When Chinese-American skier Eileen Gu takes to the slopes at the 2022 Winter Olympics, she’ll have the eyes of the host nation upon her, the pressures of challenging for gold in three freestyle skiing events and a friend who she looks up to chasing the same medals.
That competitor is Estonia’s Kelly Sildaru, a fellow teenager whom Gu has admired. Both the 18-year-old Gu and 19-year-old Sildaru have reached the X Games podium in superpipe, slopestyle and big air, but this is the first time the friends will compete against each other on the bright stage of the Olympics.
The subplot may be the friendly battle for gold, but the sport’s future — with two teenage stars at the helm — is bright. Both are among the handful of top skiers to compete in all three freeskiing events: big air, slopestyle and halfpipe.
And they have high expectations. Both Sildaru and Gu have a chance at becoming the first Olympian to medal in all three freeskiing disciplines, with big air making its debut.
A long-awaited Olympics
Sildaru — the youngest X Games gold medalist when she won slopestyle gold at age 13 — was a gold medal favorite at the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang at just age 15. But she tore her ACL in New Zealand in 2017 and couldn’t compete in South Korea.
“Winning a medal here at the Olympics would mean so, so much to me,” Sildaru said at a news conference on Thursday. “I missed the last Olympics through injury, so it is great to be back here and I'm super excited about competing.”
Sildaru came back from the injury strong, claiming the 2019 world championship in halfpipe and the slopestyle gold at the 2020 Winter Youth Olympics, where she finished half a point ahead of Gu. And though just a year older than Gu, Sildaru could be considered a veteran in world competitions.
So, before Gu’s final run at the Youth Olympics, Sildaru came up behind her and said: “Hey, I want you to land this.”
That’s the camaraderie we have. She’s as good a person as she is a skier.
“That’s the camaraderie we have,” Gu said to the Olympics website. “She’s as good a person as she is a skier. I’ve looked up to her since I was eight. To be just half a point behind her was amazing.”
Gu, who was born in San Francisco but is competing for China — her mother’s birthplace — made the podium in all three events at the 2021 X Games. She was also the first freeskier to win two events at the World Championships in Aspen last year. At the 2020 Winter Youth Olympics, she won gold in big air and halfpipe and silver in slopestyle — with only Sildaru edging her out.
“They're totally helping each other out,” Gu said on competing in halfpipe, slopestyle and big air. “I think it’s a real advantage. And it’s fun for me. I think it takes the pressure off of each event.”
Both Sildaru and Gu will be in action Sunday in big air qualifications. By the end of the Olympics, Sildaru will no longer be a teenager. She turns 20 on Feb. 17, the day of halfpipe qualifying.
Sildaru said Thursday that she doesn’t really have a birthday wish. Making her Olympics debut — four years after injuries robbed her from competing — is good enough.
“I’m just super happy to be here at the Olympics and be healthy right now, so that's the most important thing for me,” Sildaru said.