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Free-Skier Eileen Gu Navigates the Road to the Winter Olympics in Beijing

13 minute read

Eileen Gu got into extreme sports because of an overprotective mother.

The older Gu hated seeing her daughter plunge down California’s Tahoe ski slopes in a furious blur, so she enrolled the 8-year-old in free-­skiing school, not knowing exactly what it entailed but confident that anything would be safer than racing. Little did she know that she would one day be watching her child perform death-­defying flips, spins and jumps instead. But that comes with the territory when your daughter is one of the sport’s top stars, with golds and podium finishes at X Games and World Cups to her name.

“I’ve probably been an adrenaline junkie from day one,” the younger Gu told TIME.

In February, that adrenaline will be taking her all the way to the Winter Olympics in Beijing. It’s where her mom was born and a place she visited regularly during childhood, her fluent Mandarin betraying the Chinese capital’s distinctive twang. These will be Gu’s first Games and, unusually, she is entered in all three free-skiing disciplines: half-pipe, big air and slopestyle. She is still just 18 years old.

Internationally, she competes for China, where she is nicknamed “Snow Princess,” and has modeled for the local editions of Elle, Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue. Professionally, she is part of the star-studded Red Bull team and in December 2021 became the first woman to land a double-cork 1440 in competition on her way to big-air gold at the World Cup in Colorado.

Commercial endorsements have flooded in for Gu, along with media attention and social media buzz; she has 173,000 Insta­gram followers. She is also academically gifted, graduating from high school a year early (despite her punishing training schedule), scoring 1580 on her SATs and getting accepted into Stanford for 2022, where she wants to explore interests as wide-­ranging as molecular genetics and ­international relations.

It’s a rapid rise that she hopes will inspire others. A speech she made to her seventh-­grade class, urging her peers to “show the boys that girls are just as powerful as they are,” was selected as the voice-over for an Adidas campaign promoting female empowerment. Gu certainly walks the talk: after fracturing a finger and tearing a ligament in her thumb, she was expected to miss last year’s world championships in Aspen. She instead chose to compete without ski poles and took home two gold medals and a bronze.

“Honestly, I’m a little nervous about getting the poles back, because I’ve gotten so used to skiing without them,” she told TIME after the event.

Naturally, you don’t soar to such heights without picking up some bruises. Speaking to TIME in two interviews last spring and summer, she revealed how her decision, at the age of 15, to switch from Team USA to Team China at the Olympics elicited savage trolling that escalated into death threats.

“My direct messages were absolutely flooded,” she recalled. “It’s hard to read through thousands of assumptions and just hateful things when you’re at such an impressionable stage of your life.”

China’s “Snow Princess” beams from a poster at an Olympics merchandise store in BeijingKevin Frayer—Getty Images

U.S.-China tensions

Support from friends, family and especially former colleagues on the U.S. Olympic Team helped Gu navigate the abuse and emerge a “stronger, better person,” she said. But tensions between the U.S. and China have only escalated since.

On Dec. 6, President Joe Biden announced a diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Olympics over human-rights abuses. The furor has thrust Gu—born to an American father and a Chinese mother—into the unenviable position of trying to walk a line between the two sides of her heritage.

Her experience offers an insight into what it means to be trapped between clashing cultures. Across the U.S., anti-Asian bigotry and attacks have reached alarming levels, stoked in no small part by former President Donald Trump’s racializing the pandemic with terms like “China virus” and “kung flu.” (During his re-election campaign, Senate Republicans even distributed a 57-page strategy document advising candidates that the best way to address COVID-19 was to “attack China.”)

Read more: ‘I Will Not Stand Silent.’ 10 Asian Americans Reflect on Racism During the Pandemic and the Need for Equality

Violence against Asian Americans gave strong impetus to the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act, which Biden signed last May, decrying “the ugly poison that has long haunted and plagued our nation.” Yet his Administration continues to be tough on Beijing, and just five days later introduced the Ensuring American Global Leadership and Engagement (EAGLE) Act, which aims to confront China in technology, trade and human rights. In September 2021, the U.S., U.K. and Australia unveiled the AUKUS security partnership, widely seen as a bid to counter China. On Nov. 24, the U.S. blacklisted a dozen Chinese firms involved in quantum computing because of possible military applications.

