Eileen Gu fans temporarily crashed China’s leading social media platform on Tuesday, as tens of millions rushed online to celebrate the teenage freeski sensation winning her first gold medal of the Beijing Winter Olympics.
American-born Gu, 18, jumped into the top position at the women’s big air competition with her third run, scoring 94.5 with a 1620 and a perfect landing – making her total score 188.25 in the event’s debut at the Winter Olympics.
She narrowly beat out France’s Tess Ledeux, who took silver with a score of 187.50. Switzerland’s Mathilde Gremaud won the bronze.
“That was the best moment of my life. The happiest moment, day, whatever – of my life. I just cannot believe what just happened,” said Gu after her win, according to the Olympic site.
“Even if I didn’t land it, I felt it would send a message out to the world and hopefully encourage more girls to break their own boundaries,” she added. “That was my biggest goal going into my last run. I reminded myself to have fun and enjoy the moment and that, no matter what, I was so grateful to even have this opportunity to even be here.”
Fans filled the stands to cheer for Gu, who was born and raised in California but decided in 2019 to compete for China. Known as the “snow princess” among her Chinese fans, Gu – already a reigning world champion – has become the unofficial face of China’s Olympic ambitions, and saw her popularity skyrocket in the lead-up to the Games.
Ledeux, who had been leading the competition until the last run when she overbalanced on the landing, sank to the ground in tears after the final result. Gu and Gremaud both knelt on the snowy floor to console her, pulling Ledeux into a hug and rubbing her back.
Gu’s victory sparked joyous scenes online. The topic dominated searches on China’s Twitter-like platform Weibo, where seven of the 10 top trending topics were all about Gu’s win. Fans on her Weibo, where she has 2.6 million followers, left more than 90,000 comments in less than 30-minutes after her win.
Related hashtags, such as “Gu Ailing won the gold medal,” received more than 300 million views within an hour – eventually crashing the entire Weibo site due to the massive number of users.
Chinese authorities were also unusually quick to congratulate Gu. “We are glad to hear that Gu Ailing, a Beijing athlete, won a precious gold medal for the Chinese sports delegation and honored for the country with her perfect performance in the final of the women’s freestyle ski platform at the Beijing Winter Olympic Games,” said the Beijing Municipal Government and Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Beijing Committee, referring to Gu by her Chinese name.
Gu’s father is American and her mother is Chinese. She grew up skiing on the slopes of Lake Tahoe, and had reached her first World Cup podium by the age of 15.
Though she switched to compete for China, it’s unclear whether she renounced her American citizenship – usually a requirement for Chinese naturalization, since the country does not allow dual citizenship. Gu has never publicly commented on the status of her American citizenship, though an article on the official Olympic site referred to her “dual nationality” in January.
At a news conference after her win on Tuesday, reporters asked Gu several times if she was still a US citizen. She dodged answering each time, saying only that she felt American in the US and Chinese in China.
Since joining China’s national team, Gu’s face has been splashed across magazine covers and billboards in the country. She has landed numerous sponsorships and brand deals, and is fast becoming one of China’s hottest young stars – though her newfound success has also come with increased scrutiny from critics in the West.
Apart from her skiing career, she’s also a model, brand ambassador, and was accepted into Stanford University, which she plans to attend in the fall.
CNN’s Helen Regan contributed to this report.