Eileen Gu celebrates her first day at Stanford University

PHOTO: Instagram/eileen_gu_

Most people spend their gap year travelling, or working to save money. Eileen Gu, of course, was busy winning three Olympic medals for China at the 2022 Beijing Games.

But now the 19-year-old freestyle skier is hitting the books as well as the slopes, and has officially begun life at the prestigious Stanford University in her native California, where she had deferred entry into the Class of 2022.

“Day one,” Gu wrote in an Instagram post, alongside pictures from her welcoming ceremony with her mother Yan Gu, and her grandmother.

Born and raised in San Francisco to an American father and Chinese mother, Gu drew international attention when she opted to represent China for its first home Winter Olympics, where she became a breakout star with gold in the big air and half-pipe events, and silver in the slopestyle.

The part-time model has found instant fame and fortune, gaining millions of followers on social media – and millions of dollars in endorsement deals – but she has kept her commitment to pursuing a degree at the famed school, where she is believed to be leaning towards majoring in international relations.

Named by Time magazine as one of the 100 most influential people in the world, Gu caused fresh controversy when she was appointed an ambassador for the US bid to host the Winter Games in Salt Lake City in 2030 or 2034.

She said her decision showed the “beauty of globalisation”, adding that she had the backing of “incredibly supportive” China. Indeed, more than 220 million Chinese fans flocked to Weibo to voice their support for Gu’s decision, with many describing her as a “powerful” female role model and ambassador.

Gu’s multicultural appeal was also on show when she celebrated her 19th birthday this month.

“Waking up to birthday wishes on big screens and billboards in Times Square, Beijing, Shanghai, Hangzhou, Wenzhou and more is quite possibly the craziest thing to ever happen to me,” she wrote in another Instagram post to her 1.6 million followers.

“To the supporters who made this (and all of your other posts and messages) happen – thank you so, so much.”

Gu went on to describe the challenges she has faced in 2022, having been thrown into the international spotlight at such a young age.

“I try not to get too sappy online, but this year has simultaneously been the best and most challenging year of my life,” she said.

“Both in skiing and in my personal life, I’ve dealt with some of the hardest setbacks, moments of doubt, and periods of immense pressure in my life.

“Even though there’s a lot I don’t share on social media, I want to express how grateful I am for the unending support and myriad encouraging messages. They’ve truly gotten me through so much.”

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.