This story was originally published in July, 2021. It is being re-shared as Eileen Gu won her first Olympic gold medal at the Beijing Winter Olympics.
It’s hard to believe Eileen Gu is only one year into her career. At 17 years-old, the Chinese American skier/model has already accomplished a mouthful, having broken multiple records in professional freestyle skiing. The San Francisco native is the first athlete to ever win two gold medals in the FIS Freeski World Championships’ 35-year history. Dubbed “the busiest woman in skiing” and named the youngest in Forbes’ 30 Under 30 in Sports and Entertainment, she’s also doubled the medal count for China — the country she now represents — at her debut X Games, one of the biggest extreme sports events in the world. Footage of Gu’s ski tricks on YouTube will conjure both awe and fright, as she miraculously soars and performs a 720-degree spin mid-air before masterfully landing on the slopes.
“I was the only rookie there,” Gu tells me as she recalls the 2021 X Games, which she cites as her most career-defining moment so far. “I was also the youngest competitor in my events. Being able to represent young people and represent women was really meaningful to me, as well as being the first person of Chinese descent to win X Games.”
Gu, who is already a fashion star in China, has graced the pages of the regional editions of Vogue, ELLE, InStyle, Cosmopolitan and Harper’s BAZAAR. To her half-million Weibo followers, she’s known as “Ailing” — her Chinese name which bore “Eileen” — and is nicknamed “Snow Princess.” But what makes her remarkable isn’t her athletic abilities nor her supermodel charm; it’s the combination of them and Gu’s easygoing attitude about it all. “Fashion is so fun and creative, and it meshes really well with skiing because it creates a perfect balance so that it keeps both things interesting for me.”
Gu started skiing when she was three-years-old, when her mother placed her at a ski school at Northstar California Resort, and quickly “levelled out” at the age of seven. “My coaches were saying there was very little they could teach me anymore, so they suggested that I join a ski team,” Gu reminisces. “At the time, the two options were racing or freeskiing. My mom thought that racing was too dangerous because I was skiing pretty fast to get a thrill. So to slow me down, she put me in freeskiing, not really knowing what it was.” Little did they know that that decision would do the exact opposite of “slowing her down.” Rather, it would propel Gu to the top of women’s freestyle skiing and rewrite the history of the sport as we know it.
Now, the teenage Olympian hopeful spends her days training on weekdays and flying to different cities for fashion shoots on weekends. In a candid interview, Gu opens up about the 2022 Beijing Olympics, the importance of representation in sports, and how she keeps herself in check with all the pressure and attention.
What was behind your decision to represent China at the 2022 Beijing Olympics?
I have been thinking about competing for China since I was 11, when the announcement was made that the Olympics would take place in China. After the announcement, China set a goal of putting 300 million people on snow to raise awareness for snow sports before 2022. Just being able to inspire people to start trying has been one of my biggest goals.
For me, I would look up to all these American or Canadian skiers, but then I would go to China and see no parallels because the sport didn't really exist at a professional level there. If I hadn't heard of Kaya Turski as a little girl, then I might not have thought that it would be possible for me to be able to do this. Essentially, it comes back to representation — I wanted to inspire more people to pick up skiing in China because it's brought me so much more than medals.
Skiing builds so much confidence for me, seeing what my body's capable of. Every time you learn a new trick, it's hard not because it's physically difficult, but because you have to overcome your mind and force your body to do something it's never done before. You're breaking your own mental and physical boundaries, and it’s truly euphoric. That’s one of the most incredible feelings, and it makes you feel so empowered.
How does your Chinese heritage influence you as a person and as an athlete, if at all?
My mom is from Beijing, and I've gone back every summer since I was two. That immersion is what allowed me to become fluent in Mandarin. Making friends there and understanding the culture from an early age has allowed me to become more open to learning other cultures. Because I grew up with that duality, I can accept differences more easily. I can also shift to adapt to different circumstances. I’ve created a more malleable personality for myself, in a sense. So not just culturally, but also now with skiing and the fashion spheres, or growing up in an all-girls school and then all of a sudden being the only girl in an all-boys ski team. I’m able to adapt to any environment that I'm in and find my duty in each one.
What does your training entail?
I travel around the world chasing snow at all times of the year. Generally speaking, I’m in Europe, or Colorado. I’ve also been to Switzerland and New Zealand for training, and now I’m going to Mammoth. I run almost every day, which is unheard of for a skier. I’m against dieting and am a major advocate for intuitive eating because so much of it takes a mental toll and does very little for the body. There’s a really negative diet culture around youth and girls that I want to stay away from.
There’s also the mental aspect. I do a lot of journaling and reflection on how I feel going into competitions or during training, and try to use that as much as I can to guide me through. I’ve been journaling for many years and very little of it has to do with skiing, actually. It's mostly stuff that happens in my life, like a diary. It's not an active tool — more of something that helps me unwind at the end of the day. It has allowed me to understand myself more and helped me figure out the strategies that let me stay calm at the top of the competition course.
