Winter Olympics 2022: Eileen Gu blunder rocks China after defection from America

The teenage pin-up girl of the Beijing Games was rocked by an early blunder as she felt the weight of expectation from 1.4 billion people.

American-born Chinese freestyle skier Eileen Gu, one of the faces of the Beijing Winter Olympics, fluffed her second run but withstood the pressure of that early bungle to reach the final of the freeski Big Air on Monday.

The 18-year-old, who has captivated China since switching allegiance from the United States in 2019, saw one of her skis fall off as she came down in a tangle on her second run.

She briefly put her hands on her head, then scowled good-naturedly when her low score of 24.50 came through, followed by a shrug and a smile.

But it did not matter in the end, with 89.00 in her first run and 72.25 in her third and final effort enough to get her into Tuesday’s final in fifth place — and a chance of Games gold on her Olympic debut.

“Oh my god!” exclaimed a relieved Gu, after holding her nerve to nail her third run at the Big Air Shougang, where enormous industrial cooling towers provide a stunning backdrop. To cheers from the sparse crowd, she made a heart shape with her arms.

Megan Oldham of Canada topped the qualifying rankings.

Gu, who has a Chinese mother and American father, has earned a huge following in China and expectations of the teenager are sky-high. She could walk away with three Olympic medals.

As well as Big Air, she is competing in the freestyle halfpipe and slopestyle. Gu admitted that she could feel the weight of 1.4 billion Chinese people desperate for her to win gold for the hosts.

“I know there are people watching me, it’s a pressure on me,” she said. “I’m happy to be able to perform under pressure and it speaks a lot to the amount of mental training I’ve been doing.”

Gu said that the wind “switched” between her first and second runs, so “my coach made an adjustment so it didn’t happen in the third run”.

She added: “Tomorrow is the big show and hopefully I can put on a big show for everyone.” The grade-A student, who is known in China as Gu Ailing, has been feted in China since making the decision to represent the country of her mother’s birth.

It is a loss for the US but a big win for the Olympic hosts and Gu underlined why with an explosive debut last year at the 2021 X Games, where she won two golds — a first for a woman rookie at the event.

A fluent Mandarin speaker with a distinct Beijing accent, Chinese state media has quickly latched onto its newfound star, eagerly covering her public appearances and numerous commercial deals.

Gu is represented by modelling agency IMG, is one of the faces of Victoria’s Secret and has graced the cover of iconic fashion magazine Vogue.

She wants to inspire a generation of Chinese women freestyle skiers and more than that, be a role model in other ways, even though she is only a teenager herself.

“It’s a lot, but you’re never too young to make change. I don’t really believe in the concept that you have to wait until you’re older to be able to have some kind of global impact,” she said.

Originally published as ‘OMG’: Rocky start after American star defects to become China’s poster girl

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