BEIJING — Before Eileen Gu took to the air and spun 4½ times into a new echelon of fame, she called her mother. She needed to make a critical decision: Perfect a familiar trick or unfurl one she had never done. Mom told her to play it safe. The daughter, 18 going on immortality, rejected caution.
“Mom, executive call!” Gu exclaimed. “Vetoed.”
And that’s how she took command of the Beijing Winter Olympics. If there was any doubt that the young freestyle skier could handle all that she must balance — the expectations of gold and the two countries jostling to understand and claim her — she made sure the world heard her clearly Tuesday morning.
Gu, who has a chance to capture three gold medals here, began her pursuit with a triumph in the freestyle skiing big air at Shougang Industrial Park, a repurposed steel mill that might as well be renamed to honor what she just did. From now until she’s finished, these Olympics are hers. Gu is the quintessential athlete for an entangled Games — astonishing and complicated, able to provoke exaltation and conflict.
She is American, born and raised in California. She is competing for China, the home country of her mother, Yan. But as she proved in big air, she dwells in a different world, one she has made for herself, and it is a lofty place to be. She dismisses the obsession over whom she belongs to and focuses on showing who she actually is. Instead of being a geopolitical weapon for the United States and China to fight over, she’s a pianist, a model and an athlete making her own music, posing in her own way and defying convention in the air as well.
So Gu wasn’t going to repeat the trick she had stomped earlier in this three-round event. To start the morning, she thrilled the home crowd with a move called a right double 1440 safety, one that saw her complete four full rotations and earn a 93.75. But with France’s Tess Ledeux landing a 1620 trick and holding on to first place going into the final run, Gu wanted to try something she never had and chase gold.
Gu was solidly in third place when she called Yan, who was watching from the bleachers. Mom thought it would be better for her daughter to do an improved version of the 1440 and perhaps climb to a silver medal. But Gu was adamant.
“I am going to make the 16,” she told her mother, “and you are going to deal with it.”
Until Tuesday, she hadn’t shown the ability to complete that extra half rotation in a competition. She shrugged. She was going for it, a trick called a left double 1620 with a safety grab.
“I’ve spent a lot of hours visualizing it, if that counts,” she said, laughing like a teen.
Gu came to the Beijing Olympics with more in mind than settling and moving on to the slopestyle and halfpipe events, her strongest disciplines. With her enchanting combination of earnest youth and veteran-like polish, she talks of growing her sport, inspiring girls and promoting unity in ways that sound both too perfect and remarkably admirable.
She’s not here just to do her best. She’s here to stretch herself, and in the process, she trusts her example will carry greater meaning. She delivered a 94.50 score with that 1620, won the big air gold medal and pulled out her phone during an interview afterward.
“If you want to talk about manifestation, this has been my home screen for the last few months,” Gu said, holding up her mobile device.
It was the image of an Olympic gold medal.
“This is exactly what I visualized,” she said. “Exactly.”
She does and says the right things, thanking Ledeux, the silver medalist, and bronze winner Mathilde Gremaud of Switzerland for pushing her and giving them a share of the credit for lifting the sport. Only on occasion does she veer off script and into raw honesty. During about two hours of interviews and numerous questions about her citizenship (which she won’t reveal) and competing allegiances to China and the United States, she let loose a few times.
Her message in those moments: Respect her desire to be original.
“I compete for myself, and I’m the one who did the work,” Gu said. “I’m the one who put in the hours, and there were no cameras in the gym when I worked eight to 10 hours of fashion work and then went to the gym afterwards. There were no cameras when I was hiking up before the lifts closed at 4 p.m. to get another hit in. There were no cameras when I was running half marathons every week over the entire summer. So I think those are the hours that I put in, and so in that sense, I was doing it for myself.”
She was speaking not from ego, but from a desire to be appreciated for her independence. Gu is on her way to becoming bigger than some simplistic identity. She doesn’t have to pick a country. Her decision to straddle loyalties has clear financial and popularity benefits, but it doesn’t make her an insincere opportunist. It does open the door for Gu — and the ethereal unity she wants to represent — to be exploited. On cue, International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach just happened to show up here with Peng Shuai on Tuesday in what came across as another lame and transparent attempt to whitewash the actions of the Chinese government.
“It was a breathtaking competition,” Bach said of Gu and the big air field before leaving. “It was really amazing. Under the pressure of these Olympics competition, I can’t imagine what she would have going through her head. Everyone in the stadium could feel it. It was an incredible competition.”
Everyone wants a piece of Gu, but she’s wise enough to reserve the biggest piece for herself. She competed for China, but she’s not exactly China’s Gu. She is a proud Californian, but she’s not exactly America’s Gu. And she’s definitely not the IOC’s prize.
As a transcendent talent, she is a citizen of celebrity. Her blend of interests and identities create a singular and growing icon. In a time in which it seems like society is trying to whittle us down to easy definitions, Gu is Gu. It’s refreshing to see an intersectional human being so comfortably at odds with the moment.
“Here’s the thing: I’m not trying to keep anyone happy,” Gu said. “I’m an 18-year-old girl trying to live my best life. I know that I have a good heart and know that my reasons are for the common interest and greater good. No matter what I say, if people don’t have a good heart, they won’t believe me because they can’t empathize with people who do have a good heart. So in that sense, I feel as though it’s a lot easier to block out the hate now.
“If people don’t believe me and people don’t like me, that’s their loss. And also, they’re never going to know what it feels like to win the Olympics.”
Another executive call. Haters, vetoed.
Welcome to the Gu Games.