The woman behind Team Eileen Gu

Many of Eileen Gu's career decisions stemmed from her mother Ms Gu Yan (left). PHOTO: EILEEN GU/INSTAGRAM

BEIJING - Still dressed in her black ski jumpsuit with gold dragon motifs, her dark hair pulled into a bun with two blonde streaks framing her face, newly minted Big Air gold medallist Eileen Gu was polished and media savvy at her first post-event press conference of the Winter Olympics.

Faced with a room of international journalists, the 19-year-old held court like a seasoned professional, offering her thoughts on a range of questions, including six different attempts to find out what her nationality actually is.

Her eloquent answers, while a stark contrast to her Chinese team mates' scripted replies, did not happen by chance.

Many of her career choices - from specialising in freestyle skiing to her surprise move to represent China in the Games - stemmed from her mother Gu Yan.

The 58-year-old single mother, who is also an avid skier, is her daughter's bodyguard, manager and biggest cheerleader all in one.

Never far from the effervescent teenager, the proud mother posted videos on her YouTube account showing off her daughter's talents. There are videos of her best competition runs, piano playing, and tellingly, a school speech from 2015.

Gu Yan, Eileen's 58-year-old mother, is also an avid skier. PHOTO: NYTIMES

Speaking eloquently to her schoolmates in America about the disparity between men and women in sports, an 11-year-old Eileen warned of the bumpy road ahead that is life.

"My experiences have made me more tenacious, and taught me to meet my setbacks in life with open arms... however, there is no way I could have done it without my supportive mother always behind me," she said.

Four years later in 2019, when the teenager switched teams to represent China, the US ski federation called it a "tough decision for us", saying "we spoke at length with Eileen, her mom and her coaches".

But who exactly is Gu Yan?

She was born in Shanghai to two government engineers: her mother worked at the Ministry of Transport while her father was the chief electrical engineer of the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development.

Ms Gu was a biology graduate from China's prestigious Peking University.

At 22, she left for the United States to pursue a master's degree in molecular biology at Auburn University in Alabama. She also earned an MBA from Stanford University, said a 1998 Chinese magazine article titled From Wall Street To China.

She built a successful career in finance as a venture capitalist specialising in China. In 1997, she founded a company which was aimed at building a Silicon Valley for China but public records show that Oriental Weibo International Information Technology has folded.

She started several new businesses including DreamComeGu in 2019. According to her LinkedIn profile, she owned the company as a "private investor and expert in China investment".

As a mother, Ms Gu has refused to speak on the record about her daughter unless she is allowed to review the article before it is published.

Eileen Gu endorses both Chinese and international brands. PHOTO: AFP

Her daughter's American agent Tom Yaps told The Economist newspaper that the mother was being extra cautious because of political sensitivities. "One thing and a career is ruined," he said.

And Ms Gu knows the value of her daughter's career - it is possibly her biggest investment to date.

The teenager's face is all over the streets of Beijing, endorsing brands both local - such as coffee chain Luckin and e-commerce platform JD.com - and international - like Tiffany & Co and Louis Vuitton.

Chinese sports industry website SportsMoney.cn put the total value of her endorsements at around 220 million yuan (S$46.6 million). 

It is believed that her mother, through her Chinese connections, arranged for Gu to be in a rare meeting of winter sports athletes with Chinese President Xi Jinping in 2019.

The teenager is not mentioned by name in photographs of the event, which are still on state media websites. The images show the skier in a Team China jacket, standing in the front row as the president addresses the crowd.

Weeks later, she announced her decision to represent China.

But the skier is keen to frame the decision as one about culture and sentimentality, and about promoting the sport, preferring to leave geopolitical tensions out of it.

Eileen Gu with her mother, within the Olympic bubble in Beijing. PHOTO: EILEEN GU/WEIBO

While questions about her nationality, her mysterious father and the reasons behind her decision continue to swirl, what is clear is that the teenager has inherited her mother's tenacity and savvy.

Hugely popular on both Chinese social media platform Weibo and Instagram, Gu has an intrinsic understanding of the different approaches needed on both platforms.

On Instagram, where she recently crossed one million followers, she is a cool freestyle skier who also models, posting pictures of her photoshoots and ski runs.

But on the Chinese Internet, she is passionate about her mother's homeland, cooks with her grandmother and speaks fluent Mandarin. She has 4.5 million fans on Weibo alone.

At Tuesday's (Feb 8) post-event press conference, Gu spoke of her mother's support and how she spends "25 to 30 per cent of every year in China".

"I'm fluent in Mandarin and English, I'm fluent culturally in both. I have family coming from Beijing, my mom grew up in Beijing," she said.

Talking about food her Chinese grandmother makes, she said taking part in the Beijing Olympics gives her a sense of "coming home".

Eileen Gu performing in the Women's Freestyle Skiing Big Air final on Feb 8, 2022. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

Pressed repeatedly about her nationality, she turned to an oft-repeated phrase about feeling Chinese in China and American in the US. But with an added twist this time.

"No matter what I say, if people don't have a good heart, they won't believe me, because they can't empathise with people who do have a good heart," she said as her mother looked on.

"So in that sense, I feel as though it's a lot easier to block out the hate now. And also, they're never going to know what it feels like to win an Olympic gold medal."

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