There's countless times that I felt like I was so close to getting a trick, but somehow couldn't do it. I am the definition of blood, sweat, and tears. I have cried so many times, not out of pain, but out of frustration. I've had my coach just sit on the ground and be like, "I don't know what to do. The lifts are closed." I'm beyond the point of talking to him or being coachable -- just in my own zone. Times like these teach me a lot about resilience and determination, and they are also the little bits of passion that show how much I love the sport. It’s not about competing and proving myself to the world — sometimes it's about being the last person on the hill or being the person to take the most laps.
You mentioned you were the only girl on your ski team as a kid — what’s it like to be a female skier in a male-dominated sport?
I wasn't skiing consistently with another competitive female athlete until I was 14 or 15 on the US team. When I was a kid, I really wanted to be a tomboy as much as possible. My biggest compliment was when my male friends would say, "Yeah, you're one of the guys." I could look back and find photos of me with a hoodie that's past my knees and this big backwards cap. I just wanted to be as masculine as possible because all the people who I really looked up to were male skiers.
All of that changed when my coach showed me a video of Kaya Turski, who competed for Canada. At that point I realized, “Oh, girls can do it too." Kaya, who is a good friend now, is pretty feminine and is proud of it. I recognized that I was trying to make myself something that I wasn’t, but now I feel more inspired.
I also get a lot of hateful messages on social media. There are always people that want to detract from your success or downplay your ability. But I don't have the energy to prove myself to all the people that have something negative to say. I just let the results speak for themselves.
As a half Chinese skier, have you experienced racism in the industry?
Skiing is traditionally a very white sport. There's literally nobody else of another race in all of the events that I do. I can't speak for the entire sport, but that's what I've experienced around me personally. There is an internal bias, like people assuming that competing for the Chinese team would somehow be easier.
In the ski community where I’m the minority, I try to be as vocal as possible. In general, my direct sphere has been pretty good about it, but I do notice that I’m the only person of Asian descent. A lot of the racism I face happens on social media. It affects me personally, and it’s a cause that I've taken up and tried to speak out about, leveraging my platform as much as possible. I'm the only Chinese representative in this industry. I was the first person of Chinese descent to ever win X Games, and I doubled the medal count for China, X Games history. All of this makes me feel really proud, more than anything.
Would you say that’s also a motivation for you to perform better as an athlete?
That’s something I've been thinking about a lot. On one hand it could be, but on the other hand, I'm very careful about using outside causes to motivate my skiing. It’s very easy to tip over that fine line from motivation to pressure. For the most part, I like to keep my skiing separate from any other causes that I'm passionate about. I think that I use my skiing as an example after the fact.
For example, one of the things that I hear a lot is, "Asian people aren't that athletic, they're just nerds in school,” whatever. In response, I’ll point to maybe some of my own results as well as great achievements that have been made by other Asian athletes. In retrospect, there is 100% the motivation to perform better for Asian athletes and also for female athletes. But when I'm at the top of the course and I'm about to drop in, I'm trying not to actively think about anything else except for the run that I'm about to do and how to perform the tricks. I try to calm my nerves and stay as present as possible.
You were a tomboy, as you say. Has that changed now that you are also a fashion model? Are there any parallels to skiing and modelling that people may not recognize?
If nine-year-old me were to look at myself now being involved in fashion and expressing myself in a variety of ways, she would be shocked and in awe because I didn't even know that was an option. Now, I’m unafraid to be feminine, and if I want to feel masculine, sometimes that's fine too. To have that freedom, and representation, is key. I want to show people that it's possible to look however you want and that doesn't detract from your ability as an athlete at all. In fact, it might even add to it because it shows more creativity and style, which is super valued in skiing.
Fashion builds a lot of confidence. The creative aspect, the style, being unique and different is good, because in skiing, if you invent your own trick, that's the best thing you could possibly do. One of the criteria that competitions are graded on is style — your own touch. If every skier in the world did the same trick, almost all of them would look different because it's that individuality that defines the sport itself. It’s so ingrained in ski culture. Even though skiing and fashion manifest themselves in different ways, the core values are really similar.
You said the 2021 X Games was your most career-defining moment. When was the most difficult time of your career so far?
X Games was really meaningful to me in more than one way. It is the highest level event that I've attended, and it was my first time competing in Big Air at a professional level. I podiumed at all three events. The most difficult moment for me was after X Games. There's something called post-Olympic depression — you’re spending almost your entire life, years of your time to prepare for this one big event, and afterwards, all of a sudden, it's over and you feel a loss of purpose. I naively didn't realize how real that could be, and that it could happen in an event that wasn't the Olympics. I had the sense of feeling really lost and confused. It was a huge adrenaline crash. I was on a high for a whole week, and then all of a sudden there was nothing. That's when I realized how much I personally need to keep myself busy or have things outside of skiing that I feel passionate about, and that are purposeful for me. After that, I really wanted to be more involved in fashion and other aspects of life outside of skiing. But I actually think that I'm less stressed than most people my age, because I can truly say that I have found my passion.
You’re still 17, and so much is ahead of you. Where do you see yourself in the near future?
I’ll be at Stanford, and will have declared a major at that point. I'm sure I will have a great time there. I'm interested in molecular genetics, international relations, journalism… I will probably continue to prepare for the Olympics, maybe walk some fashion shows which would be a dream. We are all over the place man, but it's super fun.
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