ZHANGJIAKOU, China (Reuters) -With the roar of home fans cheering her on, China’s “snow princess” Eileen Gu spun and soared to victory in the women’s freestyle skiing halfpipe final on Friday, claiming her second gold medal at the Beijing Olympics.
Gu, who has become the popular face of the Beijing Games, was in full command of the contest from the beginning, soaring above the icy pipe higher than any other skier as she nailed back-to-back 900s with advanced mid-air grabs.
With her gold medal assured after her second run score of 95.25, an exhausted and emotional Gu decided to take a final victory lap, carving the Olympic pipe for the last time as she soaked up cheers from the crowd.
“I felt like for the first time I really deserved it, and I really earned it,” the 18-year-old said.
Breaking down in tears, Gu told reporters her victory was the result of years of hard work where she juggled hours of daily training with her career as a model and student.
“It’s like letting out a deep breath,” Gu said wearing a panda hat that she changed into after the final.
“I feel exhausted, from opening ceremony to today I’ve been skiing every day so I’m really tired but I feel at peace, I feel grateful, I feel passionate and I feel proud,” she said.
Canada’s Cassie Sharpe, who won gold in the event in Pyeongchang four years ago, settled for silver on Friday with her highest score of 90.75. The 29-year-old Canadian said she was “stoked” about her podium finish after undergoing knee surgery just a year ago.
“Being able to flip around to get on the snow just under four months ago to make it to the Games and get on the podium, I am extremely proud and pretty satisfied,” she said.
The Canadian skier also acknowledged Gu’s success, saying the skier was sure to change the face of the sport.
“She is a machine, I don’t know how she does it. She competed in all three disciplines and she podiumed in all three,” Sharpe said.
Fellow Canadian Rachael Karker took bronze with her best run of 87.75.
ALL EYES ON GU
With her 5.5 million followers on China’s Twitter-like Weibo and series of luxury brand endorsements, Gu has styled herself as an ambassador for winter sports all while dodging sensitive questions about China’s human rights record.
The San Francisco-born skier, who competed in the U.S. team when she was younger but switched to compete for China in 2019, said ahead of the Games that she would aim to reach the podium at all three of her freeski events.
Gu managed just that, taking gold in Big Air and halfpipe as well as bagging silver in slopestyle.
Asked if she would defend her titles in the next Winter Games, Gu left her options open,
“I love skiing, I still would love to continue competing, but in terms of resources of time and what else I’m juggling, it just depends, right?” she answered at a crowded news conference.
Earlier on Friday, the stands at the Genting Snow Park in Zhangjiakou, normally sparsely filled due to the pandemic, were packed with fans who began chanting Gu’s name even before she dropped into the course.
A large crowd of Team China staff bundled up in white and red puffer jackets unfurled the national flag at the bottom of the halfpipe, while others waved blue placards bearing Gu’s name in Chinese.
At the top of the halfpipe before dropping into her first and second runs, Gu said she repeated a mantra to herself that she was the best freeskier in the world.
“I said I’m really grateful to be here, I can’t believe this is real,” Gu said she told herself as she looked down at the mouth of the halfpipe with a thunderous crowd below.
“I love skiing so much and I love you all.”
(Additional reporting by Krystal Hu and Muyu Xu Editing by Himani Sarkar and Jacqueline Wong)