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Grade-A Gu schools the competition

By SUN XIAOCHEN | China Daily | Updated: 2023-12-11 07:40
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Beijing 2022 Olympic champion Gu Ailing, also known as Eileen Gu, performs en route to victory at the FIS women's freeski halfpipe World Cup at Genting Snow Park in Chongli, Hebei province, on Saturday. FU TIAN/CHINA NEWS SERVICE

Superstar skier soars to more World Cup glory — and still finds time to fit in Stanford studies

Gu Ailing showed why she's one of a kind last weekend as she stormed to World Cup glory despite nursing an injury and studying for exams at school.

The superstar again proved that, at the age of 20, she can successfully juggle her full-time roles as an elite skier, a college student and a fashion model — even when facing unexpected challenges.

After skipping the FIS World Cup circuit for 11 months to focus on her studies at Stanford University, Gu made a strong return to the slopes by winning the halfpipe title at the series' China leg on Saturday at Genting Resort in Zhangjiakou, Hebei province — the venue where she won halfpipe Olympic gold, to add to her Big Air title, at Beijing 2022.

With a thesis deadline and exams looming at Stanford, she landed her latest piece of silverware after cramming in a 12-hour study session in her hotel room.

The next morning the sophomore put her skiing suit back on and conquered the Olympic pipe as dominantly as she did at Beijing 2022, riding through pain in her right shoulder caused by a fall in training last month.

Amid rousing cheers from an adoring crowd, Gu treated the home fans to a smooth first run that scored 90.25 points to place her first among eight finalists.

Even though the shoulder injury was hampering her takeoff, spins and landing, there was no letup from Gu in her second attempt. Starting with her signature right 900 buick grab, she connected with a right 720 opposite tail, launched into a switch left 360 Japan followed by a left alley-oop flatspin 540 mute. She then finished in style with the right side version of the same trick with a safety grab to score 94.25 points and seal victory with one attempt to spare.

The near-flawless run clinched Gu her 11th World Cup title with the biggest winning margin of her career to date — a full 12 points ahead of runner-up Hanna Faulhaber of the United States.

Completing the podium in third place was Canada's Amy Fraser, who took bronze with 79.25 points from her third run.

Gu was all smiles after the final, stoked by landing her most difficult tricks without compromising on quality and style.

"Even though I am not 100 percent physically, I have confidence in myself and I really wanted to treat all the supporters here to a dazzling show. So I didn't hold back and stepped it up to perform for the fans," said Gu, whose celebrity status transcends freestyle skiing in a way the sport has never witnessed before.

"To return to Genting and compete here again less than two years after the Olympics, it feels like coming home. It was a new challenge, but without competing for over 11 months. I am so glad I pulled it off and paid back the fans' support with the best performance I could," added Gu.

Global icon

Born in California and developed in the US during her junior years, Gu, who is known as Eileen internationally, took her passion for freestyle skiing to the biggest stage by winning a pair of golds at Beijing 2022 representing her mother Gu Yan's native country.

Her global fan base has snowballed ever since, with each of her appearances on the slopes and on fashion's runways drawing the international spotlight.

Her decision to represent China, rather than her birth country, before the Beijing Winter Games sparked some online hate on social media in the US, yet Gu always approaches these challenges with a positive mindset.

Prior to this year's Winter X Games in January, Gu sustained a knee injury that cut short her 2022-23 season right after she won back-to-back halfpipe World Cup titles in Calgary, Canada.

She made good use of the hiatus from competition, spending the next 10 months flying around the world for fashion weeks, magazine shoots — including the cover of Vogue Beauty China — and marketing campaigns. She even walked the famous staircase at the Met Gala in New York, yet still never neglected her rehabilitation and quantum physics studies at Stanford.

Among all her roles, Gu said inspiring young people, especially girls, to give winter sports a try is her most rewarding one.

"I hope to encourage young people to try to do their best, not necessarily having to become a pro athlete like I am. As long as they keep pursuing their own passion I will be their most loyal supporter," said Gu, who was recently named a global ambassador for the 2024 Winter Youth Olympic Games in Gangwon, South Korea.

"Eileen is an exceptional athlete and an inspiring figure for young people everywhere," International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach said in a statement following Gu's appointment.

"Her role as a global ambassador for the Winter YOG Gangwon 2024 will undoubtedly have a profound impact on aspiring young athletes and will help to further spread the Olympic spirit around the world."

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