ZHANGJIAKOU, China — Eileen Gu has a way of attracting attention, and a growing habit of creating dramatic effect.
Gu, the 18-year-old freestyle skier from California who is competing for China, arrived at the slopestyle course on Tuesday, looking for a second gold medal at these Winter Games.
Fans braved subzero temperatures to root her on, waving small flags and oohing with every one of her tricks. Cameras and heads were aimed in her direction constantly. Commotion followed her around the slope.
Just as she did a week earlier when she won big air in stirring, come-from-behind fashion, Gu had a chance to win it in the end. Just as she did then, she handled the pressure and landed a big score.
This time, though, Gu fell just short of the gold medal. She could not quite match the top score of Mathilde Gremaud of Switzerland, leaving Gu with a silver medal that did not seem to dent her enthusiasm or the spirits of those she has charmed.
“It really came down to the last run — again,” Gu said, chewing on a steamed bun. “I don’t know why I keep doing that to myself.”
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She joked that it was especially stressful for her mother, Yan Gu, who was raised in Beijing and migrated to the United States about 30 years ago. Eileen Gu was born and raised in California and announced in 2019 that she would compete for China rather than the United States.
“I’m happy I was able to push through and turn that pressure into fuel, and it feels so, so good,” Gu said. “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 going into my strongest event.”
She rushed through interviews because she was late to practice for that event, the halfpipe. Qualifications are scheduled for Thursday, and Gu is a favorite to win.
Gremaud’s victory over Gu and a deep field on the slopestyle course felt like a surprise, even to her, but it should not have. She won the Olympic silver medal in 2018, but had been overshadowed this past season by Gu and Gu’s biggest rival, Kelly Sildaru of Estonia. Sildaru earned the bronze on Tuesday.
Gremaud scored 86.56 on her second of three runs, in a competition where only the best score matters. She then watched Gu, Sildaru and others get two chances to beat it. No one did.
“I definitely did not expect that,” Gremaud said. “But it’s a great feeling now.”
Eleven freeskiing finalists took turns trying to navigate the slopestyle course, which has proved itself a formidable foe during these Winter Games.
The series of rails and obstacles followed by three sets of big jumps, all built in snow in a manner to evoke the Great Wall, has both dazzled and befuddled some of the best skiers and snowboarders.
Gu landed a middling run the first time, then fell off the third rail on her second attempt. When she took her final turn, she was in eighth. She stood at the top of the course, took a series of slow, deep breaths, then plunged her hopes, and those of China, down the hill.
She hit trick after trick, including a double cork 1080 off her middle jump, reaching the finish upright and with a smile. Fans rattled the plastic clappers they had been handed — generally obeying pandemic-era instructions not to open their masked-covered mouths to cheer — and watched her every move. Phones and cameras were pointed her way.
In Gu’s growing shadow, Maggie Voisin of the United States had hoped to quietly reach the podium. Still only 23, Voisin was making her third Olympic appearance. In 2014, at 15, she was at the Games in Sochi, Russia, but broke a leg in training before her competition. At the 2018 Games, she finished fourth. She arrived in China hungry for a medal, having been through a pair of debilitating knee injuries and the suicide of her brother.
Voisin wore his Army dog tag under her uniform and a smile on her face after finishing fifth.
“I’m still really, really proud of myself and what I was able to accomplish here — a fifth place among all these incredible women is a really great result,” Voisin said. “I knew that it was going to be tough to crack the top three, that’s for sure.”
She was quick to compliment Gu, who spent a couple of years with the U.S. national team before announcing, in 2019, that she would compete for China, in part to help build the country’s winter-sports market.
“That girl deserves it all,” Voisin said. “I’ve never met anyone that works as hard as she does. She’s so dedicated, so determined. I’m really, really happy for her.”
Gu is an emerging global star and has been ubiquitous on Chinese television during these Olympics. Known in China as Gu Ailing, her face seems to be everywhere. In the past year, she also has become a model for Tiffany & Company, Louis Vuitton and other high-end retailers.
In the past month or so, and mostly in the past week since she won big air, the number of Gu’s Instagram followers — mostly in the West, rarely seen in China — has grown sixfold, to 1.1 million. She has far more followers on Weibo, a Chinese site akin to Twitter, where she posts more often. On Tuesday morning, her account was approaching five million followers, nearly five times as many as she had at the start of the year.
Her decision to compete for China has raised questions both there and in the United States. China does not allow dual citizenship, and Gu has dodged questions about whether she has surrendered her U.S. passport.
After winning a silver medal on Tuesday, Gu was asked if she felt she had to compromise to do business in China. As she did a week before, she cheerfully swiped away the root of the pointed question, continuing to soar over politics and controversy.
She said that she did not consider “skiing as a business endeavor,” though she has a bevy of endorsements in China alone.
“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,” she said. “I’m also a teenage girl, so I do my best to make the world a better place. And yeah, I’m having fun while doing it.”
China is along for the ride. The love affair would only deepen with one more medal — especially another gold one.