'I am both Chinese and American.' Eileen Gu tries to bridge the divide – USA TODAY

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ZHANGJIAKOU, China – Before she dropped in, Eileen Gu heard the announcer call her a two-time gold medalist and choked up at the title, what the three medals she earned here meant.
Reticent to get too emotional, she choked back tears. Then the 18-year-old freeskiing phenom decided to take a victory lap.
“It was this amazing feeling of resolution,” said Gu. “It was like letting out this super deep breath that I’ve been holding for so long and just feeling everything, all those little moments added together and paid off.”
Gu achieved her lofty goal of three Olympic freeskiing medals, turning her into the biggest star of these Games. She also won big air and claimed silver in slopestyle, making her the first freeskier or action sports athlete to earn three medals in a single Olympics.
“Being able to achieve above and beyond the goals I set for myself makes me incredibly proud of myself, makes me incredibly grateful for the sport and makes me realize just how lucky I am to be here,” Gu said.
OPINION: Eileen Gu’s life gets more complicated after winning gold at Olympics for China
As much as her success propelled her to the spotlight, her background generated attention – good and bad – as the American-born Chinese star attempted to both bridge and stay above a geopolitical divide between her two countries.
Born and raised in San Francisco, Gu decided in 2019 to compete for China, where her mother, Yan, grew up. The decision wasn’t without consequence for both countries, but especially China, which has hardly been a winter sports powerhouse.
Its medal count of 14 so far eclipsed its previous best of 11 from both Torino and Vancouver – a difference made up by Gu’s three medals.
Even as fans, media and commentators opine about who owns her success and question her choice to compete for China, Gu has maintained her motivation to inspire Chinese people – and young girls in particular – to get on snow.
“I hope that I’m able to use this platform to inspire more young girls to take part in freeskiing,” Gu said after winning big air last week. “That’s always been my biggest goal since day one. My message has been the same forever. It’s just a bigger platform and more voices hearing me.”
If Gu has hope of achieving that goal, it’s because her success on skis has given her a platform. In her sport, she is nearly unbeatable.
Her runs in the halfpipe final were so clearly the best that the judges needed mere moments to score her in first.
Gu’s second run bettered her score and showed what has made her the best freeskier in the world. She landed back-to-back cork 900s to start, mirroring tricks on each wall. Then she did it again on the bottom, combining alley-oop flat spin 540s in two different directions. The trick requires her to spin up the pipe while traveling down it.
“She can pretty much mirror every single trick, which a lot of us struggle to do our unnatural side and she makes it look effortless,” said American Brita Sigourney, a bronze medalist in 2018. “That combination of technicality and execution is just unbeatable.”
MEDAL COUNT: Where Team USA ranks on the leaderboard
TV SCHEDULE: How and what to watch each day of the Beijing Olympics
It nearly has been here.
Gu claimed her first gold by landing a double cork 1620 – two off-axis flips with 4½ spins – for the first time in competition. She took silver in slopestyle by less than .35 points after struggling on her first two runs.
Medaling in all three events is not new to Gu. At X Games and the world championship in 2021, she did it, winning two. She did the same in the Youth Olympic Games the year before.
Still, it was not without challenge. Training days conflicted with competition, leaving Gu to quickly grab a snack after the slopestyle qualifying and final rounds then rush to the halfpipe. She did not have a day off skis since the Games opened.
Only one other athlete even tried all three, with Estonia’s Kelly Sildaru earning bronze in slopestyle.
“I think she came into the sport knowing she had to be absolutely flawless. And her tricks are awesome,” said Canadian Cassie Sharpe, the 2018 gold medalist who finished second to Gu in the halfpipe here. “She’s a machine. She came out here and she’s perfect.”
Gu’s success has drawn attention, both wanted and unwanted.
Volunteers working the Games swarmed to watch her compete, waited to try to get a selfie. The Chinese media, a virtual extension of the governing Chinese Communist Party, cheered her success.
Her image was ubiquitous, in commercials for Chinese athletics brand Anta, on billboards, in a pre-cut video celebrating her success that played on a big screen next to the halfpipe before she’d even stood atop a podium.
For every volunteer there was wanting her to sign Bing Dwen Dwen, the Games mascot, there were troves of comments online deriding her for competing for China.
“These two weeks have been emotionally the highest I’ve ever been and also the lowest I’ve ever been,” Gu said. “It has just been a roller coaster of emotions, partially because it’s just so high risk/reward and I know exactly how much is riding on my performance
“I feel really grateful for the people who support me and for the people who don’t support me, I feel like I’ve actually genuinely made peace with it. My motto is now if they don’t think I’m doing good in the world, then they can go do better.”
