The mark of an incredible athlete is their ability to make their craft look deceptively easy. For example, Michael Jordan appearing to defy gravity for a slam dunk, Serena Williams serving a 120-mph ace without breaking a sweat or Simone Biles effortlessly pulling off a triple-twisting double backflip. In the case of freestyle skier Eileen Gu, it’s pushing physics to the limit after landing a right-side 900 — spinning two-and-a-half rotations — 12 feet off a superpipe.
For those unfamiliar, freestyle skiing is characterized by an assortment of acrobatic flips, twists and spins, whether that be on a slopes course, a 22-foot halfpipe or off one enormous ramp. Unlike slalom or alpine skiing, Gu’s craft is not just about speed — it’s about timing, muscle memory and a fair amount of throwing caution to the wind. Considering how much confidence she exudes on the slopes, it’s no surprise that she began skiing at the age of three.
Her story begins in San Francisco, Calif. The Bay Area isn’t quite known as a ski destination, so Gu frequently endured four-hour drives to train. She first topped the United States of America Snowboard and Freeski Association’s leaderboards when she was nine, before entering senior competitions at age 13. Now, with two gold medals and a bronze from her impressive 2021 X Games debut — becoming the first woman to medal three times as a rookie — all eyes will be on her at the 2022 Winter Olympics.
Unfortunately for Americans, the U.S.-born skier won’t be sporting the stars and stripes in international competition; she’ll be representing China, her mother’s homeland. In electing to compete for China, Gu recognizes that her role as a Chinese athlete in a sport with little Asian representation has impact. Ultimately, she’s built a platform in hopes of encouraging other aspiring women of color to challenge the demographics of freestyle skiing. Chasing greatness, not just on the behalf of herself, but for an entire generation of aspiring skiers, seems like a lot to ask from any athlete — especially a 17-year-old. Gu is not just any athlete, though.
All athletes and artists exhibit a certain sense of fearlessness in their work, but there’s something particularly captivating about how Gu approaches her sequences. Even when she’s at the top of the leaderboard, she becomes bolder with every following run. She paints a picture in the sky with every soaring backflip and tail grab. Perhaps it stems from youthful ambition or an intense competitive drive, but I see it play out on her face as joy — a pure and playful love of a sport that she’s dedicated her life to. Given how much more she has to contribute to freestyle skiing, I hope she never loses that.
Just as generations of aspiring basketball players imitate Jordan’s mesmerizing offensive plays, tennis players emulate Williams’ brilliantly placed serves and young gymnasts spend hours perfecting their aerials in hopes of becoming the next Simone Biles, I’m certain that the next generation of freestyle skiers will seek to reproduce the courage that characterizes Gu’s gravity-defying runs.