This year Gu is balancing skiing with school.
This year Gu is balancing skiing with school.
This year Gu is balancing skiing with school. (Photo: Dirk Bruniecki)
2022 Outsiders of the Year

Eileen Gu Soared to Olympic Greatness While Enduring the Spotlight

In a candid interview, Gu discusses her Olympic triumph, the criticism she faced for competing for China, and how she’s trying to maintain the normal life of a first-year college student

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In February, freeskier Eileen Gu became the face of the Beijing Olympics when she won three medals—two of them gold—after deciding to represent China and not the United States. Gu, 19, was born and raised in San Francisco, and her mother emigrated from China. Once a child phenom, Gu is now a first-year student at Stanford University, where she’s trying to blend in despite her celebrity status.

OUTSIDE: Take us through the challenge of trying to have a regular college experience as a famous athlete.
EILEEN GU: It’s been anything but normal. Being around people my own age has definitely not been an area I’ve been developing for the past two years. Now, I’m in an environment where pretty much everyone deserves to be here—they are brilliant—while still being a teenager or in their early twenties. I’m really excited, and I’ve been thriving. Everybody’s really friendly. The biggest challenge has been coming back to being a normal person again. If I’m walking to class, and people are asking me for photos, I’m not going to say no, so it’s definitely a bit harder to feel like a regular kid. In no way am I complaining, but my biggest goal in college is to be seen as a student, and to make friends with people who want to be friends with me for who I am and not just for what I’ve done. And that of course will come with time. I just want to make sure that the friends I choose to respect me as a fellow student and not just an athlete.

Are you able to live like a normal kid at Stanford, or do people approach you for photos?
It’s not like this is against my wishes, or a complaint. When I’m skiing or when I’m training, I don’t always feel comfortable taking photos So I’ve learned to start saying no, and in the beginning I felt kind of bad about that. Learning to set boundaries has done a lot for my mental health, and helped me preserve a sense of wellbeing, because skiing is a sacred place for me. In terms of school, yeah, sometimes I do get approached, but it feels like it’s with genuine excitement and kindness, and a lot of times compassion. So I say yes, and sometimes an interesting conversation will come out of it.

How are you balancing school with training and your own goals in freeskiing?
I am still trying to figure that out, balancing schoolwork, social life, and my priorities. Right now I’m still in my first week of actual academic classes, so I just want to see what things look like in terms of schoolwork and my social life. I’m four hours away from Lake Tahoe, I grew up in San Francisco, so I know I can do the weekend-warrior thing. I think for this year, at least, that’s what it’s shaping up to be. After that we’ll see how I feel about everything. I’ll of course continue skiing and try to find a way to balance things and prioritize correctly. But at the same time, you know, I’m 19 and I am just allowing myself space this quarter to experiment.

Freeskiing’s biggest competition is every four years at the Winter Olympics, but there is also an annual World Cup and world championships. Do you envision yourself dedicating much time to those in the near future?
Skiing is just as important and fun as it’s always been. I’m just adding another aspect of my life, which is college. And that doesn’t mean I’m taking anything away from skiing itself. I’m spending less time on snow, but when it comes to excellence, when it comes to the world championships, I’ll be just as competitive as I always am. Any contests that I enter—the World Cup, the Olympics, the world championships—I always try to do my best. So yeah, I’m going to be competing in those events. And I’m going to be holding myself to the same standards.

There’s been a growing conversation about the mental health of athletes and how tremendous success places intense pressures on competitors. How do you plan to handle that?
Skiing used to be an extension of who I was. When I was younger, I poured everything into it, and success and failure were how I perceived myself. That was tricky to maintain. On one hand, it really gave me motivation and that work ethic to give 100 percent. On the other hand, it didn’t leave a lot of room for failure, and it wasn’t the healthiest environment for resilience. Now I’ve compartmentalized all these different aspects of myself, and I feel like it’s a healthier way. This is also how I deal with the online hate I receive. If I’m getting threats or negative comments, I remind myself that these people don’t actually know me. They are creating an image in their mind, and they are teaching themselves to hate, which has nothing to do with me and my skiing. So I’m seeing skiing as a passion of mine, and something I love to do, and something that makes me a better person. But now failure, or not having the result I wanted, does not define me as a person. I think that also plays into me developing some hobbies outside of skiing. And it comes down to me creating this safe space, and only allowing things that make me feel good about myself, as opposed to things that may have an external influence on myself that I cannot control, like online media hate and the pressure that people put on me.