For her part, Gu sees getting people involved in winter sports broadly and freeskiing specifically as her goal. She has repeated organizers’ oft-cited statistic that the Games helped attract more than 300 million people to ice and snow.
Her success has given her a platform to try that.
Freeskiing has only been in the Games since 2014, and only two other athletes have three Olympic medals. Five snowboarders, including newly-retired American star Shaun White, have three.
None of those action sports athletes has done it in a single Olympics, as Gu has.
“Extreme sports, we all know, are heavily dominated by men and stereotypically, it has not had the kind of representation and sporting equity that it should,” she said. “So I think that as a young biracial woman, it is super important to be able to reach those milestones and to be able to push boundaries, not only my own boundaries but those of the sport and those of the record books because that’s what paves the paths for the next generations of girls.”
Gu says she sees the results, that she receives hundreds of direct messages on social media with many from girls saying they’re watching her. So are the critics, who fault her for choosing to compete for China.
“I have never had any kind of hate, never had any kind of negativity from any of my friends, from anybody in the industry, from anybody I’ve ever known in person. It’s just people who don’t know me,” she said. “The U.S. has made me who I am. China has made me who I am, and I am infinitely grateful to both. And I am both Chinese and American.”
As her competitors celebrated their slopestyle medals here draped with their country’s flags, Gu sought out hers.
Where is my flag? she asked, in English.
Though fluent in Chinese – a byproduct of spending much of her youth here and being raised by her mother and grandmother – Gu comes across as an American teen, even if an exceptional one.
It has forced her to navigate a geopolitical divide in which the two countries of her heritage vary drastically and oppose each other ideologically.
To a degree, that’s somewhat foreign to Gu, whose sport has operated more like a bunch of ski buddies on a hill, though that’s changed some with freeskiing’s inclusion in the Olympics.
“People always want to put me in a box and to me that reads of ignorance because they just don’t really understand the sport,” Gu said. “Afterward, we’re all hugging each other. We’re all hyped. … I want everybody to do well, and we all support each other. That’s what I love so much about it.”
Despite that, questions persist about her citizenship, which Gu has avoided.
The International Olympic Committee requires athletes to have a passport from the country they’re competing for, and China does not typically allow dual citizenship. Gu has not confirmed whether she renounced her American citizenship, and there is no record she has.
“It’s not going away. It doesn’t help. It’s not a great look,” said Mark Dreyer, author of Sporting Superpower: An Insider’s View on China’s Quest to Be the Best. “I totally understand why she wants to live in this gray area, and there’s no legal requirement for her to disclose this.”
The Chinese government and state-run media have driven a narrative that Gu has chosen China over the United States, even if she hasn’t done so or participated in that version.
“It works for her and it works for them but they have different agendas about the whole Eileen Gu story,” Dreyer said.
Added Simon Chadwick, professor of Eurasian Sport at Emlyon Business School, “Her success is being weaponized and used for geopolitical purposes. This is incredibly unfair because she’s an 18-year-old athlete with a dual heritage family who just wants to try her best and make her parents proud, and yet she’s being turned into a geopolitical weapon.”
By embracing both cultures, Gu has made herself marketable. She has major U.S. sponsors, including Red Bull, Visa and Victoria’s Secret. She counts Anta and the Bank of China among her Chinese sponsors.
The teen has also signed with IMG Models and graced the cover of the Chinese versions of Elle, InStyle and Vogue.
Her appeal is undeniable and only likely to increase after her success here.
“She was largely unknown in the U.S. before the Olympics. Now she is a big story,” said Susan Brownell, a professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis who studies Chinese sport and the Olympic Games. “This might actually increase her marketability in the U.S., especially because she already had high-profile U.S.-based sponsors.”
In light of her commercial success, she has faced questions about whether she has had to make compromises to do business in China. The U.S. State Department has called China’s mistreatment of Uyghur Muslims in Xianjiang a “genocide” and led a diplomatic boycott of these Games.
Gu rejected the notion that to do business in China has required her to keep quiet on issues of human rights.
“I don’t really think of skiing as a business endeavor. I guess it’s my job, but also I do it because I love it,” she said. “I feel as though I use my voice as much as I can in topics that are relevant and personal to myself and targeted toward people who are willing to listen to me. That being said, I am also a teenage girl. I do my best to make the world a better place, and I’m having fun while doing it.”
As criticism and critiques have come from all sides during the Games, Gu has stayed the course and maintained focus on those goals – both the ones that have gotten her on the podium and the one she hopes inspires others to follow her.


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