ASPEN, Colo. (AP) — Whether the choices are serious or of a more trivial nature, Eileen Gu refuses to be hemmed in.
Two years after exploding onto the world stage at the Beijing Winter Games, the 20-year-old Olympic champion, straight-A student and fashion model remains as comfortable on a catwalk as a halfpipe. She finds as much joy in defying classical physics on the mountain in Aspen as exploring quantum physics in the classroom at Stanford.
She could be, to put it in 2024 parlance, every bit as suited for the world of “Barbie” as that of “Oppenheimer.” When asked the question that has, of late, consumed the pop-culture world she both inhabits and influences — which movie did she prefer? — not surprisingly, she found no reason to play favorites.
During a wide-ranging interview with The Associated Press in advance of the X Games Aspen, Gu said she found the message in “Barbie” of women’s empowerment “very compelling,” and, yes, she thinks Margot Robbie should have been nominated for an Oscar for a performance that required her to go beyond skin deep.
But Gu also found herself nodding in recognition while watching the story of J. Robert Oppenheimer, whose mastery of quantum mechanics led to the world’s first atomic bomb. Gu takes quantum courses at Stanford and has been known to cue up podcasts devoted to the subject.
“The theoretical part, the conceptual part, is very stimulating and interesting to me,” Gu said, as she rested on a couch, trying to give her hip a break after a scary fall in halfpipe practice the day before.
She attributes her interest there to what she calls her “nerd heritage.” Gu's mother, Yan, studied chemistry, biochemistry and molecular biology, among other subjects, before becoming a venture capitalist and, ultimately, her daughter's No. 1 fan and support system.
It’s a decision that figures to overshadow all other conversation related to Gu once the Winter Games descend on Italy in two years. Yet, it's one that barely registers this weekend at the X Games, which, like every action-sports contest outside of the Olympics, puts virtually zero emphasis on where people are from and focuses more on what they can do.
Three years ago in Aspen, at age 17, she became the first X Games rookie to medal in three events. It was there that she realized she could do this at the highest level. It also was proof that it was possible to juggle all her roles: student, model, pitchwoman, daredevil.
Even before those Olympics, it was clear that barring something unfortunate, Gu had a good chance to be rich no matter which path she chose — or which country’s flag she put on her parka. She decided to ski for China because, she said, while the sport has a healthy foothold in the U.S., this would give millions of girls in China a first chance to see what’s possible on the snow.
“It was remarkable hearing from kids, who are 11, 12 years old, telling me I changed the course of their lives,” Gu said, speaking about a visit to China for a World Cup event last month. “That’s a very profound thought for a tween to be having, and it’s something I don’t take lightly.”
She says her mission hasn’t changed so much as broadened. She cited a recent study by Deloitte that estimated elite women’s sports will generate $1.28 billion in revenue this year, up 300% from three years ago.
“It’s a staggering statistic that I think is really indicative of the era we’re in now," she said. “And perhaps the role that I hope to play, not only in skiing but more broadly in women’s sports globally.”
In a nod to the spotlight the Olympics can shine on an athlete in an off-mainstream sport, Gu is serving as an ambassador for the IOC’s Youth Olympic Games. She also put her name behind Salt Lake City’s effort to bring a Winter Games back to Utah — a deal that was all but sealed last fall.
That the next Winter Olympics will be anchored in Milan — one of the fashion capitals of the world — seems almost as fitting for Gu as the last ones taking place in China.
Both are sort of like second homes. Gu’s social media feeds are liberally sprinkled with walks down fashion runways, her latest cover shots in glamour magazines and a steady stream of sponsors that has actually gotten smaller — from more than 20 to around 12 — as she has shifted her focus to college.
While students at Stanford are required to take 36 credits in a school year, Gu knocked out 62 as a freshman.
“I want to get ahead in case I want to take time off in the future,” she said.
Even with the course load and the occasional intercontinental trips, she insists she’s living a normal student’s life on campus. For all the A’s she’s earning, among her proudest accomplishments is the basketball club she has started on campus.
She calls it the “Gu-League” — a takeoff, she said, on the NBA’s G League, except nobody on this circuit will be going pro or winning gold. It's one of those rare instances in the life of this 20-year-old phenom where it feels more than fine not to think big.
“I always state these grand goals of, like, ‘In China, we can do this,’” Gu said. “But it's right here. It's right around me. It's in my community. It's at Stanford. It's very real. It's super fun and everyone loves it.”
AP Winter Olympics: https://apnews.com/hub/winter-olympics