Eileen Gu: Born and raised in America, skiing for China

With one foot in each country, medal favorite seeks to strike a perilous balance

“I’m an athlete, so I just do what I love and try to tell my own story,” freestyle skier Eileen Gu said. (Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
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COPPER MOUNTAIN, Colo. — At 18 years old, Eileen Gu is already accomplished in a way few will ever be in their entire lifetimes. She is the world’s top female freestyle skier, the world champion in the halfpipe and slopestyle, third in big air, with an excellent chance to win gold in all three events at the Beijing Olympics.

She also is a professional model, represented by one of the most prestigious agencies. Louis Vuitton and Tiffany & Co. have built campaigns around her. Last year, she graduated early from acclaimed San Francisco University High. In a few months, she will enroll at Stanford. She speaks both English and Mandarin and plays the piano. Her SAT score is reported to be 1580.

She could be America’s next big Olympic star … if only she wasn’t competing for China.

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In June 2019, Gu, whose mother was born in China and whose father is from the United States, announced her intentions in an Instagram post. In the post, Gu, who was born and raised in San Francisco and did most of her ski training near Lake Tahoe, wrote that she hoped “to unite people, promote common understanding [and] create communication.”

Gu’s decision was met with elation in China, where she is now famous, celebrated in commercials, on bus stop advertisements and across the covers of Chinese versions of Vogue, Elle and InStyle. She has endorsement deals there with a list of firms that includes the Bank of China, China Mobile and milk company Mengniu.

“She’s going to be as big as Yao Ming was,” said Jeff Ruffolo, a former Olympic volleyball broadcaster and publicist who has spent the past two decades working for China’s sports events, referring to the country’s first NBA star. “These Olympics are going to be her NBA.”

But in the United States, where she still lives, practices and mostly competes, reaction has been predictably mixed: anger from those outraged that she chose a country criticized by much of the world for human rights violations and indifference from the publicity machine that normally would clamor to promote such a gifted American athlete.

Gu has placed a foot in two countries whose relationship is at one of its lowest points in the past half-century. She must embrace China’s pride in hosting a second Olympics in 13½ years while tiptoeing around the diplomatic boycott of the Games that President Biden announced in December, specifically citing China’s treatment of the Uyghur Muslims in the Xinjiang region that the administration has called “genocide.” She steers her rare comments about China away from anything serious.

Eileen Gu, Mariah Bell, Alysa Liu and other first-time American Olympians will compete, and not all for Team USA, at the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics. (Video: Joshua Carroll/The Washington Post)

“I’m an athlete, so I just do what I love and try to tell my own story,” she said days after Biden’s announcement when asked about the complexities of her decision. “I love skiing, and I love fashion, and I love school, and I love my friends. I’m an 18-year-old girl growing up, and I just want to share my story, and so that’s the only thing I can do.”

As she spoke, Gu was standing near a makeshift medal stand after winning a Grand Prix halfpipe competition at Colorado’s Copper Mountain, one of seven gold medals she would win in the three months before Beijing.

She rarely does interviews aside from fashion magazine style tips and controlled sponsor projects such as her Red Bull “Everyday Eileen” video series. No reasons have been given publicly for Gu’s hesitation to be interviewed before the Olympics, a time when most action sports athletes welcome the exposure. Left unsaid is the obvious worry she might say something that will damage her popularity in China the way then-Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey’s 2019 tweet supporting Hong Kong activists led to the NBA being pulled from the country’s television stations and streaming services.

“If she … says something like how bad human rights are in China, the reaction will be strong, and it will ruin her endorsements,” said Julian Ku, a constitutional law professor at Hofstra University who is a prominent voice on Chinese-American issues.

Gu did not say anything critical about China at Copper Mountain that afternoon. Though requests for a formal interview had been turned down, she stopped to answer a few questions after the medal ceremony, perhaps because it was snowing, the wind chill was minus-7 and few people lingered in the cold. She held her skis in one hand and a small wooden model of the mountain awarded to winners in the other. She smiled brightly into the gloom.

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In the past, she has said her mother, Yan, who loves skiing, introduced her to the sport on regular weekend trips to Tahoe. In her Instagram post announcing her choice to compete for China, she mentioned picking her “mother’s homeland.” Her mother, who travels with her to events and stayed in contact by walkie-talkie with Chinese coaches that day, seems to be her most important influence.

But standing in the cold, Gu told another story about why she picked China. She talked about being 8 years old and the only girl on her ski teams at Tahoe. The best skiers were all male. They were her role models. She didn’t know any good female skiers. And so she tried to dress and act like the boys around her, wearing baggy clothes and doing anything she could to fit in.

“I really wanted to be a boy because that was the environment that I was in,” she said.

Not until she was 13 or 14 years old did she find female skiers she could look up to. One of those was American freestyle skier Maggie Voisin, a two-time X Games gold medalist in slopestyle who will be going to the Olympics for the third time this year. Gu called Voisin “a huge inspiration of mine,” someone who inspired her to believe she could be a girl and a top competitive skier.

It wasn’t until she was well into her teens that she started to embrace her femininity while also winning freestyle events. She realized that she wanted to be a Voisin to a next generation of girls. And she started to think she would have a bigger impact doing so in China, which she regularly visited with her mother.

“I just think that in the U.S. there are so many people like Maggie who are really inspiring and really are trailblazing this sport and are amazing role models for young girls already,” Gu said. “I think that in China — with the burgeoning sport and a lot of people hearing about it for the first time much less hearing it through the mouth of a girl and a young girl — I think it is a really good opportunity to spread the sport to younger girls and younger kids in China.”

A fierce wind stirred; the makeshift backdrop shook. She didn’t seem to notice.

