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Eileen Gu wins big air gold for China with superior final run

The San Francisco-born Olympian chose to represent China in the 2022 Beijing games. She won gold on Feb. 7 in freeski Big Air. (Video: Reuters)
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BEIJING — Even if you couldn’t tell a 1440 from a 1620, a cork from a safety, or even your left from your right, you could watch Eileen Gu at the bottom of the hill Tuesday morning at Big Air Shougang on the western edge of Beijing and understand immediately what she had done.

You didn’t need to know anything about the new Winter Olympics discipline of freestyle skiing big air, or even Gu’s fascinating and polarizing backstory, to know what it meant when an elite athlete, moments after her skis found solid ground again, doubled over and raised her hand to cover her mouth, as tears of joy welled in her eyes.

It was the moment all the pressure melted away. Whatever else happened from there, the hard part — not just the unprecedented jump she had just landed, a left double 1620 safety, but the accumulated toll of the massive expectations and transpacific intrigue — was over.

Jerry Brewer: Eileen Gu is an original, and the world is going to have to deal with it

And minutes later, when the event’s last competitor made the morning’s last run, it was sealed: Gu, the 18-year-old global superstar, fashion model and flash point of the Beijing 2022 Winter Games, had won the gold medal for China. Her victory may have meant different things to different people on either side of the ocean, but whatever those complexities might be, one look at the joy and relief on Gu’s face made it clear how simple and satisfying it was to her.

“I’m always wanting to push myself to the absolute limit,” Gu said. “I’m not here to beat other people. I’m not here to compete against other people. I wanted to push myself to the limit. So to exhibit that and communicate that through my skiing to the world was something extremely meaningful and purposeful.”

When Gu stood atop the eerie, dystopian big air venue — built on the remains of a former steel factory, framed by mountains and the distant skyline of Beijing — and prepared for the last of her three runs, she also stood, not necessarily by choice, at the complicated intersection of culture, geopolitics and athletic greatness. One of the dominant figures in the sport of freestyle skiing, with the potential for three gold medals at these Games, she was better known for the things she symbolized.

Though born in the United States and raised in San Francisco, Gu had decided three years ago to compete for China, her mother’s homeland, at these Olympics — a choice that had made her an icon in that country and a target of bitter criticism in the States. While it has never been made clear if she renounced her U.S. citizenship in the process, the International Olympic Committee requires athletes to hold a passport for the country they represent, and China does not permit dual citizenship.

Before the final jump, she spoke to her mother, Yan, who advised her not to try the 1620 — which she had only attempted in practice, with an air bag to cushion her landing — but instead take another pass at the right double 1440 safety she had nailed in her first run.

“But I kind of was adamant I wanted to do the left 16,” she said, “because I felt even if I didn’t land it, it would’ve been an opportunity to represent myself and my spirit on the Olympic stage.”

China’s strict “closed-loop” system separates the Winter Games from the rest of the country with the hope of stopping the spread of coronavirus variants. (Video: Luis Velarde/The Washington Post)

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

If the essence of the Beijing Winter Olympics — with all its messy dualities and purposes, all at once a television show, global competition, cultural event and geopolitical circus — could be distilled to one 10-second video clip, it was this: Gu, in third place at the time, flying down the slope, launching herself off the ramp and, with immeasurable pressure on her narrow shoulders, pulling off the most ambitious trick she had ever attempted — but that, as it turned out, she needed to earn the gold.

She landed it cleanly and nearly collapsed into herself as the pressure evaporated. The score for her run, 94.50, vaulted her past France’s Tess Ledeux and Switzerland’s Mathilde Gremaud and into first place. When neither could match Gu’s final-run mastery, the gold medal was hers. Before she celebrated her own victory, she threw an arm around Ledeux, comforting her rival after a disappointing final run.

Gu’s final score, representing the aggregate of her two best runs, was 188.25, narrowly edging out Ledeux (187.50). Still to come for Gu are the slopestyle and halfpipe competitions later in the Olympic meet. A medal in each would make her the first action-sport athlete to reach the podium in all three.

Even under the tight capacity controls in place for these Olympics, Big Air Shougang was filled to perhaps half its full capacity of 4,912 — a crowd that included IOC President Thomas Bach and Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai, herself a flash point of these Olympics despite not being a participant.

The crowd chanted for Gu, roared after each of her three runs and cheered wildly when it became clear she had taken the gold. She is known by her Chinese name here, Gu Ailing, and she is as beloved as any athlete at these Games. As she made her way to the venue Tuesday, chances are she passed billboards or advertising signs with her image. Her modeling career is on the same trajectory as her skiing career, with appearances for companies ranging from Tiffany & Co. to Louis Vuitton to Victoria’s Secret to Red Bull.

At her post-competition news conference, Gu toggled between answering in either Mandarin or English, depending on the language of the questioner.

“I’m American when I’m in America, and I’m Chinese when I’m in China,” she said, repeating the line she has trotted out frequently whenever the questions get too close to the uncomfortable issues surrounding her citizenship or identity. “I don’t feel as though I’m taking advantage of one or the other, because both have been incredibly supportive of me.”

She tossed off her answers with giggles, giddy smiles and supreme confidence, as unwavering and unflappable as when she stands atop the slope. Whatever anyone might think of her, and whatever symbolism anyone might project upon her, she saw herself Tuesday as the thing she most wanted to be: an Olympic champion.

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