This time Eileen Gu didn’t leave things late. After her first two events at the Winter Games came down to nail-biting finishes, the emerging American-born superstar representing China lay waste to all-comers in the Olympic freeski halfpipe final, adding to her big air gold and slopestyle silver to complete an unprecedented hat-trick of medals in the mountains northwest of Beijing.
The 18-year-old soared into history on Friday morning in becoming the first action-sports athlete to win three medals at a single Olympics – missing out on triple gold by a fraction of a point in Tuesday’s slopestyle – making good on years of hype that intensified in the months leading up to the Beijing Games and grew to deafening levels over the past fortnight as her culture-straddling origin story has become the subject of intense public debate on both sides of the Pacific.
“It has been two straight weeks of the most intense highs and lows I’ve ever experienced in my life,” said Gu, who became the youngest person to win three individual medals in the history of the Winter Olympics. “It has changed my life forever. The second I landed the last 16 in big air I knew my life was never going to be the same. Even then I would have never imagined that I’d walk away with another silver and another gold.”
The reigning world halfpipe champion wasted no time in taking control of Friday’s contest, where 12 entrants made three trips each down the 200-meter-long course known as the Secret Garden with the best score counting towards their finishing position. She set the target score of 93.25 with a sensational opening run, launching herself high above the seven-metre walls on back-to-back 900s in the top section, then adding a switch left 360 followed by an alley-oop 540, which effectively turned the affair into a race for silver.
Gu created even more distance atop the leaderboard with a 95.25 on her second descent, notching up the amplitude and linking consecutive alley-oop 540s at the finish as hordes of bundled-up spectators and volunteers chanted her name on a sunny 0C (-18F) morning that offered reprieve from the bitterly cold conditions of the past week.
With her second Olympic title in hand after no one came within four and a half points of her benchmark, a beaming Gu took a casual ski down the 200-metre-long course known as the Secret Garden on her final run, gliding into the finish area and mobbing her fellow medalists in celebration.
A pair of Canadians filled out the podium as defending Olympic champion Cassie Sharpe won the silver with a best score of 90.75, three points clear of teammate Rachael Karker, who took bronze.
The Estonian triple-threat Kelly Sildaru, the slopestyle bronze medalist who turned 20 on Thursday, finished in fourth with a high score of 87.00 on her second run, a fraction of a point off the podium.
Great Britain’s Zoe Atkin fell on her first two runs but was clean on her final trip and moved up to ninth. The American contingent mostly struggled with 17-year-old Hanna Faulhaber, fourth at last year’s worlds, coming in sixth ahead of Pyeongchang bronze medalist Brita Sigourney (10th) and Carly Margulies (11th), who overcame seven knee surgeries including one in December to make her Olympic debut.
Gu’s ability to deliver under pressure shone repeatedly in her first two events in Beijing. She was in danger of missing the big air final entirely after a ski popped off on her second run, but confidently landed her last attempt, then won the gold from third place entering her final run by throwing down a 1620, a four-and-a-half-revolution manoeuvre that she had never even attempted in practice.
She then avoided a shock exit in Monday’s slopestyle qualifying after an error-strewn opening attempt to reach the final, where she surged from eighth place to the silver with a clutch final run that included a double-cork 900 punctuated with a Buick grab.
No such dramatics were required on a breezy Friday morning as Gu quickly validated her favorite status at the Genting Snow Park, the sparkling new venue nestled in the tree-lined southern foot of Xiaohaituo Mountain.