BEIJING — Eileen Gu amassed an army of cynics when she spurned Team USA to represent China at the Beijing Games.
Moments after the biggest run of her life, the 18-year-old freestyle skiing prodigy was asked about her status as a U.S. citizen, her feelings on Peng Shuai and the incessant hate she has received on social media.
“If people don’t believe me, if people don’t like me, then that’s their loss,” Gu said. “They’re never going to win the Olympics.”
Gu did just that, earning the first of what she and her many fans in Beijing hope could be three gold medals by cranking out the first 1620 of her career in her final turn, stunning Tess Ledeux of France to win the Olympic debut of women’s freeski big air.
The American-born Gu had never landed the double cork 1620 — a move in which skiers spin 4½ times while rotating twice off-axis while 20-some feet in the air. Not in practice. Not in competition.
Only with the weight of her adopted homeland right there on her shoulders.
“I want all the girls to break their boundaries,” she said in Chinese, via interpreter. “I want them to think if Eileen can do it, I can do it.”
A flood of interest in Gu’s win briefly crashed the popular Chinese social media site Weibo, according to online technology and sports news sites in China. A crowd of spectators gathered spontaneously in front of a big TV screen in Wangfujing, a famed shopping district in central Beijing, on Tuesday morning.
“It’s very cheering. She’s of Chinese origin and has returned to China. I feel proud of her,” said Beijing resident Jiang Yu, 36.
Capacity was limited at 5,000-seat Big Air Shougang — a shuttered steel mill that Beijing has converted into an eerie-yet-serene park, cultural hub and sports center. The reaction still told the story.
The “Snow Princess” was ready for her crown.
Gu, whose mother is Chinese, estimates she’s spent at least a quarter of her life in China. Her origin story, as she tells it, begins with the time she pitched the idea for China’s first slopestyle ski event at age 9 — and won.
Since choosing to side with China in 2019, she has said repeatedly that her goal is to encourage girls and women to take up winter sports — aligning with China’s pledge to inspire 300 million to hit the ice or snow.
It’s a status not unlike the public mantle Peng has held for years.
Peng, a three-time Olympic tennis player, sat in the stands with IOC president Thomas Bach as Gu cemented her gold. Peng made a rare public appearance a day after saying in a controlled interview that the sexual assault allegations she made against a former high-ranking member of China’s ruling Communist Party were “an enormous misunderstanding.”
Her responses — delivered in front of a Chinese Olympic official — left unanswered questions about her well-being and what exactly happened.
Asked if she shared international concern about Peng’s safety, Gu skirted around the topic, saying she was “really happy” Peng attended and honored that a star from a major sport like tennis came to see “niche sports like freeskiing.”
“I’m really grateful that she’s, yeah, happy and healthy and out here doing her thing again,” Gu said before a room full of Chinese volunteers and media, who hushed when Peng’s name came up.
Gu also spun around questions about her status as an American. China does not allow dual citizenship, but it’s unclear if the Stanford-bound Gu ever gave up her U.S. passport.
The decision seems to have been a lucrative one for Gu, whose second passion is modeling. Her face is on advertisements across Beijing, and she has been photographed for Vogue, Victoria’s Secret, Louis Vuitton, Tiffany and more.
“I feel like sport is really a way that we can unite people,” she said when asked about her citizenship. “It’s something that doesn’t have to be related to nationality. It’s not something that can be used to divide people. We’re all out here together pushing the human limit.”
No denying, Gu pushed those limits Tuesday.
It was only a month ago that Ledeux became the first woman to land a 1620 in competition, stomping one down while taking gold at the Winter X Games. The French 20-year-old boldly pulled off another in the first of three rounds Tuesday, immediately setting the bar beyond where anyone else had previously reached.
Gu hit a clean double cork 1440 in her first run, then registered a safe-but-stylish double cork 1080 on Run 2. By the time her third jump came around, she was already assured of at least bronze.
Gu said she briefly considered trying to improve upon her 1440 but the math said the only way to close the gap on Ledeux was to go for the 1620.
She shrieked the moment her skis hit the landing, floating backward down what remained of the slope with her hands first over her head, then covering her face. She crumpled to her knees when her score of 94.5 was announced — good for a combined total of 188.25, just clear of Ledeux’s 187.5. Swiss skier Mathilde Gremaud took bronze.
Ledeux tried to improve her switch 1440 with her last attempt but came up short. She said via interpreter that Gu is “extremely competitive” and an “amazing athlete,” but she also grumbled that Gu had been in Beijing practicing at the Big Air Shougang venue for weeks before the Games — a perk of being with the host country.
“What I know is that she got lucky and that’s only fair, she was able to train in the venues before everyone else and that probably made a difference today,” Ledeux said.
Not that one more cynic was going to dash Gu’s party.
“I’m not trying to keep everyone happy,” Gu said. “I’m an 18-year-old girl out here living my best life. Like, I’m having a great time.”