – she can be found starring in modelling campaigns for leading fashion brands and excelling in the classroom.
The 18-year-old was the first student from her high school to graduate early and, with her academic ability placing her in the 99th percentile of American students, she has now been offered a place at the prestigious Stanford University in California.
Before she begins her studies, however, there is the small matter of vying for gold at the Olympic Winter Games Beijing 2022. Not content with chasing the podium in a single event, the multi-talented Gu will be fighting on three fronts in Beijing, as she tackles big air, halfpipe and slopestyle. There’s a strong chance she could win all three.
She has, after all, already tasted Olympic success.
Just under two years ago, Gu was one of the stars of the Winter Youth Olympic Games (YOG) Lausanne 2020, where she won gold in both halfpipe and big air, as well as a silver in slopestyle. Her achievements brought attention and accolades in China, as the country prepares for Beijing 2022, and Gu has somehow continued to live up to everyone’s lofty expectations.
Her X Games debut in January 2021 was one of the most impressive in the event’s history, as she rewrote the record books with victories in superpipe and slopestyle – the first for a Chinese athlete at the X Games – while she also won world titles the following month in both halfpipe and slopestyle.
As attention turns to her bid to make more history in Beijing, Gu spoke to Olympics.com about her experiences in Lausanne, her hopes for her career, and how watching the Olympic Games in 2008 has inspired her journey so far.
Olympics.com: You enjoyed great success at the Winter YOG Lausanne 2020 – what was the reaction like in China to your achievements?
Eileen Gu: Wow, it was crazy. There was a video of me translating at the bottom of the course in English and Chinese, answering some questions in English and then translating for myself in Chinese. And that video went viral, and all the major media sources had reports on it. I received just so much love and I felt so inspired, honestly, to be able to have that kind of effect on people. I just never thought that I would be able to [do that] at such a young age. I just was so, so grateful for all the opportunities I had from that.
Has the interest in you increased with Beijing 2022 on the horizon?
Yeah, absolutely. I have been doing a lot to promote winter sports, and free-skiing in particular, both in China and the US, especially leading up to the Olympics, because obviously so many people are turning their attention to this big event. I think the Youth Olympics served as a really, really good jumping off point for that, because it brought a lot of initial publicity two years out. And so, I think it was a really good starting point and it's definitely grown a lot from there.
How do you look back on your time at the Winter YOG Lausanne 2020?
I think it was such an amazing experience for me for a lot of reasons. One of them was that that was actually my first big air contest ever, so it was also my first time doing three events [with slopestyle and halfpipe] and really juggling the practice and the competitions back-to-back-to-back. And so, managing that pressure consistently for a week straight, I think taught me a lot. But overall, I just look back and think it was such an amazing time there, and so much fun.
Do you feel that your experiences in Lausanne will help prepare you for Beijing 2022?
Yeah, totally. I think learning to manage pressure is probably one of the biggest things an athlete has to do. Obviously, you can do tricks and practice well, and you can train well in the gym and well on snow, but when it comes down to it, the biggest question is, can you perform? And I think on the day, that is the deciding factor because there could be 10 people or 20 people that could win the event, but it really comes down to who has the mental strength to push through under pressure. And I think Youth Olympic Games has definitely prepared me for that.
What do the Olympic Games mean to you personally?
I think it's a representative event of excellence in sport. And what's great about it is that it showcases so many different sports together. So, in itself it already brings in a sense of unity between sports and athletics as a whole. It represents the power of sport and the hundreds and thousands of hours of hard work that so many of these athletes have put into their craft, into perfecting and pushing the boundaries and doing things that people didn't think were possible, breaking their own boundaries and pushing themselves and the blood, sweat and tears and everything. It's such a monument, I would say, of sports. And it's just so inspiring to be able to be a part of it.
I remember watching the Olympics growing up. I actually went to the Olympics when they were held in Beijing in 2008. I think I was five years old, but I remember sitting in the stands and just watching these people and being like, ‘Wow, these are the fastest people in the world. And these are the strongest people in the world.’ And I think to be able to be part of that select group who has worked so hard… I think it's just so rewarding. I literally still can't believe that that's happening. It’s so surreal for me. Because I've always thought of myself as just a very normal person. I've gone to school full time. I've been through all the high school ups and downs. I worry about the next math test. I wonder what I'm going to wear to prom. And then, all of a sudden, I'm going to the Olympics. I'm like, ‘What? Is this even real?’
All the people I see at the Olympics, I look up to so, so much. And then there's that realisation like, ‘Wait, people look up to me. Someone thinks of me the way that I think of the athletes that I see at the Olympics.’ And so that's a very humbling and jarring moment for me. So hopefully I do the right thing with my platform, but I'm young and I'm learning and I'm very grateful to be here.
Looking ahead, what is your main ambition for your career?
I've actually done a lot of thinking about this recently because, for me personally, my goal is to win Olympic gold. That to me is just representative of excellence in sport; it's the top achievement undisputedly. And so, to me, that would be so rewarding for all the work that I've done to achieve greatness in the sport.
But I think beyond that, I really want to be able to do something and make change with the platform that I have earned and hopefully will expand on in the future. I love having the opportunity to ski, I love winning, but at the end of the day, I think what's the most rewarding is to be able to inspire change in other people. And so, I'm super grateful that the Olympic Games are going to give me the opportunity to do that and that Youth Olympic Games already have.
If I'm 80 years old and I'm looking back at my life, I don't think the number of medals is going to matter as much as memories of reading messages from young girls saying that I was the one who inspired them to start skiing, or who showed them that it was possible to do bigger tricks and that women could do it too. To be able to inspire them – that's a really big thing for me.
And I also just want to enjoy the experience. I have a lot of things going on in my life, but I think it’s important to be able to enjoy the road that I feel very lucky to be on. Not many people have the opportunity to compete at such a high-level event in front of the world. So, I'm really, really grateful for all the opportunities I've had. And my biggest ambition is just to make change and to be able to utilise those opportunities for the greater good.