Freestyle skiing phenom Eileen Gu recently made one of the most impressive debuts in X Games history in Aspen (USA), becoming the first rookie to win a medal in all three events that she competed in. The 17-year-old’s gold medals in superpipe and slopestyle were also the first for a Chinese athlete at the X Games, underlining Gu’s burgeoning status as a genuine trailblazer for China as the country seeks to engage 300 million people in winter sports as part of its plans for Beijing 2022. Just 13 months ago, Gu was competing at the Winter YOG Lausanne 2020 – winning gold in both halfpipe and big air, as well as a silver in slopestyle – and now she looks set to be one of the biggest stars of the Olympic Winter Games next year.
Eileen Gu isn’t the only YOG freeskier set to make a big impact in Beijing; Kelly Sildaru already has five X Games gold medals to her name, plus a world title, and beat Gu to gold in slopestyle at last year’s Winter YOG in Lausanne. The 18-year-old Estonian won her first X Games title in 2016 at the age of just 13 and was expected to star at the last Olympic Winter Games in PyeongChang before a knee injury ruled her out of the event and the entire 2018 season. Sildaru withdrew from this year’s X Games after injuring the same knee in a practice run, but that setback is not expected to derail her renewed bid for Olympic glory. A potential showdown with Gu in China next year promises to be one of the highlights of the Games.
She may only be 16 years old, but Korean figure skater You Young has already shown that she can compete at the elite level, winning silver at the 2020 Four Continents Championships and bronze at the 2019 Skate Canada Grand Prix, where she became the first-ever female Korean skater to land a ratified triple Axel in competition – and only the 11th female skater of any nationality to nail the acclaimed feat. The 2020 YOG champion took up figure skating after being inspired by compatriot Kim Yuna’s gold medal-winning performance at the Olympic Winter Games Vancouver 2010, and will now be hoping to emulate Kim’s success in Beijing, where her mastery of the triple Axel will place her among the medal favourites. You would become just the fourth female skater ever to successfully land this mystical skill at the Games – something that not even her idol Kim achieved.
US snowboarder Dusty Henricksen showed he was a name to watch for the future when he won slopestyle gold at the Winter YOG Lausanne 2020 by an impressive margin of 11 points. But the 17-year-old recently proved that the future is now as he became the first American in 12 years to win the X Games slopestyle title. Henricksen, who also won his first World Cup event at Mammoth Mountain (USA) last year, clinched gold in Aspen last month with a dizzying array of tricks, including a switch backside 1260, a double-grab 1440 and a frontside double 900, all while clad in a short-sleeved T-shirt that belied the sub-zero temperatures on the mountain. His slopestyle victory was not a one-off, either, with Henricksen also winning the unique knuckle huck event on his X Games debut, further highlighting his status as one to watch in Beijing next year.
Japan’s Kagiyama Yuma has some big skates to fill as he looks to emulate the achievements of compatriot Hanyu Yuzuru – the 2014 and 2018 Olympic champion. But the 17-year-old has made a good start so far, winning YOG gold in Lausanne after landing two triple Axels and two quadruple toe-loops in his free skate, and then clinching bronze at last year’s prestigious Four Continents Championship. Kagiyama began this season by winning his first World Cup title at November’s NHK Trophy, having introduced the quad Salchow into his short programme, and then placed third in the Japanese National Championships – behind Hanyu and 2012 YOG silver medallist Uno Shoma – to secure a place on Japan’s team for the 2021 World Championships. With Japan also likely to have three spots on its team for Beijing 2022, an Olympic debut surely beckons for Kagiyama if he can continue his impressive rise.
Japanese snowboarder Hirano Ruka followed up his YOG halfpipe title in Lausanne last year with his first World Cup win just a month later in Calgary (Canada), and then began this season with a bronze in the World Cup event in Laax (Switzerland) before clinching his first X Games medal by finishing third in Aspen last month. With the 18-year-old going from strength to strength, the men’s halfpipe event at next year’s Olympic Winter Games is shaping up to be a classic. Shaun White (USA) has already announced that he is planning on going for his fourth Olympic title, while three-time world champion Scotty James (AUS) will be looking to improve on his bronze medal from PyeongChang. With the ever-improving Hirano and fellow Japanese young gun Yūto Totsuka also likely to be in the mix, fans can expect fireworks at the Genting Snow Park.