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The Inspiring Backstory of Pro Freestyle Skier and Model Eileen Gu

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“Guess u could say I like gold hard(wear) around my neck,” wrote 18-year-old professional freestyle skier Eileen Gu under a photo she posted on Instagram in November of last year. In the image, she is showing off a gold necklace from the luxury jewelry brand Tiffany & Co., for which she is a brand ambassador.

But that gold necklace certainly isn’t the only gold she has worn around her neck.

The skiing star won two golds in superpipe, and a bronze in big air at the X Games 2021, and she was the first woman to do so in her rookie year. During the 2021 Aspen Championship, Gu also won two golds and one bronze, becoming the first skier to win two golds at the event. 

Moreover, Gu was the first female freestyle skier to land a double cork 1440, which she did last year during a training session in Stubai, Austria.

She recently finished the FIS Freestyle Ski World Cup season with a perfect record in the women’s half-pipe event and pocketed her first crystal globe.

The young skier is set to compete for China in the upcoming Winter Olympics and is one of the most high-profile athletes in the world.

And she is not just a badass professional freestyle skier, she’s something of a modern-day Renaissance woman: Gu was admitted to study at her dream school, Stanford University, and she is also a fashion model who has appeared on the cover of Vogue magazine and attended Paris Fashion Week.

With the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics less than a month away, it seems prudent to introduce you to Eileen Gu, a world champion freestyle skier who excels as an athlete, a student, a fashion model, and so much more.

Accidental Skiing Star

During a Committee of 100 panel discussion in May of 2021, Gu said her mom, Gu Yan, who hails from Beijing, significantly influenced her journey to the upper echelons of the global skiing scene.

Born and raised in San Francisco, the professional skier was first introduced to snow as a 3-month-old when her mother went skiing and brought her along for the adventure. 

At the time, many folks at the ski hill were in awe of Gu’s mother’s passion for the snowy slopes — evident by the fact she was skiing only three months after giving birth. Given Gu Yan’s love of skiing, it is not surprising that she enrolled her daughter in ski school at the innocent age of 3 years old.

When Gu turned 8, being a self-proclaimed “little adrenaline addict,” she fearlessly skied from the top of a ski hill straight to the bottom. The incident understandably scared the elder Gu, although she eventually decided to put her daughter on a freestyle ski team — presumably to receive proper training.

This chain of events marked the start of her adventure in the world of freestyle skiing.

During the weekend, she and her mom went “full weekend warrior style,” driving to Tahoe — a four-hour drive from San Fran — on Friday night and returning home on Sunday.

Because of the long back-and-forth commute to the ski hill, Gu developed impressive time management skills at a very young age. For example, she learned how to do homework, eat her meals, and change in the back seat during those lengthy trips.

“Growing up, I always had a sense of balance and time management, and trying to grasp every second of my life, because I was always so busy,” Gu told the panel.

Indeed, in addition to skiing, Gu ran cross-country competitively for seven years, played basketball and soccer, and competed in show jumping. Moreover, she was also a ballet dancer and played piano for nine years.

Gender Equality Activism

From ages 8 to 14, Gu was the only girl on her ski team, and she never had a female ski buddy or a female coach.

“I think that really impacted me a lot at a young age,” said Gu, “Especially being a girl and also being an Asian girl in freeskiing — it’s a very white sport.”

At first, witnessing this lack of diversity made her want to hide: Gu even tried to dress like a boy to fit in better with others in the industry. But as she grew older, she became more proud of her heritage and identity as an Asian woman.

Moreover, Gu learned the importance of representation: “If I had seen more women or Asian women in the sport growing up, I would have wanted to commit to the sport a lot earlier.”

These experiences encouraged her to change the status quo.

In seventh grade, Gu gave a public speech about gender inequality in sports. Furthermore, she began to advocate for gender equality in high school by leading discussions about the gender wage gap and the misrepresentation of female athletes in media.

As one of the most-watched professional freestyle skiers, Gu hopes to use her voice to introduce skiing to more girls in China.