You received ample criticism for choosing to compete for China, instead of the United States, at the 2022 Olympics. How did you navigate that situation?
It sucked. What kind of 18-year-old has to go through that? When you are young, you’re still figuring out who you are. And when you have hundreds of messages online telling you that you’re not a worthy human being, then yes, of course that is going to get to you. Obviously, that will cause some mental problems. It also teaches you a lot of lessons that nobody should have to be taught through such brutal means. But it’s how it happened. Nobody should have to go through that. It was deeply hurtful. As much as you try, you can’t fully ignore it. As long as you see it, you are going to internalize it. So I don’t read my Instagram comments anymore. And that’s unfortunate, because a lot of them are actually really positive, and many are about things that I would love to pay attention to. But unfortunately, if I happen to encounter one negative comment, that’s going to be the one that sticks with me, even if there are ten very beautiful ones. So I will read the comments that show up at the very top, the people I follow. And honestly, just staying away from Instagram in general has been the best practice for me. Initially I thought I would read the comments and just ignore or laugh at them, but to be honest, that doesn’t work. I’d rather surround myself with positive people who like me for who I am.

In addition to the online hate, you became the center of global media for your decision. Who did you seek advice from during this period?
I’m not very good at communicating feelings like the ones I had because I’m such an internal thinker. During that time, if I was feeling a certain way, I would write my feelings down. The way I write is very analytical and somewhat scientific, and I would create this graph of causality of where my emotions were coming from, and what I could deduce about why I was feeling a certain way. Once I had some kind of comprehensive or conclusive statement, I would bring that to my mom and we would discuss it from there, almost like I was presenting her a data set. She’d look at my notes and tell me that it made sense. It’s difficult for me to communicate when I’m in the midst of a highly emotional moment, I guess. We’d talk about what concrete action plans I could put into place. I’d also speak with friends, and my manager, who would often be on the phone with the three of us. I have a healthy support network.

What advice would you give to parents who are hoping to raise children that appreciate skiing or other types of outdoor activities?
Don’t specialize too early—I cannot stress that enough. If we do lots of different types of movement when we’re younger, we can develop a range of skills. Whether it’s hand-eye coordination for ball sports, endurance for running, or physical awareness and flexibility, all of these motions add up over time. Kids should have the space to have fun and play, and to not take things too seriously or be exposed to too much pressure too soon. You want to teach them resilience, and it’s difficult to learn that when the stakes are high. For instance, right now I’m playing basketball five days a week with some college friends. None of us are basketball players, but we make it work and have a lot of fun while we’re doing it. Fundamentally, sports are a way to connect with people and enjoy this deeper human experience of working toward a goal and achieving it together, and pushing your mind and body in the process. In the process, you can develop resilience, social networks, and social capabilities. You want to develop a passion for sports first, because that will take you through the hard stuff.

How do you see yourself growing the sport of freeskiing?
Visibility is huge, and that goes beyond anything else I can do right now. I think it’s important to use my platform to bring in audiences that had previously been unaware of the sport. I am doing my best to get into places that haven’t heard of freeskiing before. This also means sometimes being vulnerable online. I do these monthly Q and A sessions where people ask me for advice for new skiers, or about resiliency, or how I started skiing. I try to be open with them. It’s important that people see the full picture of who I am right now. Down the line, I would love to have an invitational event or a summer camp. But right now, it is about being visible and accessible.