EILEEN GU THRUSTS her fists into the sky, ski poles dangling from her wrists, as she skis to a stop at the base of the Dew Tour halfpipe in Copper Mountain, Colorado. Her second-run score of 96 flashes on the outdoor monitor and the small crowd gathered on this bitter December morning erupts in support. Gu leads the event by nearly three points but isn't the type to take a victory lap, so on her third and final run, she attempts a right corked 1080 -- a trick she has yet to land in competition -- and comes up a few degrees short. "I was really proud of my second run and wanted to step it up," Gu says after the contest. "I know I'll get the 10 next time."
The win is Gu's third in 13 days, in the third of five finals in four disciplines in which she will compete over a two-week span. After this morning's halfpipe win, she will rest, grab lunch and finish second in slopestyle. Twenty-four hours later, she'll take third and win "best trick" in street style, a rail-jam-style contest that requires hiking a small park.
Gu is, without debate, the most dominant woman in freeskiing, and she's one of the only athletes in the sport who's won major international titles in all three Olympic disciplines: big air, slopestyle and halfpipe. In Beijing, the 18-year-old California native is a favorite to win gold in all three. But she will do so while competing for China.
Born in San Francisco to a Chinese mother and American father and raised by her mother and maternal grandmother, Gu announced in June 2019, at age 15, that she would switch country affiliations and compete for China in the Beijing Games. "This was an incredibly tough decision for me to make," Gu wrote in an Instagram post at the time. "The opportunity to help inspire millions of young people where my mom was born, during the 2022 Beijing Olympic Winter Games is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to help to promote the sport I love. Through skiing, I hope to unite people, promote common understanding, create communication, and forge friendships between nations."
The announcement came as a surprise to many in the sport. It is rare for a top U.S. athlete to switch countries, and rarer still for a U.S. citizen to acquire a Chinese passport. Many questioned whether Gu, a high school sophomore at the time, understood the impact of her decision. She was called a traitor on social media and accused of making the choice for financial gain and allowing herself to be used as a political tool by the Chinese government.
Through her agent, Gu declined to comment for this story and has never confirmed whether she renounced her American passport. But the International Olympic Committee requires athletes to hold passports for the countries they represent, and China does not recognize dual citizenship.
Gu often says when she is "in the U.S., I'm American and when I'm in China, I'm Chinese." Now, she will drop into her first Winter Olympics at a fraught moment in U.S.-China relations and as China comes under increasing international criticism for its human rights practices. Deftly navigating her two worlds can be incredibly lucrative. But the stakes are high.
While she progresses freeskiing with innovative tricks, she must temper her fearlessness when the contests end. In China, athletes are expected to perform well and remain silent. But in the U.S., athletes are asked to have opinions on everything from vaccine mandates to media censorship to human rights. Toeing the line between those two cultures requires Gu to have as much air awareness in interviews and on social media as she does when performing her limit-pushing skills, and mistakes can be just as costly.
WHEN BEIJING FIRST hosted the Olympics, in 2008, protests erupted over China's policies in Tibet and the African nation of Sudan, where China supported a government accused of waging a genocide in its Darfur region. The protests interrupted nearly every stop of the 21-city torch relay. Even then-IOC president Jacques Rogge called on Beijing officials to respect their "moral engagement" to improve human rights in the nation. The international community believed then that the Games could usher in a new era of democracy and free speech in China.
Nearly 14 years later, China has been condemned by the U.S. government and other nations for its repressive policies in Xinjiang, Hong Kong and Tibet. In December, the Biden administration announced a diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Games over China's use of forced labor and detention camps to suppress Uyghur Muslims in the western Chinese province of Xinjiang, as well as other human rights abuses.
Calls for an outright boycott of the Games heightened after the Women's Tennis Association, which is based in Florida, suspended all tournaments in China after Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai, a three-time Olympian, disappeared from public view. She had accused a high-ranking former government official of sexual abuse on social media, which Chinese censors immediately scrubbed from the internet.
Peng's post was unprecedented in a country where celebrities keenly understand the cost of speaking out or stepping out of line. "Chinese athletes, film stars and musicians must keep silent," says Chinese human rights activist Teng Biao, a lawyer and visiting scholar at Hunter College. "They know if they criticize the party, they will lose everything. And the loss is so huge that they won't take the risk."
