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Olympics

Teenager Eileen Gu was born in the US, but just won Olympic gold for China. Here’s why she chose to switch countries.

Ailing Eileen Gu was born in San Francisco but is representing Team China at the 2022 Winter Games.Matt Slocum/Associated Press

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Eileen Gu was born in San Francisco, plans on attending Stanford University this fall, and learned how to ski at Lake Tahoe because her mom was an instructor.

But when Gu, 18, took the podium following the freeski big air final Tuesday morning (Monday night in Boston), she did so representing China — not the United States. In front of an extremely supportive crowd at the Shougang Industrial Park, Gu took home the gold medal, nailing the first 1620 of her career on her final run.

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Gu, also known as Ailing, decided in June 2019 to switch her nation affiliation to China. In an Instagram post at the time, she called the decision “incredibly tough.”

“I am proud of my heritage, and equally proud of my American upbringings,” Gu wrote. “The opportunity to help inspire millions of young people where my mom was born, during the 2022 Beijing Winter Games is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to help promote the sport I love.”

“Through skiing, I hope to unite people, promote common understanding, create communication, and forge friendships between nations,” Gu added. “If I can help inspire one young girl to break a boundary, my wishes will have come true.”

Gu’s mother, Gu Yan, was born in China and immigrated to the United States as a student in her 20s. Not much is known about Gu’s American-born father. Gu, who is fluent in Mandarin, resides in San Francisco with her mother and grandmother.

It’s unknown whether Gu renounced her US citizenship or completed China’s naturalization process. The International Olympic Committee requires all athletes to hold passports for the countries they represent. China does not allow dual citizenship.

Gu has not commented publicly on her status and dodged the question when asked multiple times following the race. She reiterated that she feels American when in the United States and Chinese in China.

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China has embraced Gu, dubbing her the country’s “Snow Princess.” Gu, who is also signed by IMG models, has appeared on the cover of the Chinese editions of several popular magazines, including InStyle, Elle, Cosmopolitan, and Marie Claire. She also has appeared in campaigns for brands such as Louis Vuitton and Tiffany & Co.

China was certainly behind Gu when she edged France’s Tess Ledeux for the gold. After landing her 1620, which features 4½ rotations, Gu shrieked in awe at her own performance. The run earned a score of 94.5, bringing her total to 188.25 — just 0.75 better than Ledeux.

“That was the best moment of my life,” Gu said after the win. “The happiest moment, day, whatever of my life. I just cannot believe what just happened.”

Eileen Gu celebrates with her medal during the Women's Freestyle Skiing Freeski Big Air medal ceremony.Richard Heathcote/Getty

Chinese authorities issued a congratulatory statement.

“We are glad to hear that Gu Ailing, a Beijing athlete, won a precious gold medal for the Chinese sports delegation and honored for the country with her perfect performance in the final of the women’s freestyle ski platform at the Beijing Winter Olympic Games,” wrote the Beijing Municipal Government and Chinese Communist Party Beijing Committee.

When Gu arrived in Beijing for the 2022 Winter Games, she expressed excitement about the opportunity to inspire others, especially those in her mother’s home country.

“Having been introduced to the sport [of freestyle skiing] growing up in the US, I wanted to encourage Chinese skiers the same way my American role models inspired me,” Gu wrote on social media. “I’ve always said my goal is to globally spread the sport I love to kids, especially girls, and to shift sport culture toward one motivated by passion.”

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“Now, after hearing that over 300 MILLION Chinese people have started winter sports for fun, I’m blown away by how far we have come,” she wrote, adding that she was proud “to have done my best to spread a positive and personal message, and to have reached audiences willing to listen to me.”

Gu will also compete in the women’s freeski slopestyle and halfpipe in Beijing.


Nicole Yang can be reached at nicole.yang@globe.com.Follow her on Twitter @nicolecyang.