This time Eileen Gu didn’t leave things late. After her first two events at the Winter Games came down to nail-biting finishes, the emerging American-born superstar representing China lay waste to all-comers in the Olympic freeski halfpipe final, adding to her big air gold and slopestyle silver to complete an unprecedented hat-trick of medals in the mountains northwest of Beijing.
The 18-year-old soared into history on Friday morning in becoming the first action-sports athlete to win three medals at a single Olympics – missing out on triple gold by a fraction of a point in Tuesday’s slopestyle – making good on years of hype that only intensified in the months leading up to the Beijing Games and grew to deafening levels over the past fortnight as her culture-straddling origin story has become the subject of intense public scrutiny on both sides of the Pacific.
“It has been two straight weeks of the most intense highs and lows I’ve ever experienced in my life,” said Gu, who became the youngest person to win three individual medals in the history of the Winter Olympics. “It has changed my life forever. The second I landed the last 16 in big air I knew my life was never going to be the same. Even then I would have never imagined that I’d walk away with another silver and another gold.”
The reigning world halfpipe champion wasted no time in taking full command of Friday’s contest, where 12 entrants made three trips each down the 200-meter-long course known as the Secret Garden with the best score counting towards their finishing position. She set the target of 93.25 with a sensational opening run, launching herself high above the seven-metre walls on back-to-back 900s in the top section, then adding a switch left 360 followed by an alley-oop 540, which effectively turned the affair into a race for silver.
Gu created even more distance atop the leaderboard with a 95.25 on her second descent, notching up the amplitude despite heavier gusts and linking consecutive alley-oop 540s at the finish as hordes of bundled-up spectators and volunteers chanted her name on a sunny 0C ( -18F) morning that offered reprieve from the bitterly cold conditions of the past week.
With her second Olympic title in hand after no one came within four and a half points of her benchmark, a beaming Gu took a casual ski down the pipe on her final run, gliding into the finish area and mobbing her fellow medalists in celebration.
A pair of Canadians filled out the podium as defending Olympic champion Cassie Sharpe won the silver with a best score of 90.75, three points clear of team-mate Rachael Karker, who took bronze.
The Estonian triple-threat Kelly Sildaru, the slopestyle bronze medalist who turned 20 on Thursday, finished in fourth with a high score of 87.00 on her second run, a fraction of a point off the podium.
Great Britain’s Zoe Atkin fell on her first two runs but was clean on her final trip and moved up to ninth. The American contingent mostly struggled with 17-year-old Hanna Faulhaber, fourth at last year’s worlds, coming in sixth ahead of Pyeongchang bronze medalist Brita Sigourney (10th) and Carly Margulies (11th), who overcame seven knee surgeries including one in December to make her Olympic debut.
Once more the day belonged to Gu, whose crack for coming up big under pressure shone repeatedly in her first two events in Beijing. She was in danger of missing the big air final entirely after a ski popped off on her second run, but confidently landed her last attempt, then won the gold from third place entering her final run by throwing down a 1620, a four-and- a-half-revolution maneuver that she had never even attempted in practice.
She then avoided a shock exit in Monday’s slopestyle qualifying after an error-strewn opening attempt to reach the final, where she surged from eighth place to the silver with a clutch final run that included a double-cork 900 punctuated with the Buick grab that has become her signature.
No such dramatics were required on Friday morning as Gu quickly validated her favorite status at the Genting Snow Park, the sparkling new venue nestled in the tree-lined southern foot of Xiaohaituo Mountain. Now the real fun begins.
Gu was already well on her way to becoming a household name even before these Olympics with upwards of 1.3m followers on Weibo and more than two dozen major sponsors, including Cadillac, Tiffany, Fendi, Estee Lauder and Victoria’s Secret, eager to trade on her magnetic blend of athletic prowess, model looks and bright intellect. But the San Francisco native’s ability to coolly deliver a historic medal haul under immense pressure as Team China’s most popular athlete and the face of the Beijing Games leaves her positioned to soar into the upper echelons of the world’s top-earning athletes.
Doing so will require walking a narrow line of pleasing both sides of her heritage, a precarious tightrope she’s proven more than capable of navigating over the past two weeks.
One of America’s most hyped action-sports prospects in years, Gu’s decision to compete for her mother’s home nation three years ago was a major boost for a host country that had won a total of 13 gold medals in the history of the Winter Olympics but only one of those on snow. Her change of affiliations, which didn’t attract much attention at the time, has drawn international attention at a Beijing Games where global condemnation for China’s human rights abuses against Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims in far western Xinjiang has been thrust to the fore.
But having come of age in a post-Kaepernick age of athlete activism where speaking out on social issues has become fashionable, Gu has adhered to a disciplined, almost pathological apoliticism that feels like a throwback to the “Republicans buy sneakers, too” mentality that prompted a generation of athletes to keep their heads down when it came to divisive topics, lest they alienate the consumer base.
She’s largely been successful, steering all potentially thorny lines of inquiry toward uncontroversial messages like following your passions, inspiring children and making a positive difference in the world, while adroitly sidestepping the steady barrage of questions over her ambiguous citizenship status and whether she’s given up her US passport with what’s become something of a catchphrase: “When I’m in China, I’m Chinese. When I’m in the US, I’m American.”
Criticism has come from both sides as the spotlight has intensified. The hashtag #EileenGuTraitor has trended on social media in the US during her events, while she was called privileged and out of touch with ordinary Chinese people earlier this week after engaging with an Instagram commenter who asked why she was able to use the photo-sharing service that is blocked in China when millions of others cannot. (“Anyone can download a VPN,” Gu replied in a screenshot of the since-deleted exchange, which quickly went viral on Chinese social media. “It’s literally free on the App Store.”)
But as the incoming Stanford student and budding model fielded questions after Friday’s win alternating seamlessly between English and Mandarin Chinese inside a rammed media center, Gu once again showed her limitless potential as a dual-culture star for a new age thanks to timeworn virtues as old as the Olympics itself.
“I put so much work into this, and to just feel like it was all worth it – all those little moments, the time I put in, in the gym after shooting a fashion editorial for eight to 10 hours, when I ran a half -marathon every week over the summer, when I pushed myself to be the first person in practice and the last person to leave – just all those little moments I feel like added up and it was just this great realization that it was all worth it and that it was all real,” Gu said.
“The overriding emotion is just this deep-seated sense of gratitude and resolution, just like this all coming together, years and years in the making and it’s like letting out a deep breath.”