The Chinese government has signaled that it will also not tolerate protests from foreign athletes during the Games. In mid-January, a member of China's Olympic organizing committee warned athletes against saying anything that is "against the Olympic spirit, especially against Chinese laws and regulations," and warned that doing so could result in punishment. International human rights groups have advised athletes to remain silent while in Beijing, and to not expect the IOC to protect them if they find themselves in trouble with the Chinese government. Sport organizers in the U.S. also warned athletes who are headed to Beijing not to say anything that could be considered controversial before or during the Games.
"We can't speak out about anything important, which is really B.S.," says two-time Olympic snowboard gold medalist Jamie Anderson, who is competing in slopestyle and big air in Beijing.
For all these reasons, athletes have found themselves in a difficult situation in the lead-up to the Games. Most U.S. athletes have spent the past several months avoiding directly answering questions regarding China's human rights abuses for fear of losing sponsors or being blocked from entering the country. But a misstep by a U.S. athlete in Beijing comes with a level of protection by the U.S. consulate, which would work to get them out of the country if they were detained. As a Chinese citizen, Gu could be pulled from competition, forced to surrender her passport or be prevented from leaving the country.
"Competing as a Chinese national removes any potential diplomatic protections others might have as a foreigner in China," says Sarah Cook, research director for China at Freedom House, a D.C.-based nonprofit that conducts research and advocacy on political freedom and human rights. "If she gets into any kind of trouble, she doesn't have that protection."
Gu is also subject to the ever-changing whims of her government at an incredibly sensitive time in Beijing. Infractions that might at other times pass as small missteps could be magnified disproportionately during the Olympics. "China is not a rule of law society," Cook says. "Even if you think you are staying on the safe side of the red lines, the rules are arbitrary, and the lines are constantly moving.
"Say Eileen meets Lady Gaga," Cook adds. "And Lady Gaga was photographed meeting the Dalai Lama [six] years ago and someone decides that crosses the line. It's hard to know how far they will go in their control. It can be so arbitrary."
Self-censorship is nothing new for Chinese athletes. But because Gu has a foot in both worlds, she is subject to conflicting cultural pressures and expectations. She appeals to American and Chinese fans alike and undergoes media scrutiny in both countries. That's rare for even the most famous Chinese athletes, like Peng, who spend their careers virtually unknown in the U.S.
Gu's need to carefully control her narrative has restricted her interactions with U.S. media and limited how her sponsors promote her in the U.S. Typically, a breakout star would be introducing herself to the world in Olympic preview stories and ad campaigns. Snowboarder Chloe Kim, another Asian-American athlete who could have competed for her parents' home nation, did media in two languages in the U.S. and South Korea ahead of her first Olympics in Pyeongchang. But Gu remains conspicuously absent in major U.S. media except in beauty and fashion columns where she is not expected to answer questions about sensitive geopolitical topics.
At the Dew Tour, Gu was available to the media only briefly after her contests, and her reps requested questions be limited to her sport. In the rare instances she's faced questions about China's human rights record, she has declined to comment. Her sponsors, too, are reticent to speak on the record. Red Bull and Oakley declined to be interviewed for this story, and after The Wall Street Journal inquired about a story on Red Bull's website that mentioned Gu had indeed given up her U.S. passport, the passage disappeared from the story without explanation.
IN COPPER, GU steps down from the podium and a throng of media, competitors and fans rush toward her. Two men working event security appear at her shoulders and guide her through a gate leading away from the halfpipe. As they reach the entrance, two fans dressed in ski gear stop her and ask to take selfies. "Of course," Gu says, as she tilts her head in the direction of their iPhone cameras and smiles.
"I can't believe I met Eileen Gu," Robert Chai, 29, says to his friend as she walks away. Born in Beijing, Chai lives in Seattle and came to Copper for a ski weekend with friends who are also Chinese. When they heard Gu was competing, they made a point to wake up early and attend her contest. "I heard about her when she started to be a champion," Chai says. "She skis well and is also really pretty. She's a dream girl for guys in China now."
Gu began skiing at 3, when her mom, Yan, enrolled her for lessons at a school in Lake Tahoe. Wanting to keep her daughter safe from the high-speed crashes of downhill racing, Yan eventually signed her up for the freeski team with little understanding she would one day watch her throw tricks over 75-foot gaps. Like with most things she attempts, Gu -- who ran cross country in high school, graduated in three years and earned a near-perfect 1580 on her SAT -- showed an aptitude for freeskiing. She was a quick study, able to visualize and learn complicated tricks in the halfpipe and terrain park. Known for spinning equally well in both directions, a key to earning high scores at contests, Gu's runs include tricks no other woman has done, including a double cork 1440, which she competed for the first time in a big air contest last year.
