ZHANGJIAKOU, China (AP) — Pure joy on the halfpipe looked like this on a sunny, windswept day at the Beijing Olympics:
-It was multinational freeskiing sensation Eileen Gu who learned her gold medal was safe, then fell to her knees atop that halfpipe, covering her mouth with her mitts and screaming “Oh my God!”
-It was the 18-year-old superstar doing straight tunes all the way down the pipe, happily slapping her fists and sticks down as she popped above her lip, enjoying every last second of a winning race that meant nothing – and everything.
-It was Gu wearing a furry panda hat as she walked up to the podium, smiling broadly and belly laughing as she accepted her third mascot Bing Dwen Dwen from the Olympics – one for each medal she won.
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“I was very emotional at the top and chose to take a victory lap,” Gu said of his last windy run down the pipe on Friday. “Because I felt like, for the first time, I really deserved it and I really deserved it.”
There were smiles mixed with tears as Gu mingled with his competitors, the coaches and the media below – an immense sense of pride mixed with incredible relief. His two-week China odyssey included 16 combined runs on halfpipe, slopestyle and big air courses and countless other training trips on those same icy expanses.
By winning her gold medal, in a spike contest against defending champion Cassie Sharpe, Gu is the first action sports athlete to win three medals at the same Olympics. Two were gold and one was silver.
“She basically set a level that’s pretty unreachable for a lot of us,” said American freeskier Carly Margulies, who finished 11th.
Gu’s trip to China was more than sporty. About 30 months ago, she took a chance and made a statement when she decided to wear the colors of her mother’s homeland – China, the host country – instead of those of her native United States. .
She received love and hate for this movement. She explained it over and over again: she did it to inspire girls in China. There was little winter sports culture here when she was younger. There is definitely more now.
“We’re not here to break a country’s boundary, we’re here to break a human boundary,” Gu said.
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Good intentions aside, his trip to the Olympics was ultimately destined to be judged, at least on the outside, by his performances on the slopes. Again, with the pressure and the world watching, Gu delivered. With her last victory, she remained undefeated in the halfpipe this season.
“It’s a machine,” Sharpe said.
With winds blowing left to right on a 3 degree F (minus 16 degree C) day, Gu ended this contest in his first race. It included a pair of 900 degree spins in different directions, each frosted with a second long reach down to grab his skis.
Gu scored a 93.25 for it, then in her second run she scored two points better.
She increased the difficulty on her last jump, opting for consecutive flat “alley-oop” pirouettes in which she begins her pirouette by going up the halfpipe even though she is descending the slope. She landed both jumps without even a hint of a bobble.
One of his trainers, Misra Tornianen, was even more impressed by the 13-foot-9 Gu soared over the halfpipe on his first shot.
“It’s amazing how much she did without resting, handling the pressure and delivering every day,” Tornianen said.
Gu’s victory was beyond doubt and did little to diminish the overall quality of the contest.
A year ago at the Winter X Games, Sharpe fell hard and tore her left knee. On Friday, for only the second time in her career, she landed two 1080-degree spins in the same run.
Her 2-3 finish, with teammate Rachael Karker, marked another great day on the halfpipe for Canada. It was this country’s top freeskier, the late Sarah Burke, who strove to include women in halfpipe skiing and then bring the sport to the Olympics for the 2014 Sochi Games.
In a twist that looks like something more than mere coincidence, the original sports star, Burke, and his newest, Gu, share the same birthday: September 3.
In an interview last year, Gu talked about making a wallet out of duct tape for a sixth-grade art project. On the front she wrote “Celebrate Sarah”, a tribute to the trailblazer who died in a training accident in 2012.
“Even though I suck at art,” Gu said that day, “I can still express myself to the best of my ability.”
A magazine cover that scored 1580 (out of 1600) on the SAT and then bound for Stanford, Gu saves his finest artwork for the snow. Her latest performance launched her into the debate over the best Olympic performances of all time.
When it comes to action sports, the versatile teenager is in the same conversation with snowboarder Shaun White, whose victory under pressure four years ago was a record; it earned him a third gold medal in 12 years.
And with her friend Chloe Kim, who dominated her sport for a decade and left China with her second snowboarding gold in two tries.
It seemed only fitting that the final event of Gu’s freeski trifecta would take place in the same halfpipe where Kim won and White gave his emotional farewell to the Olympics the week before.
More than any other place in the action park, the halfpipe is where Olympic stars are born.
As Gu prepared to come down for the first time from her last event, she placed her hands on her hips and closed her eyes, then repeated a phrase three times.
“I said, ‘My name is Eileen Gu,’ she told reporters as tears welled up in her eyes, ‘and I’m the best halfpipe skier in the world.’
After the pep talk, she lowered her glasses, raced down the hill, and proved it all over again.