Gu Ailing of China poses with her medals after the awards ceremony of the women's freeski Big Air final at the 3rd Winter Youth Olympic Games in Leysin, Switzerland on Jan. 22, 2020. (Xinhua/Lu Yang)
After rising to fame in recent years, Chinese freeski prodigy Gu Ailing hopes to shine at the Beijing Winter Olympics in her Olympic debut.
by Yao Lan
BEIJING, Jan. 31 (Xinhua) -- "Ski prodigy, Gen Z, Vogue cover girl, mixed-raced, world champion" are some of the words that pop into people's minds when talking about Gu Ailing, China's 18-year-old free skier who will make her Olympic debut at the Beijing Winter Games.
Beijing, a city that Gu visited every summer from the United States since she was a child, is about to be filled with new memories this year due to the upcoming Winter Olympics. The year of 2022 is bound to be the time of making new history in her mother's birthplace.
Last year, Gu shone at the International Ski Federation (FIS) Freeski World Championships, clinching two gold medals and a bronze. She claimed her first Freeski big air World Cup title by stomping a right double cork 1440, making her the first woman to land the trick in any free ski competition.
Gu celebrates after the women's freeski big air final at the 3rd Winter Youth Olympics. (Xinhua/Lu Yang)
Gu, who could still recall the excitement of sitting in the stands and watching the 2008 Beijing Olympics when she was five years old, will be competing in all three disciplines: half-pipe, slopestyle and Big Air this year.
"To be able to be part of that select group who has worked so hard, I think it's just so rewarding. I literally still can't believe that's happening. It's so surreal for me," Gu said in an interview.
On social media, Gu excitedly shows everyone her "secret" Winter Olympics equipment: a helmet, a specially designed suit and skis, all with dragons painted on, which she believes will bring her good luck in the upcoming competitions.
"Dragons are powerful, magic and dramatic creatures. I think my personality in skiing resembles that of dragons," the California-born ski star said in fluent Chinese with a slight Beijing accent.
LOVE AND PASSION
"Left, right, left, and right again. Getting lost in the rhythm of my turns was one of my favorite parts of skiing. Feeling soft, powdery snow beneath my skis, I feel like I'm capable of anything," she said in a speech delivered to her classmates back in 2015.
Pushing the rewind button of her life, we find the journey of this genius skier has always been brimmed with love and passion.
Gu started free skiing when she was just "a little pink ball of a toddler" who was shorter than her skis, as she described in the speech. She could still recall the time her mother picked her up after school, carrying her ballet dress, soccer kit and outfit for piano lessons.
Ladies' winner Gu (C) of China, second-placed Tess Ledeux (L) of France and third-placed Johanne Killi of Norway celebrate on the podium after the FIS freeski Big Air World Cup in Steamboat, Colorado, on Dec. 4, 2021. (Photo by Li Yang/Xinhua)
It was after trying all of them that she began to find her real passion - free skiing. For her, the moment of landing on the snow after finishing rounds of turning and spinning in the air is one of the best moments of her life.
"Instead of training to win the competition, I hope I'm doing this because I love skiing. I want to learn new tricks and become a better athlete," she said in an interview.
But the road to success has been bumpy. The COVID-19 pandemic has made on-spot ski training impossible, so she had a four-month indoor training session in 2020. She had to do physical training at home while preparing for her college entrance exam.
Despite being injured, Gu quickly mastered the 1080-degree aerials and the newly-invented grabbing trick in a short time. In January 2022, she won gold in women's halfpipe at the International Ski Federation (FIS) World Cup series in Canada's Calgary.
SCHOOL, SNOW, SPOTLIGHT
Apart from being a successful skier, Gu is also a straight-A student who graduated from high school a year in advance in order to prepare for the Olympics, and scored 1580 points out of 1600 in the SAT, ranking in the top 1 percent among all participants.
Student, athlete, public figure - she has found a way to juggle three lives and identities. "I think these three lives I've learned to balance since I was young, because they are equally important to me."
The daily workload and sports training, heavy and demanding, has taught her early on how to achieve a "study-sports balance." "I'm the busiest woman in the world," Gu said. "Finding the rhythm and feeling, that's what you should focus on."
To squeeze time out of her busy schedule, learning and eating in the car or plane has become her daily routine. For her, less time means pouring more energy, as high-intensive exercise entails more concentration.
Her self-discipline has contributed to higher efficiency. "She gets more done in 12 hours than most people can do in 16 or 18 hours in one day. Every minute counts," said Gu's coach. One of Gu's friends, deeply inspired by her passion and courage, described her as "a ball of flame."
The hard work finally paid off. Gu's dream to go to Stanford University, which she had been longing for, came true in 2020.
Gu gets some air during the women's freeski big air final at the 3rd Winter Youth Olympics. (Xinhua/Lu Yang)
To Gu, the ice has forged her resilience, fortitude, and a broader mind. Her curiosity in trying new things has enabled her to be well versed in different fields.
"I'm extremely passionate about what I do. And because of that, I've found a way to juggle all the other things around it to make sure that I have time and disciplined motivation to get it done," she said, with a conviction deeply reflected in her attitude.
For many young fans, a new label of Gu is a "fashionista". From a skier to a fashion icon, she has always been versatile and diversified. "I like fashion very much, because I think I can show my style and my personality, so for me it's also something particularly fun."
A member of Generation Z, Gu likes to share her daily life on social media, which has drawn large attention from all over the world. A follower wrote on her Weibo page saying, "I really like her confidence and courage. She is my role model."
Gu is all smiles after the Women's Freeski Halfpipe final at the 3rd Winter Youth Olympics. (Xinhua/Lu Yang)
For Gu, skiing is not about winning gold medals, but doing things that people did not think were possible through thousands of hours of hard work. Through the power of sport, she hopes her participation in the Olympics can inspire young people and bridge the world with different cultures.
Skiing shapes Gu, and she also shapes skiing.
"I love having the opportunity to ski. I love winning. But at the end of the day, I think the most rewarding thing is to be able to inspire change in other people," she said.
"Through skiing, I hope to unite people, promote common understanding, create communication, and forge friendships between nations. If I can help to inspire one young girl to break a boundary, my wishes will have come true," Gu said.