World champion Kelly Sildaru (EST) won the freestyle skiing slopestyle gold medal on Saturday, but her close friend Gu Ailing Eileen (CHN), who came second by just half a point, has got an eye on her throne as the Beijing 2022 Olympic Winter Games approach.
“I’m really happy because this is my first Olympic gold medal,” said Sildaru, who missed the PyeongCheong 2018 Olympic Winter Games through injury. “It was awesome to put my runs down. I think this experience will definitely help me in Beijing.”
Gu, however, is an extraordinary emerging talent. She has barely practised all year, and yet pulled off a world-class final run to take silver at Lausanne 2020, ahead of Sweden’s Jennie-Lee Burmansson.
“This is my first contest of the season because I’m a full-time high school student,” she said. “But I’m graduating soon, and then I’ll have 17 months of straight training up until Beijing. That’s the most time that I’ve had on snow, ever.”
Gu, who grew up in San Francisco with her Chinese mother and grandmother has been courted by both the USA and Chinese freeski teams.
“Choosing to compete for China was the hardest decision I’ll ever make,” she said. “The way the US team supported my transfer has been unreal. They said: ‘Hey, you’re still one of us, you can still use our facilities and come to our camps.’ It’s testament to sports being really international.
“Some people may say ‘she’s an American girl, she’s just going to China for X, Y or Z’. But I’m fluent in Mandarin and I’ve spent a quarter of my life in China. I go there every summer. At home we speak Chinese, we eat Chinese. I feel connected to both countries.”
Gu’s mother texted her before her last run, telling her to drink some water and that she believed in her.
“She has supported me all the way,” said Gu. “So a big part of the decision was Beijing 2022. It’s a huge opportunity, because a lot of people in China are turning their attention to this sport. They need a role model, someone who loves freeskiing. We are seeing it grow in China a lot. I used to know everyone involved in the scene. Now there are thousands.”
Sildaru, the halfpipe world champion, remains the sport’s young superstar, but is always supportive of her fellow skiers.
“Before my last run, I was super nervous,” said Gu. “Kelly came up behind me and said ‘hey, I want you to land this’. That’s the camaraderie we have. She’s as good a person as she is a skier. I’ve looked up to her since I was eight. To be just half a point behind her was amazing.”
Gu was the centre of Chinese press attention at the bottom of her run and is certain to be in the limelight at Beijing 2022 but she is not feeling under pressure.
“I’m ready,” she said. “Everyone on the world stage feels pressure, but it doesn’t come from the country. At the top I was stressing out, but I wasn’t thinking ‘I have to do it for the government or the people’. I was putting the pressure on myself.”