Two weeks later, Biden hosted a virtual Summit for Democracy, inviting more than 100 countries—but conspicuously not China. The appearance in the online gathering of several countries under far-from-­democratic leadership—Poland, Brazil, India and the Philippines—suggested that the Biden Administration’s real aim was the creation of another geopolitical counter­weight to Beijing.

The global backlash over Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai, whose freedom and autonomy are unclear after she accused a retired top Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leader of sexual abuse, has meanwhile re-­energized demands for greater overall accountability from Beijing, with the World Tennis Association banning China from the tour circuit in protest.

Read more: Why the International Olympic Committee Intervened on China’s Behalf in the Peng Shuai Controversy

Still, Gu maintained to TIME that sports offered the best hope of uniting people and nations of such radically different viewpoints.

“It’s really easy to use sport as a form of unity and communication and friendship, because everybody is working toward a common goal,” she said. “Because sport really is blind to race, gender, religion and nationality; it’s all just about pushing the human limit.”

Gold medalist Gu competes during the Women’s Freestyle Skiing Big Air Final during the Lausanne 2020 Winter Youth Olympic GamesChloe Knott—Handout/OIS/IOC/AFP/Getty Images

Politics and the Beijing Olympics

The first real test of Gu’s idealism will be the upcoming Olympics, when Beijing becomes the first city ever to host both a Winter and Summer Games.

Gu says her decision to represent China was taken to help promote winter sports in the world’s most populous nation. Since being awarded the 2022 Winter Games in 2015, China’s government has unleashed ambitious targets to get 300 million Chinese—almost a quarter of the population—onto slopes and rinks.

Authorities are subsidizing equipment hire and building sprawling new resorts. Some of these can be reached from central Beijing in just 45 minutes by high-speed rail—a flash compared with the grueling eight-hour round-trip to the slopes that Gu endured growing up in San Francisco.

Gu recalls a time when she could go skiing in China and recognize the faces of everyone around her, because so few locals had taken up the sport. “Now, there’s thousands of people [skiing], and that’s amazing. It’s a huge opportunity to spread the sport that I love and that brings me so much joy.”

But skiing for China has also required her to keep her head below the parapet when it comes to the Olympics and politics. In November 2019, just six months after Gu made her decision to compete for China, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists published the China Cables. The purported collection of official CCP documents apparently details sweeping surveillance and extrajudicial detention of Muslim minorities in China’s Xinjiang autonomous region. Since then, the controversy has deepened amid allegations of the forced sterilization of Uighur women, and the shaving and sale of their tresses to the makers of hair extensions. China strongly denies such allegations, and says it has had to take tough measures in Xinjiang to counter radical Islamism and lift a struggling, poorly educated region out of poverty. It claims the China Cables are fabricated.

Last year, a coalition of 180 rights groups called for a boycott of Beijing 2022, citing not only the Uighur issue but also eroding political freedoms in Hong Kong and Tibet. Days later, Canadian lawmakers voted unanimously to declare the treatment of the Uighurs as genocide—as the Trump Administration had already done—and urged the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to strip Beijing of the 2022 Games unless abuses cease.

Speaking at a regular press briefing just after the U.S. diplomatic boycott was announced, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said, “We simply can’t” treat the Games “as business as usual in the face of [China’s] egregious human-rights abuses and atrocities in Xinjiang.”

Following the U.S. move, the No Beijing 2022 coalition of over 250 protest groups—representing exiled Tibetans, Uighur refugees, dissident Hongkongers, Southern Mongolians, Taiwanese and members of other disaffected minorities—released a joint statement that praised the U.S. for setting “an example for other governments to follow.” On Dec. 8, Australia, Canada and Britain announced they would also not send any officials to the Games, and diplomatic boycotts are now being mulled across the Western world.

Read more: How the U.S. Boycott of the Beijing Olympics Is Splitting the World

Calls are also building for a corporate boycott. After Biden’s announcement, the chair and co-chair of the bipartisan Congressional-­Executive Commission on China called on Olympic sponsors—which include Procter & Gamble, Coca-Cola, Visa, Intel and Airbnb—not to send senior management to Beijing. “We continue to argue that a diplomatic boycott is not enough,” said Senator Jeff Merkley, an Oregon Democrat, and Representative James P. McGovern, a Massachusetts Democrat, in a statement to media. Attendance, they argued, was tantamount to “condoning genocide or crimes against humanity.”

