To say that Eileen Gu has had a huge year would be a serious understatement. In February, she made history at the Olympic Winter Games Beijing 2022 as the first athlete to nab medals in three different freestyle skiing events with her haul of two golds and one silver—on her debut Winter Olympics outing, no less. In May, she took to the runway for Nicolas Ghesquière‘s epic cruise 2023 show for Louis Vuitton in San Diego (Gu has also racked up campaigns and endorsement deals with Tiffany & Co. and IWC). In September, she started a new chapter of her life—as a full-time student at Stanford University, one of the most prestigious learning institutions in the world. All this, before even turning 20.
When we finally got a hold of her, Gu was in the midst of writing a 12-page essay for her midterms. Juggling—and excelling at—so many different things must take superhuman effort, but Gu isn’t fazed. In fact, she welcomes the challenge. “I’ve always been a huge proponent of balancing all the different aspects of your life. Especially for a young athlete, I think it’s so important to stay in a full-time regular school, instead of home-schooling or attending a specialised athletic school, because the benefits you get from being in a classroom environment with peers your own age is so meaningful in those formative years. At a place like Stanford, where everybody is so interesting and brilliant, being able to have those experiences is really enriching. You get that diversity of opinion and people seeing you as a peer instead of whatever else you have going on outside of school. That gives me a lot of great perspective about myself and the world,” she says.
For someone who’s only 19, Gu has experienced her fair share of what the world has to offer: The highs, of course, when everybody wants to revel in your victories, but also the lows, when public sentiments shift. Back in June, she announced her ambassadorship for the United States bid to host the 2030 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, Utah—once again sparking off heated scrutiny and conversation over her nationality. It’s a conversation Gu refuses to partake in. Gu was born in the States to an American father and a Chinese mother; before signing her name onto the US 2030 bid, her Winter Olympics glory earlier this year was scored for Team China. She did gamely try to answer when asked about how she reconciles her Chinese-American identity but her mother, Yan Gu, swiftly jumped in to shut it down. “Eileen, you don’t have to answer the question. Let’s move on,” says a faceless voice on the Zoom call.
It’s never easy to be in the intense glare of the public eye. It can be especially tough for someone who’s only just beginning to navigate the world and one’s own selfhood. Gu has 1.6 million followers on Instagram and more than 6 million on Weibo. The noise can be deafening. But Gu is both learning how to deal with it and learning from it. “Navigating the negative comments online has given me a lot of perspective—on what confidence is; what sources I want to base my self-esteem on. That said, I definitely struggled with it a lot because it is not a normal thing for an 15-year-old to have to deal with. And the fact that I had to experience that on such a huge scale was devastating. Cyber-bullying is never okay. But I would say that I learnt a lot from it. It makes you grow up fast, makes you very aware of your words and actions; it has taught me about the responsibility that I have to be kind to others, to inform others that they are not alone, and to use my voice for a positive cause.”
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Gu consistently chooses to focus on the positive instead of getting mired in the negative. “I try to connect with the people who actually care about me and know me. That’s another thing I learnt: A lot of people will decide to have their own judgements about you as a reflection of their own beliefs; you are this canvas on which they can project their own predisposed biases. It’s really easy to focus on the one negative comment even if there’re 100 positive comments. But I’ve learnt that it’s important to focus on the things you can control, and on reaching the people who are willing to listen to you, and to share in your passion and joy. It’s more important to me to introduce a young girl to the sport, or be the reason they hear about freeskiing, instead of arguing with an old man online.”
The strength of Gu’s character is a testament to her upbringing by two strong, independent women. “I’ve always really looked up to my mum and my grandma. They are both incredibly empowered, in that they have never felt like there was anything they couldn’t do because of their gender, race, or whatever limitations that could be imposed. That mentality has really carried over to me, along with, I guess, a zest for life from my grandma, and a pragmatic approach to it from my mum. In that sense, what I got from them was a mixture of being able to dream big, and having the toolbox and the work ethic to actually make it happen.”
As much as Gu is making those dreams come true, moments of self-doubt do creep in—as is only natural for anybody operating on a level as intense as extreme sports. “It’s normal for anybody to have self-doubt, to question yourself when things are hard. But at the end of the day, you control your mind. I think self-talk is really important—the way that you address your own challenges, and even just internally, how you speak to yourself and the words that you use. It really impacts your capacity to deal with problems. For the most part, I try to focus on the end goal—on getting there and enjoying the process. I always say this to myself before my 1620 [a highly complicated four-and-a-half-rotation trick]: It’s a lot worse to not try than to not land. When you have doubt, at least try because you’ll feel a lot worse if you don’t.”
That fierce sense of determination also manifests in the way Gu has her eye on the prize—and we’re not talking medals. Gu’s aims are much bigger and higher. “The impact that I’m able to see in terms of encouraging girls to start freeskiing—and the speed at which freeskiing culture and sports culture itself has proliferated across China and across the world—I hope that I played even a small part in that. Since I was 14 or 15, that has been my goal. To see it happen on a large scale after the Olympics has been incredibly fulfilling: Hearing about how popular freeskiing has become; reading the messages saying I introduced girls to freeskiing; or how hearing about me doing all these different things—school, fashion, skiing—has inspired people to be more multifaceted, to try different passions, and to fit life to their own mould as opposed to them fitting into a societal standard.”
Photographed by Stef Galea
Styled by Christopher Maul
Makeup: Martina Lattanzi
Hair: Tommy Taylor/Stella Creative Artists
Manicure: Nickie Rhodes-Hill/David Artists
Photographer’s assistants: Guillaume Mercier; Millie Noble; Adam Richardson
Stylist’s assistant: Lauren Heaver
Shot on location at The Savoy, London