Winter Olympics: US-born Eileen Gu wins gold for China in freeski Big Air

Eileen Gu celebrates on the podium during the medals ceremony in Beijing on Feb 8, 2022. PHOTO: AFP

BEIJING (AFP) - Californian-born Eileen Gu won gold for China at the Beijing Olympics on Tuesday (Feb 8), earning victory in the inaugural women's freeski Big Air with a stunning jump she had never tried before.

After a strong opening jump, the 18-year-old saved her best for last by landing a left double cork 1620 - four and a half rotations in the air - before landing backwards.

The teenager, who switched allegiance from the United States to China in 2019, shed tears of joy after landing cleanly and realising she had pulled off the winning move.

"The tears were mostly of joy, that I had pushed myself to the absolute limit," Gu said.

"That was the best moment of my life. The happiest moment, day, whatever... of my life. I just cannot believe what just happened."

The spectacular jump saw her snatch first place from France's Tess Ledeux, 20, the Big Air freeski champion at last month's X Games in Aspen, who had to settle for silver.

Gu said she had only made the decision to attempt the difficult trick after defying the advice of her Chinese mother who called her before the jump.

"I have never done the 'left 16 before', I hadn't prepared much for it apart from two days on the air bag," Gu said.

"My mom called me before my last jump and told me not to, but I was adamant I wanted to do the 'left 16'.

"I felt it was a chance to push myself to the limit, so I made an executive call."

"It's the biggest honour, the biggest dream to win gold here today, especially in front of this crowd," said Gu.

The teenager revealed that months before competing in Beijing, she had kept a picture of an Olympic gold medal on her smart phone to help her visualise success.

"It's a monumental moment because it's the first freeski Big Air medal in Olympic history," she said.

"I hope this inspires more girls to take up freeskiing."

As Gu set off for her final run, the crowd of several hundred at the Big Air Shougang venue roared "Come on".

It was scored at 94.50, the same as Ledeux's best in the first round. That gave Gu a total score of 188.25, combining her two highest-scoring jumps, compared to 187.50 for the Frenchwoman.

"Tess has inspired me so much, I told her after that I wouldn't have attempted it (her final jump) if she hadn't pushed the sport to that level," Gu added.

"She played a critical part in my success."

A composite image of Eileen Gu doing a left double 1620 in the women's freeski Big Air on Feb 8, 2022. PHOTO: NYTIMES

At the finish zone, Gu fell to her knees as the scores flashed up, watched by International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach and he was among the first to congratulate her on her gold medal on her Olympic debut.

Gu said she would celebrate her gold with a bar of chocolate she brought from home just for the occasion, "piano practice and then write in my journal".

Gu is competing in two more events in Beijing - the freestyle halfpipe and slopestyle - so could become the first freestyle skier to win Winter Games medals in three different disciplines.

"I don't want to think about the next two events, I am a very fast-pace person, so I just want to soak it all in," she said.

Eileen Gu is competing in two more events in Beijing. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

Gu, whose father is American, will see her already huge popularity in China increase further after winning Olympic gold. She is a model and ambassador for several luxury brands, but she says the work she put in to win the gold medal happened far away from any spotlight.

"There were no cameras in the gym when I worked out after eight hours of modelling or at 4pm when I hiked up to get the last ski lift so I could try one more jump," she said.

Eileen Gu will see her already huge popularity in China increase further after winning Olympic gold. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

The level-headed teen is grateful for all the support she has received from her Chinese and American fans.

Despite her tender years, Gu says freestyle skiing has helped her mature quickly.

"It's taught me how to fall, about resilience, mental and physical toughness, it's built character and I think it's changed who I am as a person," she said.

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