In response, Chinese officials have accused Washington of “posturing and political manipulation,” and there is an element of truth in that. There is little doubt that, even if relations were rosy, very few diplomats, foreign politicians or CEOs would have contemplated traveling to China for the Winter Games, given the onerous travel and quarantine regulations stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic. There is also an undeniable echo in Washington’s latest decision of the Cold War boycotts of the Moscow Games in 1980 by the U.S., and of the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984 by the Soviet Union.

Unsurprisingly, Gu declined to comment when asked about these human-rights concerns. Few competitors, if any, want to see their shot at gold upended by politics. “For an athlete, the most important competition of his whole sports career is the Olympic Games,” says Zhang Dan, who won silver for China in figure skating at the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin, Italy. “It’s unfair if the athlete’s competition is affected by the political relations of the country.”

There are also question marks hanging over the effectiveness of sporting boycotts. Jules Boykoff, a professor at Pacific University in Oregon who studies the Olympics and who represented the U.S. in soccer, cites the exclusion of apartheid-­era South Africa as a successful example of forcing change, with “athletes putting their careers on the line to stand up for what they believe in.”

But for IOC president Thomas Bach, such actions achieve little by themselves. Speaking to TIME before the Tokyo Summer Games, he argued that “It was not sport alone” that helped dismantle racial segregation and oppression in South Africa. “You had an economic boycott, cultural boycott, with regard to apartheid.”

For Bach, the role of the Olympics is “first of all, about sport, and our social role is to unify and not to divide people.”

Anti-Asian bigotry

Gu hasn’t been immune to day-to-day bigotry. A trip to the Walgreens a few blocks from her home in the early days of the pandemic had to be cut short when a customer started verbally abusing the Asian American store manager, telling him to “go back to your own country” and yelling about the corona­virus.

“I was really scared that things might get violent,” says Gu, “so I grabbed my grandma and ran out of the store. That was the first time that I actually felt in danger because of a racial thing.”

In the U.S., such bigotry has a long, painful history. At the time of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, Asians were blamed for spreading leprosy, cholera and smallpox. When the bubonic plague broke out in the 1900s, Asians were quarantined in their communities, and Honolulu’s Chinatown was razed. “Today, history is repeating itself,” says Russell Jeung, professor of Asian American studies at San Francisco State University and co-founder of Stop AAPI Hate.

Read more: The Atlanta Shootings Fit Into a Long Legacy of Anti-Asian Violence in America

There is an unfair perception that Chinese Americans have split loyalties, which doesn’t help. Under President Xi Jinping, China has courted the 60 million-­strong Chinese dias­pora, blurring the distinction between huaqiao (Chinese citizens overseas) and huayi (ethnic Chinese of foreign nationality). “The great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation requires the joint efforts of Chinese sons and daughters at home and abroad,” Xi told China’s state-run news wire, Xinhua.

The fear that overseas Chinese communities will blindly heed such calls has created suspicion of China’s influence across the Anglo­sphere and elsewhere. In the U.S., distrust has been institutionalized by visa limits on Chinese researchers and students, as well as bans of popular Chinese-owned apps like TikTok and WeChat.

“Treating Asians as perpetual foreigners, as a yellow peril, got translated into racist policies,” says Jeung.

The situation has prompted Gu to take a stand against racism on social media and re-­evaluate the microaggressions she encounters on a daily basis: tropes about Asians excelling at school, not being athletic and owing their successes to overbearing Tiger Moms.

Read more: Asian Americans Are Still Caught in the Trap of the ‘Model Minority’ Stereotype. And It Creates Inequality for All

“I dismissed it for a long time, because I am a nerd,” she told TIME. “I am academically involved, and I take pride in that. But it’s destructive when it becomes limiting in the sense that you are dismissed for that role or expected to have this attribute.”

All of which only makes Gu more determined in her mission to break down barriers. Her hope is that by the time she touches down in Beijing, the world will be ready to focus on sport. Already, Chinese friends have told her there are more girls on skis in China than ever before. For Gu, that was always the dream.

“To have inspired even a little part of that,” she said, “makes it all really worthwhile.”

With reporting by Chad de Guzman / Hong Kong

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Write to Charlie Campbell at charlie.campbell@time.com