Eileen Gu: Competing has ‘taught me how to cope with fear,’ says Chinese freestyle skiing star

Winter sports star Eileen Gu hopeful that Youth Games will ‘stoke’ Olympic spark

Eileen Gu knows what it’s like to stand on her own. Whether it be at the top of a skiing course before a run or as the trailblazing figure she is, Gu’s blossoming career is a testament to her resilience.

And her next mountain to climb is the Winter Youth Olympic Games (YOG) in Gangwon, South Korea – which begin this Friday – with an eye firmly set on the 2026 Winter Olympics in Italy.

Representing China, Gu became the youngest-ever Olympic champion in freestyle skiing at the Beijing Winter Olympics in 2022 at just 18, but it was in Lausanne – at the Winter YOG 2020 – where her rise to stardom truly gathered momentum.

Gu picked up gold in both the Big Air and Halfpipe events, as well as silver in the Slopestyle, before matching that record two years later in Beijing. Her exploits, both on and off the slopes, led to her recently being named the Global Ambassador for Gangwon 2024.

“It really is the only event where athletes from different sports will come together and compete under the five rings and really have this sense of unity, of crossover, of sportsmanship and friendship – especially with people your age,” the 20-year-old Gu told CNN Sport.

“It really is a formative experience and is something that kind of stokes the spark in you, hopefully for the Olympics in two years.”

Gu’s journey from the YOG to Olympic champion is nothing short of remarkable, especially for an athlete at the very beginning of their career with so much, both in the world of sport and outside of it, to contend with.

Gu hasn’t just excelled on the slopes; graduating from high school a year early, she was admitted to Stanford University, and somehow finds a way to balance competing and studying. So, along with aims for triumphs in World Cups in Switzerland and Canada, the phenom hopes for parallel success in her academic performance in 2024.

Jan 21, 2020; Lausanne, SWITZERLAND; Ailing Eileen Gu CHN, Gold Medallist, in action during the Freestyle Skiing Women's Freeski Big Air Finals at the Leysin Park. The Winter Youth Olympic Games. Mandatory Credit: Ben Queenborough/OIS Handout Photo via USA TODAY Sports

Gu in action during the women’s freestyle skiing freeski big air finals at the 2020 Winter Youth Olympic Games.

“I think that athletics have enriched my life to such a profound degree, not only in terms of my physical well-being, but also my mental and my spiritual well-being,” said Gu.

“It’s taught me how to cope with fear. It’s definitely taught me hard lessons, but lessons that I really wouldn’t be able to learn elsewhere about resilience, about sportsmanship. And that’s something that can transcend any kind of barrier: race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, religion, etc.

“That’s why the Youth Olympics are so valuable. Because no matter where you’re from or what sport you’re in, you’re a similar age, you’re [from a] similar background. Everybody is at the top of their craft, and being able to share that experience is something that’s really unforgettable.”

After 11 months without competition in 2023 due to injury, Gu took time to focus on her studies before winning back-to-back World Cups in December; it was like she never left.

So what’s the secret to the double Olympic champion’s success?

“I’m kind of notorious in training because I train like there’s no tomorrow,” said Gu. “I’ll be lapping people in training, I’ll do my full run like three runs in because that’s, I know, the way that I work,” she said.

“I always say that competing is 50% skill and 50% enduring pressure. Learning strategies to best cope with that … it’s an area where there’s not a ton of research.

“I just see all my friends as professional athletes, and so in that sense, I just have the best data set in the world.”

In November last year, CNN reported that elite women’s sport will generate revenue of $1.28 billion in 2024 according to financial analysts Deloitte, which is a 300% increase from three years ago.

In her early years as an athlete, though, Gu said she felt the pressure of an entire community on her shoulders due to the scarcity of young girls competing in the terrain park.

“I definitely feel like I had to represent this entire community, which is not fair to ask of a 10-year-old – it’s not fair to ask of anyone,” she said.

“One thing that I still do notice is sitting on a chairlift and hearing: ‘Gosh, [with] that trick, I was skiing like a girl’ or ‘Stop being a little girl.’”

“Those kind of comments definitely jab at me. But I do notice that people keep their mouth shut around me now, but I think that’s not really fair. Why do you have to earn the respect of people just because you’re a girl?”

Ailing Eileen Gu of Team China performs a trick during the Women's Freestyle Skiing Freeski Big Air Final on Day 4 of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympic Games at Big Air Shougang on February 08, 2022 in Beijing, China.

Gu performs a trick during the women’s freestyle skiing freeski big air final on Day 4 of the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympic Games.

To quell that sentiment, Gu utilizes the 1.9 million-strong army of followers she has on Instagram, as well as other social media platforms, to talk about representation in the hope of inspiring the next generation budding athletes.

“What I try to do is use my platform loudly and unapologetically. I think that representation is key, and I also think that there is a duty for everybody in the sport to make it as welcoming and accessible as possible for everybody.”

Even though she won’t be competing in the Paris Olympics later this year, Gu speaks about the event as if she was; there’ll be four new categories at Paris 2024, including breakdancing, sport climbing, skateboarding and surfing.

With new sports comes new fans – and also the possibility of new athletes.

“I think that it has this invigorating, infectious energy that you don’t really have to be an athlete, per se, to be able to participate in,” Gu said, smiling.

“I always say, hopefully, there’s one girl sitting in front of her TV screen at home thinking: ‘If she looks like me and she talks like me and she can do that, then maybe I want to give it a try.’”https://blejermot.com

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