Gu also is undeniably marketable. She speaks with equal poise and conviction in English and Mandarin, which is all the more impressive because of her flawless Beijing accent. She is one of the tallest women in the sport, at 5-foot-9, and skis with long, elegant lines. She is confident in a way that comes off more earnest than cocky, and her telegenic beauty translates even when she's competing in a helmet and goggles.
Gu competed on the U.S. rookie team for about a year before she approached her coaches in early 2019 to ask for permission to switch nations. Unlike athletes who change country affiliations in order to make the Olympics, Gu was a standout who was expected to qualify for the U.S. team. U.S. Freeski & Snowboard head coach Mike Jankowski says the coaching staff made a case to Gu and her mother for why she should stay, but they also told Gu they would never stand in her way. "We have a ton of respect for her decision and supported her 100 percent," Jankowski says. "To be able to honor her heritage in that way is really cool."
Since joining Team China, Gu's image has been ubiquitous on the walls of Chinese sporting goods stores and in subway and bus stop advertisements in Beijing. She has earned an elite roster of sponsors there, including tech giant JD.com, dairy producer China Mengniu Dairy and Anta Sports, the third-largest sporting goods retailer in the world. In spring 2021, a few months after she became the first X Games rookie to win three medals, Anta launched its "Keep Moving" campaign with a one-minute video featuring Gu. A budding model in China, Gu has also been featured in ad campaigns for Louis Vuitton and Victoria's Secret, fronted covers of Chinese editions of Vogue, Cosmopolitan and InStyle, and attended Paris Fashion week at the invitation of a Chinese brand.
Gu speaks often of her humanitarian vision of inspiring girls. But her reticence to speak out about topics like Peng's disappearance, or to acknowledge the commercial opportunities her decision has given her, has caused her peers to question her motivation.
"There's no question she's an extreme, remarkable talent and I've really enjoyed watching her progress the sport," says freeski pioneer Kristi Leskinen, who lobbied for women's freeskiing to be included in the X Games and Olympics. "But it's conflicting, and I don't envy her position. On one hand, she almost certainly wouldn't be the athlete she is today without being born, raised and trained in America. But it's equally difficult to imagine she'd have anywhere near the recognition, sponsorship deals or resources if she hadn't chosen to represent China. So, while she often cites inspiration as her motivation, for some it's hard not to see opportunism in it. Especially at a time when the WTA is suspending its events in China out of fear for a female athlete's safety."
WHEN THE IOC granted Beijing the 2022 Olympic Games in 2015, China announced an ambitious plan to build 800 ski resorts by 2022 and get 300 million people on skis. Like most Olympic host countries, China also began pouring billions of dollars into the development of winter-sport athletes with medal potential. China has earned only 13 gold medals since it began competing in the Winter Games in 1980, and in 2018 speedskater Wu Dajing won China's only gold. Gu could triple China's 2018 haul on her own.
When she arrived in Beijing in January to begin training for the Games, Gu, who also goes by her Chinese name Gu Ailing, posted a photo of her eating dumplings to her Weibo account, the Chinese equivalent of Twitter, and received thousands of comments of support within a day. For some Chinese fans, like Chai and his friends in Copper, Gu's decision to switch countries signifies a global power shift away from U.S. dominance and sparks intense national pride.
"Eileen appreciates the Chinese culture and the upbringing of her mother," Chai says. "She was born here in the States, but she chose to compete for China. That's super rewarding for us. If she wins a gold medal, she will be one of the best athletes in China, the same as Yao Ming."
For the next few weeks, Gu's every move will be monitored by the Chinese government and scrutinized by American and Chinese fans. And what she doesn't say will be heard as loudly as what she does.
"Eileen is already the biggest thing in China," says Misra Noto Torniainen, Gu's personal coach and the former coach of the Swiss freeski team. "She is super talented, but she also works every day as much as she can, whatever she does. If it's modeling, studying, skiing, she gives 100 percent. I see big things coming. She opens up new boundaries and can break into new markets."
But as the Peng situation has highlighted, a gold medal will not afford Gu the ability to speak freely even after the Games. In the fall, she plans to attend her mother's alma mater, Stanford University, where she has expressed interest in studying international relations, public policy or journalism. And while the Olympic spotlight will fade, Gu's decision to represent China will impact the rest of her life.
"It's very difficult for a 15-year-old to understand what it means to become a Chinese citizen," Teng says. "She will have to practice censorship for all of her life."