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Wafer-thin margin leads to Olympic silver for Eileen Gu

February 15, 2022 GMT
China's Eileen Gu reacts during the women's slopestyle finals at the 2022 Winter Olympics, Tuesday, Feb. 15, 2022, in Zhangjiakou, China. (AP Photo/Lee Jin-man)
China's Eileen Gu reacts during the women's slopestyle finals at the 2022 Winter Olympics, Tuesday, Feb. 15, 2022, in Zhangjiakou, China. (AP Photo/Lee Jin-man)
China's Eileen Gu reacts during the women's slopestyle finals at the 2022 Winter Olympics, Tuesday, Feb. 15, 2022, in Zhangjiakou, China. (AP Photo/Lee Jin-man)
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China's Eileen Gu reacts during the women's slopestyle finals at the 2022 Winter Olympics, Tuesday, Feb. 15, 2022, in Zhangjiakou, China. (AP Photo/Lee Jin-man)
1 of 14
China's Eileen Gu reacts during the women's slopestyle finals at the 2022 Winter Olympics, Tuesday, Feb. 15, 2022, in Zhangjiakou, China. (AP Photo/Lee Jin-man)

ZHANGJIAKOU, China (AP) — If Eileen Gu’s latest performance is best gauged by how she came through big under pressure, or how she somehow keeps balancing three different and difficult events with the demands of her burgeoning celebrity, then her high-wire act Tuesday at the Olympics must have felt like a victory.

The second-place finish she “settled for” after all those harrowing trips down the slopestyle course — it was more a matter of opinion than a loss.

After the nine Olympic judges perched above the rails and jumps formed their opinions and placed numbers next to them, the U.S.-born Olympic daredevil, competing for her mother’s homeland of China, found herself a scant .33 points behind the winner, Mathilde Gremaud of Switzerland.

The final score — 89.56-89.23 — is about as close as you’ll get on a 100-point scale. It’s the equivalent of losing a 100-meter sprint by .03 seconds. Those contests aren’t judged. These ones are. Gu knows as well as anyone that some things in her sport are simply out of her control.

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“I trust the judges,” she said. “Sometimes they give it to you and sometimes they don’t, and today they didn’t.”

That it came down to this was in part because, Gu conceded, she “wasn’t really in the zone” at the start of this minus 5 degree F (minus 20 degree C) morning in the mountains above Beijing.

Even for an 18-year-old with as much energy as she has followers, what she’s doing is exhausting. Where most freestyle skiers choose either one event (the halfpipe) or two (the somewhat related slopestyle and big air contests), Gu has chosen all three.

“It’s hard to be good in even one of these things,” said the 10th-place finisher, Silvia Bertagna of Italy, who is among the many on this circuit to willingly concede she loves what Gu is doing.

Gu’s first run in the three-run final was beneath her standards. She nearly missed a rail, and she wobbled and bobbled on pretty much all six tricks. She scored a 69.9 and was in third. She fell on her second run, losing her balance as she spun 630 degrees and landed backward off the third rail. She was in eighth place after that.

Only moments before that spill, she had been talking with her mother.

“She said ‘Pretend your second run is your third run, pretend you have no more chances,’” Gu said. “And I was like, ‘I’m trying!’ But I guess my imagination isn’t that good.”

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The bobbles and the fall set the stage for what turned out to be her silver-medal run. But because she hadn’t made it down cleanly on either of the two previous trips, she saw no benefit in bringing out her biggest trick and the one that might have won the gold. She had planned to try a double-cork 1440 jump at least once, maybe twice.

So, with pressure of a do-or-miss-the-podium run, she went down with her “B-plus” material and executed it well — her skis hitting the snow with a solid THUMP on her final jump, which included a “Buick” grab and a backward landing. She skied that all the way into the finish line and waited. She blew kisses to the crowd and formed her hands into the shape of a heart and held them above her helmet.

Two of the numbers that will be etched beside her name forever — “89.23” and “2” — popped up and Gu smiled. Forgotten in all the hype surrounding her much-dissected trip to China was that slopestyle has been the “weakest” of her three events this season. She wasn’t “supposed” to win this one. She hasn’t won one since last March.

“Just to be able to put down a run when you’re under pressure is another thing I’m proud to be able to represent,” Gu said.

In any contest decided by what is little more than a rounding error, it’s hard to pick a particular moment that makes a difference. Gremaud had one idea.

“I believe the difference was probably my first jump,” said the Swiss skier, who now has a full set of Olympic medals — this gold along with the 2018 silver and a bronze from last week in big air. “I’m the only one who did a double on that. That could’ve been what made the difference, even on those few points, or those few ‘zero-point’ points, or whatever.”

That double-cork came on a jump that vaults off a kicker running at an angle into the crest of the hill. That angled-off jump is unlike anything slopestylers see in their regular contests. On her winning run, Gremaud scored .45 more on that jump than Gu, who tried a switch-Misty 900 — a backward takeoff with 900 degrees of spin, but only one head-over-heels rotation.

“Of course I’m competitive, so the zero-point-three points — I’m going to think about that,” Gu said. “But it’s OK, I’m happy.”

She didn’t have much time for moping, anyway. As she wound her way through the interviews, she was noshing on a pork bun. She needed to get lunch in before she headed over to the halfpipe, where practice had already gotten underway.

Her third and final contest of the Olympics starts there Thursday, and she is the favorite in that one. She is on pace to become the first action-sports athlete to win three medals in three different Olympic events all at the same Games.

That the second one was silver felt, in some ways, as much a result of bad luck, or the slip of a judge’s pencil, or a barely perceptible bobble somewhere, as any grand statement about her place in the sport, or her role at the Beijing Games.

“My goal coming into the Olympics was to have one gold, and have one more podium in a different event,” Gu said. “I’ve already met that goal, and I’m going into my strongest event.”

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