“As I got older, I started modeling; that was also an interesting dynamic with balancing my femininity with my love for extreme sports and realizing that instead of having it being a weakness that growing into yourself and embracing who you are is a strength, and you can be female and really strong, and you can be really inspiring and really outspoken,” she continued. “And that was something that took me a little while to learn, but I’m really happy that I did.”

As Gu talked after the event, Yuxiao Tan, a graduate student at the University of Colorado, stood off to the side, away from the other competitors and coaches. Tan, who moved to the United States from China three years ago to study, recently had taken up skiing and had come to Copper Mountain that day to watch Gu in the finals.

He later said he and his friends all follow Gu on Instagram and, like many in China, he has become a fan.

China, he said, is not usually good at snow sports, unlike the powerhouse it has become in summer events such as weightlifting and swimming. The most golds China has won in a Winter Olympics is five. Freestyle skiing is still new there. And Gu is the new star.

“Also, because it’s like other countries — ping-pong for example — they are recruiting our athletes, our coaches to help them improve,” Tan said. Gu “returning to China, I think that’s going to help our skiing or snowboarding sports as well. …

“That’s a good thing.”

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To understand Gu’s immense popularity in China, it’s important first to grasp the pride people there have for the Beijing Olympics. Ruffolo, who has helped China organize many of its top sports events, including the 2008 and 2022 Games, said few in Beijing expected the Olympics to return so soon.

In many ways, the 2022 bid, which he helped write, was more a signal that Beijing hoped to host again in the future. But when Oslo pulled out of the running in 2014, Beijing wound up with its second Olympics in two decades. These Games feel like a gift for many in China, and the government is using the opportunity to get 300 million people to take up winter sports. Then, suddenly, an American model who also happens to be the world’s best female freestyle skier announced she would compete for China, bringing the possibility of three gold medals herself. Many, Ruffolo said, are moved.

“The Chinese are very emotional people,” Ruffolo said. “They don’t show it, but when the door closes, they become very emotional. And they know this woman, who is the best in the world, has come to them. They are saying, ‘She chose us!’

“Look, I’ve cried with these people,” Ruffolo continued. “This matters to them. This young lady is drop-dead gorgeous. It means a lot to China that she chose them.”

The quandary of Gu’s China decision might never have been more evident than during her week at Copper Mountain. She arrived the morning after Biden’s announcement, and over the next four days, Australia, Canada and Britain all announced their own diplomatic boycotts. Meanwhile, International Olympic Committee leaders frantically tried to explain, in video news conferences, that conversations they had had with Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai were not disingenuous attempts to preserve the Beijing Games after Peng disappeared from the public eye following her allegations of sexual assault against a former senior Chinese official.

Gu had to know of the boycotts and the worldwide concern about Peng. The news was too loud to ignore. Nor can Gu be oblivious to the criticism of China’s human rights record; her mother’s LinkedIn profile indicates she has had a long career in finance dealing with investments in both the United States and China.

“She’s an athlete, but she made a political kind of decision to leave behind the U.S. and become Chinese,” Ku said several weeks later by phone. “I don’t think she can dodge that anymore. Today, athletes in America talk about non-sports-related issues constantly, sometimes unsolicited.”

“The politics” of her decision, he went on to say, “are ugly.”

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Perhaps the most provocative topic swirling around Gu involves her passport. Typically China does not recognize dual citizenship and demands that its nationals give up their other passports. By choosing to compete for China, Gu has left the impression that she has renounced her American citizenship, which only adds to her popularity there.

Yet she also has declined to answer questions about whether she has relinquished her passport, and her name has not appeared on the lists of Americans who have renounced their citizenship, leading to suspicion that she has cut a deal with China to compete in Beijing.

“The U.S. won’t force her to give up her passport,” Ku said. “The U.S. makes it really hard to renounce citizenship. They don’t want you to leave. They want to tax you.”

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Ku said it’s possible that Gu hasn’t given back her passport yet because she only recently turned 18. But the absence of her name on the registry and the ease with which she has been able to travel between the United States and China over the past two years only create more intrigue.

“She doesn’t have to give an answer to anybody!” Ruffolo said, his voice rising. “If she speaks Mandarin after winning a medal, the Chinese media will go insane! Look, she can embrace both worlds. She can bridge the gap.”

On the mountain that December day, Gu didn’t seem interested in talking about bridging gaps. While she has indicated in the past that she is interested in politics and even once said she would love to be the ambassador to China one day, she tries hard now to stay away from the questions that can make things uncomfortable.

As the snow fell and the workers pulled down the makeshift podium, she talked about her wide range of interests and how being exposed to different parts of the world at a young age has shaped her. She said she has the ability “to be 100 percent focused” on each activity when she is doing it, carefully blocking out time for each thing she does.

She talked, too, about how she started modeling at 15, not long after attending her first Fashion Week in Paris. She didn’t say how she wound up at Fashion Week but indicated the experience was transformative.

“I think that it’s similar to skiing because it’s so expressive and individuality is rewarded and it’s art really,” she said. “And so I think the freedom of that was really inspiring to me, and that’s how I really fell in love with it.”

She was asked about the Olympics, about her chances for three medals and the expectation she will have in her chosen country. Is she prepared to be the face of these Olympics?

Gu laughed, then shook her head.

“I don’t decide that; you guys decide that,” she replied. “I mean, are you guys ready for me to be the face? I would love to be, sure. I love competing; I love skiing. And so that if there’s an opportunity for me to use my voice and to spread this sport, I think that’s the biggest goal that I have.”

Then she walked away, carrying her skis and the wooden trophy down an American mountain, already one of the most popular women in China and knowing that all of it is very complicated.

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