ZHANGJIAKOU, China (Reuters) – Eileen Gu came into her maiden Olympics with just one goal, although a lofty one. To win a medal at each of her three freestyle events.
The San Francisco-born skier who competes for China carried on her shoulders the weight of a nation’s aspirations, as well as the hopes of her Chinese fans.
To the ecstatic fanfare of her new supporters, Gu pulled that off with relative ease. Now the 18-year-old is walking away from the Beijing Games as a household name.
Avoiding sensitive questions about her nationality and the human rights record of the host country, Gu bagged two golds in Big Air and halfpipe as well as picked up a silver medal in slopestyle.
At all three finals, Gu was the main event, dominating both the competition and the discourse afterward.
“Just all those little moments I feel like added up and it was just this great realisation that it was all worth it and that it was all real,” Gu told reporters after winning her second gold medal of the Olympics.
“The overriding emotion is just this deep-seated sense of gratitude and resolution, just like this all coming together, years and years in the making and it’s like letting out a deep breath,” she said, keeping the door open to the question of whether she will return to defend her titles in four year’s time.
Her popularity has already boosted interest in winter sports among China’s massive middle class.
China hopes that hosting the Games will springboard the country towards becoming a winter sports destination. By the time the Beijing Games opened, China announced that it was successful in getting 300 million Chinese involved in winter sports.
“I’m blown away by how far we have come,” Gu wrote in an Instagram post ahead of her events.
“I’m proud to have done my best to spread a positive and personal message, and to have reached audiences willing to listen to me,” she wrote.
Most notably, perhaps, Gu’s success at the Games made her a rare athlete who is able to bridge the divide between the United States, where she was born, and China, the country she represents as an athlete.
Switching easily between her thick Beijing accent and her California slang, Gu has attracted 5.7 million followers on China’s Twitter-like Weibo and an ever-growing list of Chinese and European brands keen to have her as a model and ambassador.
Gu, who has fielded criticism for her privilege, said the beauty of freestyle skiing was its camaraderie and the free-wheeling spirit of the sport.
“It’s not about what country you’re skiing for, it’s about our shared passion for the sport and this unique ability for this extreme sport to unite people because we’re not here to break limits for a country, we’re here to break the human limit,” the always-eloquent Gu told reporters at a news conference.
“It’s not about nationality, it’s about bringing people together. It’s about sharing culture,” she said.
(Reporting by Winni Zhou and Mari Saito; Editing by Jacqueline Wong)