U.S.-born skier Eileen Gu captivates China ahead of Beijing Olympics

Eileen Gu is just 18 and has set new standards in freestyle skiing — no wonder there is a frenzy around her in China ahead of the Beijing Olympics, which open Feb. 4.

Gu is poised to be the face of the Winter Games in the Chinese capital, and expectations are sky high.

The teenager, who is also a model, was born in California to an American father and Chinese mother, but represents China after switching her allegiance from the United States.

It is a loss for the U.S. and a big win for the Olympic hosts, and Gu underlined why during her explosive debut at the 2021 X Games, where she won two golds — a first for a female rookie.

In November, she became the first woman to land a notoriously difficult trick — the freeski “double cork 1440”, which requires spinning four times in mid-air — during a training session in Austria.

Gu arrived in the Chinese capital last week, posting a picture of herself eating dumplings — “finished them all!” — on her Weibo social media account, to the delight of her 1.3 million followers.

Chinese state media has quickly latched on to its newfound star, who is fluent in Mandarin with a distinct Beijing accent, eagerly covering her public appearances and numerous commercial deals.

State television filmed her feasting on Peking duck and admiring Tiananmen Square last year as the program host praised her “positive energy.”

Gu grew up in the United States but in made the “incredibly tough” decision to compete for China in June 2019, writing on Instagram that she was “proud of my heritage and equally proud of my American upbringings.”

China doesn’t allow dual nationality, so taking a Chinese passport should have meant abandoning her U.S. one, though Gu has not confirmed if this is the case.

“The opportunity to help inspire millions of young people where my mom was born … is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to help to promote the sport I love,” she said at the time.

She recently told Time Magazine that she had received death threats from online trolls angry about her switch.

Her record-breaking performance at the X Games — where Gu was the first Chinese winner — prompted state media Xinhua to run a 1,000-word feature asking if she was the “next Chinese sports icon?”

She is known in China as Gu Ailing, as well as by the affectionate nickname “frog princess” after a green helmet she wore in competition.

“In the U.S., I grew up with all these idols and I wanted to be that for somebody else,” she told her sponsor, Red Bull, in an interview.

“I get so many messages from Chinese kids saying I’m the reason for them to take up skiing.”

Gu, who first hit the slopes at age 3, won her first freestyle World Cup event at 15 and claimed two gold medals and a silver for China at the 2020 Youth Olympic Games.

She graduated from high school in San Francisco in 2020, a year early, so she could focus on her training for the Games.

She reportedly scored 1,580 points out of a maximum 1,600 on the SAT, the test used for college admissions in the United States, and has been offered a place at Stanford.

A fashion fan and part-time model, Gu has been featured in Chinese Vogue and Cosmopolitan, while speaking out against harmful diet culture and racism.

She is also an avid cross-country runner, although she told Chinese state broadcaster CCTV that her mother had forbidden her from doing any “dangerous sports” other than skiing.

The pressure to shine at the Beijing Games is mounting on the young athlete.

“I’m really excited, but I don’t think that anybody going to the Olympics would ever say they are 100% ready,” Gu told the International Olympic Committee website.

“The only thing I can do is my best on the day.

“If that is a gold medal then I’ll be super-hyped, and if that is not, then I will still be super-hyped because I work hard.”

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