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US-born teenager gunning for gold at Beijing Olympics captivates China

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Ailing Eileen Gu of Team China poses for a picture after placing first in the Women’s Freeski Halfpipe competition at the Toyota US Grand Prix at Mammoth Mountain in Mammoth, California. AFP

US-born teenager gunning for gold at Beijing Olympics captivates China

Eileen Gu is just 18, a grade-A student and has set new standards in freestyle skiing – no wonder there is a frenzy around her in China ahead of this week’s Beijing Olympics.

Gu looks 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 US.

It is a loss for the US but a big win for the Olympic hosts and Gu underlined why on an explosive debut last year at the 2021 X Games, where she won two golds – a first for a woman rookie at the event.

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 the previous 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.

A fluent Mandarin speaker with a distinct Beijing accent, Chinese state media has quickly latched onto its newfound star, 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 programme host praised her “positive energy”.

Tough decision

Gu grew up in the US but in June 2019 made the “incredibly tough” decision to compete for China, 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 US one, though Gu has not confirmed 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 to Team China.

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 US, I grew up with all these idols and I wanted to be that for somebody else,” she told 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,” she added.

Fashion shoots

Gu, who first hit the slopes aged three, 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 a San Francisco high school in 2020, 12 months early, so she could put aside her studies to focus on her Beijing 2022 training.

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

A fashion fan and part-time model, Gu has 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 is mounting on the young athlete to shine at the Beijing Games, with just days to go.

“I’m really excited but I don’t think that anybody going to the Olympics would ever say they are 100 per cent 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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