Winter Games: Two women take competition to new heights

IN the Big Air event of women’s freestyle skiing at the Winter Olympics, there were two sets of outrageous rotating leaps on skiis – called “double cork 1620” – playing out against a star-struck blue Beijing sky. Together, they amounted to one giant leap for womankind.

Kicking up a crunching snow-storm with their flying skiis, two women aged 18 and 20 took turns accelerating up a giant ramp that tilted at the edge, catapulting them into a 20-metre orbit. Then they spun 4-and-half times mid-air while rotating twice off-axis, before descending to land, floating backwards to a gushing kick of adrenaline and some serious awe and crowd applause.

History’s minor quibble of who among the two women stuck the historic landing first, though, might get buried in a sleet of silvery snow. For, everyone remembers the gold.

American-Chinese Eileen Gu, representing the Winter Games hosts China, and French freeskier Tess Ledeux, both scored an identical 94.50, on the 1620. But it was teenaged Eileen, who broke the internet in China, pipping the Frenchwoman in a dramatic Big Air final, with what was akin to a gold-winning last-ball monster six after going run-a-ball, in contention for bronze. Favourite Ledeux stumbled and holed out in response, realising bitterly that her own 1620 (4×360 degrees + half-turn flip of 180), from just minutes ago, would only fetch her a silver. The gold was whisked away from her by 0.75 points, with Gu’s score of 188.25 narrowly shading her 187.50.

And to think it was Ledeux who had become the first woman to uncork the double 1620 at the Winter X-Games last month in Colorado’s Aspen, where Eileen was absent. From fist-pumping back then about how she had secured “revenge” for a prior World Championships 4th-place finish, right up to staking a commanding claim on the gold in Beijing when she hit the 1620 in her first of three runs to take the lead, it had been Ledeux looking primed for the top spot on the podium. Eileen, who had never attempted the 1620 in competition, would literally pull a rabbit out of the hat, strategically keeping her best for the last.

No fear

Eileen has a stomping streak of her own – she had advanced the daredevilry in women’s freestyle skiing to four 360-degree rotations for a “1440 double cork” at Steamboat in Colorado last November. The 1440 itself was considered insurmountable for females. But in what has been a remarkable progression for the sport in four months, the eventual Beijing bronze medallist, Swiss Mathilde Gremaud, scored the highest 93.25 on her own switch double 1440, and was left consoling the second-best of 1620s (an additional half-spin) – the distraught Frenchwoman who nailed hers.

Elijah Teter, the athletic director at Wy’East Mountain Academy, told New York Post earlier: “She came up with the mentality of following guys around and doing tricks that they do. She’s used to crashing and that is tricky for women. A couple summers ago, on Mount Hood, Eileen clipped the deck and got a very bad concussion. That took her out for a week. It’s an injury that can make people fearful. Not Eileen. She gets past the fear.”

1620 isn’t the only eye-popping 4-figure for the 18-year-old. With a SAT score of 1580, Eileen is poised for Stanford coming term.

“Eileen is incredibly smart and likes to make the skier boys feel dumb,” Teter added to the NY Post. “She uses bigger words than they do. She talks about things that go beyond skiing and hanging out. She throws chemistry stuff at them.”

Ledeux, from La Plagne in France, wasn’t short on ambition. The 20-year-old, whose ‘bread & butter’ was 3-and-a-half rotations for a “double cork 1260” till a month ago, had cranked up her difficulty adding one full rotation. But was blindsided by a biracial athlete who might turn out to be China’s biggest star this Games.

BORN IN AMERICA

Eileen was born in San Francisco to an American father and a Chinese mother, driven to get the best for her talented daughter. Associated Press reports that the mother Yan Gu was frazzled watching her three-year-old skii downhill at breakneck speed, and steered her towards freestyle, which combines snowboarding stunts and downhill skiing, not realising the higher risks. But the young Eileen loved to fly, and was ready to be coached and travel.

Circa 2019, she shifted allegiance to China after splitting time in both countries. But at age 9, Eileen had competed on Chinese slopes, while simultaneously gaining proficiency in Mandarin and keeping top grades in academics back home.

Winter Games: Two women take competition to new heights Eileen Gu, of China, competes during the women’s freestyle skiing big air finals of the 2022 Winter Olympics, Tuesday, Feb. 8, 2022, in Beijing. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

Concurrently her modelling career took off, and it wasn’t uncommon to spot her at the Met Gala, or sitting flanked by Venus Williams and actor Stacy Martin at a Louis Vitton show at the Paris Fashion Week. She counted Red Bull, Cadillac and Apple Beats and Victoria’s Secret among her sponsors, even as the lead-up to the Games saw her pocket 20 endorsements, and light up billboards in Beijing in what has been a breakout season for the new-age glamorous Chinese athlete.

Not that the work ethic ever faltered. But her steep rise is in contrast with two other equally hardworking American-borns who turned out for China – Beverly Zhu and Ashley Lin, both figure skaters, the former even enduring trolling from rude netizens. Though home advantage might’ve kicked in at the very last period of her preparation.

Ledeux was quoted as grumbling by AP saying that while Eileen was an “extremely competitive and amazing athlete”, she had had the benefit of training at the venue for weeks before the Games. “What I know is that she got lucky and that’s only fair, she was able to train in the venues before everyone else and that probably made a difference today.”

THE BIGGER 1620

The Frenchwoman had reckoned she had the gold sealed, after setting alight the debut Big Air finals with her opening run of 1620. But Eileen lurked.

Tess Ledeux, of France, competes during the women’s freestyle skiing big air finals of the 2022 Winter Olympics, Tuesday, Feb. 8, 2022, in Beijing. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

After landing a 1440 (four rotations) in her opening run and a solid 1080 on Run 2, Eileen unveiled her own 1620 only in the third go at the repurposed steel mill-turned-park at Shougang. Assured of bronze, with Ledeux leading, Eileen said she contemplated improving on her 1440 for silver. The gold hovered though, and only a 1620 could take her there. Sticking her landing seamlessly, she couldn’t stop grinning when she scored 94.50 to throw the gauntlet at Ledeux.

Taken aback, and having to nail a switch 1440 for gold, the Frenchwoman stumbled as a delirious Eileen celebrated. A few days back when fans of the ‘Snow Princess’ on Chinese TikTok urged tempering expectations, Eileen had shot back: “Why don’t you have more faith in me?” After her gold, she would talk about fearlessly going for the 1620, knowing that even if she didn’t stick the landing, she would inspire Chinese girls to aim big.

In the end, Ledeux was left wondering if she had opened her cards a tad too early, and tempted Eileen to bring out her own 1620 thereby putting her under the pump on her last run. The 1620 wasn’t just a sentimental giant leap for women. It was mainstreamed by two women who elevated it to the best form of competition.

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