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Pressure? Whether on skis or off, Eileen Gu seems to thrive on it

Eileen Gu will try to win her third medal of the Olympics in the halfpipe later this week. (Lisi Niesner/Reuters)

ZHANGJIAKOU, China — Eileen Gu was out of time.

The 18-year-old had just won her second medal of the Beijing Games on Tuesday at Genting Snow Park, a silver in women’s slopestyle that sent Chinese fans and volunteers alike into a frenzy, but as she pulled her hair back into a ponytail and set about the business of answering questions at her news conference, she had no time to revel. Gu had to rush off to practice for halfpipe.

“I’m actually missing it already, so that’s why I have to cut this short,” Gu said, switching from Mandarin to English, apologizing to the packed room of reporters. “I always want to try to use my voice as much as possible, but I’ve really got to go!”

At a Winter Olympics where the theme is pressure, Gu is a study in how to use it to one’s advantage. An American-born teen skiing for her mother’s native China, she is the face of these Games in Beijing, hustling her way through with a shot at becoming the first action-sport athlete to reach the podium in three events with eyes on both sides of the Pacific trained squarely on her.

She is two-thirds of the way there. Gu won gold in freestyle skiing big air’s Olympic debut last week, took silver Tuesday in slopestyle and has a shot at clinching the milestone in halfpipe Friday.

Zhu Yi and Eileen Gu have had very different experiences at the 2022 Olympics, but both chose to compete for China after growing up in the United States. (Video: Joshua Carroll/The Washington Post)

Watching Gu work her way through a competition and then a gantlet of media obligations provides evidence of her relationship with pressure. The number of reporters at Gu’s post-medal news conference Tuesday was comparable to the number at the final Olympic news conference of three-time gold medalist and snowboarding legend Shaun White’s career, held in the same room last week.

White is 35, with more than a decade of practice in front of the bright lights. Gu, a little more than half his age, looked equally as comfortable.

Perhaps it was the glow of her second medal, which wasn’t a given for her in slopestyle.

The discipline, which requires riders to string together several skill sets into one clean run across a course with rails, ramps and imposing jumps, is Gu’s weakest by a slim margin, and she entered the third heat of Tuesday’s final in eighth place. After a big fall on her second run drew a loud groan from her many supporters — as many as the small, covid-19-era stands would allow — Gu mustered her strongest, surest run of the day to vault to silver with a score of 86.23.

“I was feeling a little bit tired mentally after big air,” Gu said Tuesday. “I almost felt like I wasn’t fully in it. I wasn’t in the zone. I wasn’t feeling that rush of excitement and feeling too calm, which sometimes doesn’t work out the best. I’m one of those people that needs the pressure on and glad I was able to put it down.”

Gu finished just behind Swiss gold medalist Mathilde Gremaud, with whom she also shared the podium in big air and who won with a score of 86.56 in her second run. Estonia’s Kelly Sildaru earned bronze with an 82.06 from her first run.

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

As was the case in big air, Gu needed a clutch final run to land on the podium.

“It really came down to the last run — again. I don’t know why I keep doing it to myself,” Gu said. “It doesn’t make it easy for myself. It certainly doesn’t make it easy for my coaches. My mom has a heart attack every day; it’s definitely not the easiest. But I’m happy I was able to push through and turn that pressure into fuel, and it feels so, so good. My goal coming into the Olympics was to have one gold and have one more podium in a different event. I’ve already met that goal, and [I’m] going into my strongest event next week.”

Readying for her strongest event, halfpipe, with history at stake requires a balancing act. Gu did not stop for many of the TV stations vying for interviews directly after her slopestyle medal — she did the same Monday and was instead available for interviews after her halfpipe practice later in the day — and took just three questions at her news conference.

There, she flaunted her ability to deal with a different kind of pressure.

Gu is the subject of controversy at the Games because of her decision years ago to compete for China despite being raised in San Francisco. She has faced questions at and before these Olympics about whether she surrendered her U.S. citizenship without providing a clear answer — the International Olympic Committee requires athletes to hold a passport for the country they represent, and China does not permit dual citizenship.

On Tuesday, an English-speaking reporter was granted the second of three questions Gu had time to answer. He identified himself as another Chinese American person who went to Gu’s rival high school in San Francisco and began by asking a joke about why Gu hadn’t matriculated where he went. She answered in good humor.

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

Does whiplash count as pressure? The reporter’s second question was whether Gu had made a compromise doing business in China given the government’s “official narrative on things like human rights allegations.” In addition to skiing for China, Gu has filmed commercials played constantly during the Games and earns money from Chinese sponsors.

“Here’s the thing,” Gu said. “I don’t really think of skiing as a business endeavor. I mean, I guess it’s my job, but also I do it because I love it, and I chose to ski for China because there’s this massive opportunity to spread the sport to people who haven’t even heard of it before. And honestly, I have met my goal. There are 300 million people on snow, so to even have influenced a tiny fraction of that makes me immensely proud.

“I feel as though I use my voice as much as I can in topics that are relevant and personal to myself and targeted toward people who are willing to listen to me. That being said, I’m also a teenage girl, so I do my best to make the world a better place. Yeah, I’m having fun while doing it: I’m skiing; I’m hoping to inspire young girls. So that’s my message right now.”

If Gu felt awkward or uncomfortable, there was no trace of it as she moved on to the next query, then shortly thereafter moved on to practice for her halfpipe event. She clearly thrives off the pressure of competition. She appears prepared to handle pressure from the media.

The pressure of making history is her next hurdle. Gu confronts it Friday.

What to know about the Beijing Olympics

The 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics have come to a close.

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“Olympic governance is not apolitical. It is recklessly illogical. It is not protecting athletes and competitive integrity in adherence to the convoluted standards of the World Anti-Doping Agency.” Read Jerry Brewer.

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