If you watched even just a tiny bit of NBC’s programming of the 2022 Winter Olympics, you would have seen the network fawn over Freestyle Skier Eileen Gu who was born and grew up in the United States, but represents China. Eileen was the perfect star for the 2022 Olympics. Due to her background, she appealed to fans in both China and the United States. But most importantly, Eileen Gu was a proven winner.
Eileen may have won two Olympic gold medals at the 2022 Winter Olympics and was one of the most widely promoted athletes amongst the media during Beijing-2022. But despite that, I’m of the belief that Eileen Gu is incredibly underrated. Despite how crazy it sounds to describe a 2x Olympic gold medalist who is now a household name as “underrated,” I’m of the belief that even Olympic superstars can still fall victim to having the significance of what they accomplished go largely unrealized to the general public at large.
In this article I’m going to talk about how Eileen Gu’s performance in 2022 was far better than the results actually suggest.
She competed in three events
Freestyle Skiing technically has six events in the Olympics, but the sport is far easier to understand if you treat three of those events (Big Air, Slopestyle, and Halfpipe) as a separate breakaway sport. I personally prefer calling them the “2nd generation” events. These events are different from the rest of freestyle skiing in that they are relatively new to the Olympic movement having been added to the program from 2014-2022. They also have a different origin having been created due to the direct influence of snowboarding events and the X-Games. The older or “historical” Freestyle Skiing events emerged from within the International Ski Federation and its World Championships.
But what makes the 2nd generation events most unique is that they do not utilize a clock. Before their introduction in 2014, every existing freestyle skiing event had a racing component to it where athletes were not only trying to perform difficult skills to impress the judges, but skiing down the course as fast as possible to further increase their point total with a low time.
The 2nd generation freestyle skiing events are more like gymnastics where the objective is purely on the acrobatic stunts being performed in the air. But the single biggest reason 2nd generation freestyle skiing should be thought of as its own separate spinoff is how interchangeable these three events are. Big Air, Slopestyle, and Halfpipe have achieved a degree of overlap with each other as these events often attract the same athletes. Something that is unheard of in the traditional Freestyle Skiing events.
While it would be accurate to say athletes do try their hand at more than one event in the 2nd-generation events, it only occurs in limited circumstances. For example, Big Air and Slopestyle often have nearly identical start lists, but most participants in halfpipe rarely add a second event to their program. And no one, if ever, is crazy enough to compete in all three events at once.
To compete in three different events (Big Air, Slopestyle, and Halfpipe) requires dividing your limited training time across three different events, as well as taking on a significant physical load that requires extra endurance. This would be a formidable task even in gymnastics, but if a gymnast wants to try bars, beam, and floor, all she has to do is train inside a gym where every piece of equipment is no further than 30 second walk away.
Big Air, Slopestyle, and Halfpipe requires three separate structures that only the most elite training locations in the world provide access to all three types of facilities in one setting. And unless they are serviced by the exact same chairlift, it is not the same convivence as a gymnast who is training bars and beam. And remember, this is a winter sport where the facilities are only available during the Winter months of the year.
In the entire women’s competition, only one other athlete was crazy enough to try competing in all three events alongside Eileen Gu. The athlete in question was the remarkable Kelly Sildaru who I once described “the most talented athlete in the entire 2022 Games.” The reason being, her junior career was legendary and Kelly was a child prodigy from the age of seven. Sildaru’s ability to appear in all three events was an indication of her immense talent, and Eileen being the only other athlete to join her is why I hold the duo in high regard.
I expected both Kelly and Eileen to dominate the 2022 Olympics, but I didn’t expect their “rivalry” to be so lopsided. Both athletes competed in all three events, but the results were as followed.
Not only was it virtually unheard of for an athlete to compete in all three events, but Eileen merely qualifying to the finals in all three events was an absurd accomplishment in itself. Not one competitor in the field appeared in the finals of all three events. Eileen Gu was already operating at a standard that no one had yet achieved, and then she raised those standards even higher by winning a medal in each of the three events.
She almost swept the gold medals
Eileen Gu went gold-silver-gold in her three events. But her silver medal was nearly a gold medal. Eileen Gu lost the gold medal in Slopestyle by only 0.33 points. To put that in perspective, the gap between silver and bronze was 2.83 points while the gap between bronze and 4th place was 6.55 points. All that was standing in the way between Eileen Gu and a total sweep in her category of events was one of the closet margin of defeats in the entire 2022 Games.
Not only had Eileen Gu narrowly lost the Slopestyle event, but it was arguably the most competitive and star-studded podium in the entire history of the sport. Across all six events in women’s freestyle skiing, there are only three instances of an athlete who is a 3x Olympic medalist. One of them was Eileen Gu who took silver in Slopestyle. Another was Mathilde Gremaud, the athlete who narrowly edged her out for the gold medal.
And then there was Kelly Sildaru, who won a bronze in Slopestyle and finished in 4th place in another of her events. Sildaru’s stat line may not look impressive by gymnastics standards, but by Freestyle Skiing standards it was historic.
In the entire history of freestyle skiing, from its Olympic debut to the most recent Games, in every single event regardless of the “traditional” vs “2nd-generation” events distinction, when looking at both the men’s and women’s results, there are only three examples in Freestyle Skiing of an athlete finishing 4th or better in two different Olympic events.
The three athletes in question were the same three athletes who finished 1st, 2nd, and 3rd in 2022 Women’s Slopestyle.
This statistic measures career accomplishment, as in, no other athlete besides these three even recorded a top-4 finish in Event-A and came back four years later and produced a similar result in Event-B. Mathilde Gremaud, Kelly Sildaru and Eileen Gu each accomplished it in only a single Olympics. Eileen Gu effectively did it twice-over with her three-medal performance. Mathilde Gremaud and Eileen Gu are the only Freestyle Skiers to ever win multiple medals in a single Olympics, male or female.
