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How Eileen Gu’s First Gold Medal Became the Biggest Moment of the Beijing Olympics

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Updated: | Originally published:

Eileen Gu’s Olympic final debut was alway going to be huge. The American-born free skier is China’s most high-profile athlete at the Beijing Olympics, and her face is on advertising campaigns and magazine covers in both countries.

But the way Gu won her first gold medal on Tuesday—on her final run, in front of a VIP crowd and fans on both sides of the Pacific watching live—cemented her place as one of the biggest stars of the 2022 Winter Games. And she did it by landing a spectacular trick she’d never pulled off in competition before.

Gu, who is known in China as Gu Ailing, was in third place after two solid jumps—guaranteed at least a bronze medal. But then, she pulled off a 1620—four and a half full rotations. It was enough to put her in first place. The remaining skiers ahead of her, Mathilde Gremaud of Switzerland and Tess Ledeux of France, tried to best her trick, but could not. They took home bronze and silver, respectively.

Following her third run, Gu screamed with joy. “Oh my god! I’m not crying. I’m definitely not crying,” she exclaimed in English. As her score, 94.50, was announced, she fell to her knees.

Eileen Gu Gold Medal
China's Eileen Gu competes in the freestyle skiing women's freeski big air final run during the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympic Games at the Big Air Shougang in Beijing on Feb. 8, 2022.Manan Vatsyayana–AFP/Getty Images

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

Gu, 18, was born in San Francisco to an American father and a Chinese mother. After a few seasons of competing for the U.S. at major events, she announced in 2019 that she would switch national affiliations and compete for China in 2022. In China, she has earned the nickname “Snow Princess.”

She has featured on posters and promotional videos for the Games in China. She is also signed to IMG Models, and has been the face of ads for Louis Vuitton and Tiffany & Co. But she continues to bridge the U.S.-China divide, living in the U.S., where she has been accepted into Stanford University.

Gu’s performance Tuesday was the biggest moment so far at a Games that has been largely dictated by China’s tight COVID-19 protocols and subdued compared to the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics. These Olympics have also been marked by a diplomatic boycott from the U.S. and allies and widespread criticism in the West over China’s human rights record.

Giving another layer of significance to the moment was the crowd. First, the fact that there was one at all. Officials have limited attendance to just 150,000 spectators for the entire Olympics due to COVID-19. And second, who was in attendance. International Olympic Committee (IOC) president Thomas Bach was among the first to congratulate Gu.

Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai was also spotted—one day after the publication of a tightly controlled interview in which she said international attention on her an “enormous misunderstanding.” Peng’s repeated denials have failed to answer questions about her November social media post in which she said a former high-ranking Chinese official coerced her into sex.

Freestyle Skiing - Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics Day 4
Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai looks on during the Women's Freestyle Skiing Freeski Big Air Final on Day 4 of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympic Games at Big Air Shougang on Feb. 8, 2022 in Beijing.Richard Heathcote–Getty Images

READ MORE: China Is Trying to Make the Tennis Star Peng Shuai’s #MeToo Allegation Disappear. It’s Not Working

Chinese social media lit up with support for Gu during and after her competition—dominating six of the 10 trending topics on the Chinese microblogging site Weibo. “Ahhhhh I’m going crazy! Princess is so good,” wrote one user.

“I thought the media turning her into a god would give her too much pressure, but she withstood it!” wrote another. “She is the pride of Chinese girls!” another fan wrote.

Gu also trended on U.S. social media sites. While many comments praised her, some criticized her for choosing to compete for China, instead of Team USA.

The big air gold is the first of three medals she is competing for in Beijing. Gu will also compete in the women’s slopestyle and halfpipe events.

–With reporting by Aria Chen / Hong Kong.

Correction, Feb. 8

The original version of this story misstated Peng Shuai’s family name in one instance. It is Peng, not Shaui.

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Write to Amy Gunia at amy.gunia@time.com