The 18-year-old — who elected to represent her mother’s native China over the United States, her country of birth — has become the poster child for these Winter Games, her face adorning billboards across the country.
Gu is among the favorites to medal at Beijing 2022, having secured gold at the 2021 X Games in halfpipe and slopestyle, as well as bronze in big air.
However, after landing her opening qualifying jump, Gu failed on her second after losing a ski during the attempt. With the two best scores of three jumps counting towards the skiers’ qualification totals, Gu needed to land her third to have any chance of reaching Tuesday’s final.
Much to the delight of the fans in attendance — and no doubt the millions more watching across the country — she did enough with her third jump to qualify in fifth place.
“It’s a relief,” she admitted after securing her spot in the final. “The wind switched in between the first and second runs and you could see a lot of people were going slow.
“I was the fifth person to drop, but I didn’t notice it until it was too late, so my ski popped off. After that, my coach made an adjustment, so it didn’t happen in the third run. Of course, there was a lot of pressure going into it.
“I wouldn’t be satisfied not making finals, but I was just focusing on my trick. I know there are people watching me, it’s a pressure on me. But I knew I could do that trick, I’ve been doing it since I was nine, so I was just talking to myself in the right way.”
Gu has seen her popularity in China soar in the lead up to Beijing 2022 as she has been featured on magazine covers and promotional videos for the Games.
She boasts nearly two million followers on China’s Twitter-like social media platform Weibo and has secured multiple Chinese sponsorship deals. One headline in state-run media Xinhua dubbed her the “Snow Princess.”
But Gu appears to have taken this pressure in her stride, managing the weight of expectation with maturity that belies her years.
“This [pressure ahead of the third run] will stand me in good stead for the final,” she said. “I’m happy to be able to perform under pressure, and it speaks a lot to the amount of mental training I’ve been doing.
“I’m excited for tomorrow [Tuesday]. This was just qualifying and the goal is not to win qualifiers, it’s to make the final. Tomorrow is the big show and, hopefully, I can put on a big show for everyone.”
‘Greater sense of purpose’
Gu’s controversial decision to choose to represent China over the US in 2019 prompted some criticism.
Fox News labeled her the “ungrateful child of America,” a sentiment found frequently under her social media posts.
“This was an incredibly tough decision for me to make,” she wrote in an Instagram post at the time. “I am proud of my heritage and equally proud of my American upbringings.”
Gu explained “the opportunity to help inspire millions of young people where my mom was born” helped her make the decision, calling the chance to represent China at Beijing 2022 “a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to help to promote the sport I love.”
After her third jump, an emotional Gu felt vindicated in her decision as she saw the number of fans that had come out to support her, as well as seeing the sport’s popularity grow in China.
“I am so grateful for all the fans out here,” she said. “It’s a Covid Olympics and the volunteers have to go through quarantine, the fans have to go through quarantine just to come out here and support myself and the rest of the field.
“That support means so much to me and I’m sure it does to the other athletes. To be able to make the final of the first freeski big air in Olympic history, that’s a historic moment for myself, for China, for the sport of free skiing.
“So just to have been a part of it and to have motivated just a bit of that freeski spirit that is growing at an extreme rate right now in China. To have made even the tiniest impact in that makes me feel like I’ve already met my goal.”
In 2015, just after China was awarded the 2022 Winter Games, the country set the target of getting 300 million people involved in snow sports by the time the Olympics began.
In the lead up to the Games, China claimed it had far surpassed that figure with 346 million people taking part in winter sports activities.
When she was nine years old, Gu says she came up with the idea of hosting a slopestyle competition in China, which became the first contest of its kind in the country.
“That was my idea,” she recalled. “I competed in it and won it, and now I’m competing in the first big air in Olympic history in China, so it really is a full circle moment.
“To see those milestones being hit now, to see those 300 million people on snow here in China.
“Even girls internationally, being able to read DMs (direct messages), to read comments and feel as though I am doing something bigger than just skiing and flipping through the air because it’s cool.
“It is cool, but feeling like I have a greater sense of purpose means a lot to me.”
Gu said it has been “a lot” to become a role model for millions aged just 18, “but you’re never too young to make change,” she said.
“I don’t really believe in the concept that you have to wait until you’re older to be able to have some kind of global impact.
“Especially now, with the digital generation, it’s our time to make change and speak out on topics we find relevant and personal to ourselves. As a young person, I am just doing my duty.”