“Leading up to Beijing 2022, it is a wonderful opportunity to bring up more energy around the sports culture in China, especially around younger girls,” Gu said.

Sports as a Force for Unity

Raised in a Chinese household, Gu has shared on her social media that her grandma “instilled competitive nature in her” and her mom “taught her ambition and work ethic.”

Moreover, she speaks Mandarin fluently and has visited China every summer since she was a toddler. “I am super proud of my heritage,” said Gu, whose Chinese name is Ailing Gu.

Given the recent rise of anti-Asian sentiments in the US, Gu has been actively using her social media platform to raise awareness of the issue and share resources for the community. She considers her identity as a minority in freestyle skiing powerful because it gives her the ability to “educate others on experiences that they might not have known.”

“The fact that my very own Chinese grandmother could have been the victim of a hate crime which took place in our own city genuinely terrifies me,” Gu wrote on her Instagram story, “It’s not that this pandemic had created these problems: they’ve always existed and are now being revealed at a larger scale.”

Besides combatting racism, the professional skier also strives to build cultural understanding and unite people from different parts of the world. During a trip to Switzerland with five skiers from other countries, Gu suggested cooking a different cuisine every night. As the only Asian skier in the house, she taught the others how to make dumplings.

According to Gu, the story of making dumplings with skiers from other countries demonstrates that “sports can be a force for unity.”

In June 2019, Gu announced she would compete for China in the 2022 Beijing Olympics, and the news sent shockwaves across the internet. The decision resulted in racist backlash — including death threats — from some of the worst segments of the internet.

Gu’s high-profile switch of sporting allegiance seems to imply that she gave up her American citizenship. This assumption is based on the fact that Chinese law does not recognize dual nationality and that international sporting events generally require competitors to be a national of the country they represent.

Yet many have speculated that she has retained her US passport, pointing to a post on her Weibo from March 2021 in which she wrote that she’d qualified for the US Presidential Scholars Program, which only American citizens or permanent residents are eligible to apply for.

Despite the speculation and controversy, Gu’s dedication to promoting cultural understanding is without question.

“Through skiing, I hope to unite people, promote common understanding, create communication, and forge friendships between nations,” she wrote on Instagram. “If I can help to inspire one young girl to break a boundary, my wishes will have come true.”

Beyond the Ski Hill

For many, getting into Stanford University and being a record-breaking professional skier already checks off enough items on the bucket list. But Gu has another project she is passionate about: modeling.

In 2019, Gu was invited to her first fashion week and was enchanted by the creative industry. “I love its creativity, fun, and self-expression. All these aspects are very similar to skiing,” she shared during the Committee of 100 panel.

Because she works incredibly hard on everything she does, Gu excels at fashion modeling and has appeared on the cover of Vogue magazine.

The 18-year-old model is also a new brand ambassador for the iconic jewelry brand Tiffany & Co. and has been featured in campaigns for French luxury brand Louis Vuitton.

She has even attended the Met Gala, one of the most well-known events in the fashion industry, which features high-profile celebrities, fashion icons, and talented designers.

All of these projects and impressive accomplishments may seem overwhelming, but for Gu, she enjoys her lifestyle because it “offers a great sense of balance.”

“On the weekend, I am flying out to New York or LA doing shoots or campaigns. It keeps everything exciting. I don’t get bored at anything I am doing,” she said.

Indeed, from professional freestyle skier to fashion model, Gu consistently demonstrates her unparalleled work ethic — her passion for everything she does shining through with each new undertaking. We look forward to watching her kill it on the slopes, as always, during Beijing 2022.

Cover image via Wikimedia

Kayla He
    Born and raised in China, Kayla received her BA in Communications and Public Service from the University of Pennsylvania. She currently works as a staff writer at RADII and is passionate about telling stories related to social issues women's empowerment. You can find her exploring coffee shops in Shanghai in her free time or rushing for Duffy and Friends plush toys at Shanghai Disneyland.

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