In other words, the only way to beat Eileen Gu in 2022 was to pit her against the toughest opposition in the history of the sport, and even then, it still required Eileen Gu losing the gold medal by only the narrowest of margins.
She performs with ice in her veins
Many of the all-time greats in sports history are highly regarded for performing well under pressure. Eileen Gu took this to the extremes. Elieen Gu performed on three events at the 2022 Olympics and during two of them, she delivered an amazing “come from behind” finish.
It started during her first event, “Big Air.” Entering her final run Eileen Gu was in 3rd place. It was her very last chance to win a gold medal and if Eileen Gu failed on this run, that would be it. But Eileen Gu’s performance was anything but. On her final run with a gold medal not yet secured, Eileen Gu produced one of the highest scores of the night and propelled herself from 3rd to 1st place.
Then in her second event, “Slopestyle” Eileen Gu found herself in the exact same scenario. Entering her final run Eileen was in 8th place, seemingly out of medal contention and if she failed on this last attempt, Gu would walk away without a medal. Once again, when the pressure and stakes were at its most intense, Eileen produced one of the highest scores of the night and propelled herself from 8th to 2nd.
When it was time to compete in her final event “Halfpipe” there was no chance of Eileen having to perform another come from behind finish. This has traditionally been Gu’s most dominant event and she wiped the floor with the opposition at the 2022 Olympics. The halfpipe would be a 2-round event and in her first run (round), Eileen produced the highest score of anyone in the field. As the top qualifier Eileen Gu would be performing last.
Even after every other competitor took their two runs, no one had surpassed Eileen Gu’s top score from the opening round. By this point, Eileen Gu was the mathematical winner of the event and had achieved the highest score in the entire competition. Despite this, Eileen Gu performed her final run knowing the gold medal was already won.
Gu then produced an even higher score than before.
Eileen Gu exceeded her previous point total with an even higher score on what was effectively a victory lap. Performing such a run was completely unnecessary. But Eileen Gu did it for no reason other than self-amusement and adding to her own legacy. In the three events Eileen Gu medaled in, on all three occasions her highest score of the day came in her very last run.
The medal sweep in the three 2nd-generation events not only legitimatized Eileen Gu as the top Freestyle Skier of 2022, it legitimized all of her previous results. Since her debut in 2020 Eileen Gu has attended all but one major competition that she has been eligible for. Achieving one of the highest participation rates amongst Freestyle Skiers with appearances in four major competitions.
Not only did Eileen Gu attend each of these competitions, but she swept the medals in Big Air, Slopestyle, and Halfpipe. Effectively going 4 x 3 for 12 career medals. The competitions in question:
|2020 Youth Olympics|
|2021 Winter X-Games|
|2021 World Championships|
|2022 Winter Olympics|
Eileen Gu simply does not lose. She delivers in the most pressing moments and doesn’t get frazzled or fazed when the pressure was at its most intense. Entering Beijing-2022 there was an argument to be had that perhaps the medals Eileen Gu won at the X-Games, World Championships, and Youth Olympics were the byproduct of weakened competitive fields.
But that argument is effectively dead now that Eileen Gu has repeated her success at the Olympics. Proving that regardless of who attended the previous competitions, Eileen Gu was going to win. Elieen Gu is a proven winner who can win under any circumstance while possessing a superhuman ability to keep her nerves calm in every event of every competition she competes in.
She switched to an even harder program
China is famed for being one of the dominant powers at the Summer Olympics, but the country has not achieved similar success at the Winter Olympics. At the Winter Olympics China is traditionally a mid-level power, almost always placing between 11th-20th in the final medal rankings. On only two occasions in its history has China finished inside the top-10 of the Winter Olympics final medal tally.
One would initially assume that by switching nationalities from the United States to China, Eileen Gu was also transitioning from a program where there was less domestic competition to deal with. But that is not the case in regards to Freestyle Skiing. It is actually China’s 2nd most successful sport at the Olympics.
In 2022 Women’s Halfpipe Chinese athletes qualified in positions #1, #5, and #7 while the Americans qualified in positions #8, #9, and #10. At the 2018 Olympics China had the #1 and #3 youngest athletes in the entire Pyeongchang Games. The two athletes in question (Wu Meng and Zhang Kexin) were Halfpipe Freestyle Skiers who compete in what is Eileen Gu’s best event.
In 2018 they were merely a pair of 15 year olds, younger than even Russian figure skater Alina Zagitova. They had no viable medal prospects in 2018, but their future was on the rise. In Freestyle Skiing, typically it is the older athletes who prevail. China also had an even younger prospect, Li Fanghui who finished in 2nd place behind Eileen Gu at the 2020 Youth Olympics.
Eileen Gu has the distinction of representing a successful program where the expectations are far higher, the domestic competition is tougher, and the young prospects who may one day challenge her for a spot on the next Olympic team are more formidable. Eileen Gu decided to take all of this on because she is simply a fighter who sees any challenge as an excuse to work hard.
When it comes to Eileen Gu, she is the perfect embodiment of how life is not fair. That some people are naturally gifted in ways where it is unfair that they are able to succeed in so many different things at once. Eileen Gu is one of the most versatile athletes in the history of her sport while simultaneously being the most dominant medal winner it has ever experienced. Her athletic talent is more than anyone can hope to achieve, and to top it off Eileen is intellectually gifted as well.
She scored a near-perfect 1580 on her SAT, gained early acceptance to Stanford, and graduated from high school in only three years. The only time Eileen Gu has ever missed a major competition for a high-level senior meet was due to academic reasons. If ever there was an athlete who can succeed at anything, it is Eileen Gu.