Rookie Gu makes freeski world take notice after gold in pipe coming off bronze in big air

Defending pipe champ Sildaru withdraws after hurting knee earlier Friday in practice

Eileen Gu might be a teenager, but her poise and maturity was immensely evident Friday night when she won gold in her first trip down the X Games Aspen superpipe, just hours after coming off the big air podium with a bronze medal.

The only rookie skier in this year’s field, the 17-year-old from San Francisco had quite the debut Friday, taking the lead after her first superpipe run in the jam format and never letting up. She said her laps through the Buttermilk pipe “were the four best runs I’ve ever done in halfpipe. Ever.”

Gu is the first woman to win the pipe gold in her first time at the event. However, she’s not finished at Buttermilk just yet. Gu will compete Saturday in slopestyle, and suddenly she’s a favorite to podium.

“I’m going to be real with you: I don’t think I’m going to be able to process (winning gold) until after slopestyle tomorrow. I say that because I’m a very competitive person and it’s not over until it’s over,” Gu said. “I’m here for three events, and I’m going to put my all into my three events.

“And then after that I’m going to sleep better than I’ve ever slept before in my entire life. These last couple of days of training have been hectic.”

Gu’s road to the top of the superpipe podium opened up a bit just a few hours before the start when reigning champ Kelly Sildaru withdrew after injuring her left knee on a fall during the final practice run for big air earlier in the day.

But there was still Canadian Cassie Sharpe in the superpipe field. The Canadian has two golds and two bronze medals at X Games Aspen. Sharpe came in this year with a new trick and again progressing the sport.

Just last week she attempted and landed her first try at a 1260 (3.5 rotations) to open her runs. She did it last week training at Copper Mountain, and she repeated it this week in training. Friday night, Sharpe again landed the 1260, but remained in second behind Gu.

On Sharpe’s third run, she soared nearly 12 feet above the deck en route to another 1260, but on the landing caught her left ski and crashed, injuring her left knee.

“Pretty much the first run you want to put down a clean run, then second run push your stuff,” Sharpe said Friday night while sitting in a folding chair at the base of the halfpipe and waiting for the men’s competition to start. “Then into the third run you want to go as big as you can, grab every thing and do your highest degree of difficulty. That’s how we played it, and it worked out before that (crash). But unfortunately when you start pushing it, injuries can happen.”

She said she landed the 1260 on the first attempt on snow at Copper, a feat she called validating.

“Yesterday, I did it here in training and I knew that I could do it if I wanted to do it,” Sharpe said. “When you start pushing height on something like that, things can go wrong. But I’m really stoked that I did it.”

Despite the injury, she was in good spirits while sitting at the base of the halfpipe and waiting for the men’s competition to start. Sharpe said she’ll have an MRI soon to find out how severe it might be.

Her Canadian teammate Rachael Karker won bronze Friday night, coming off her silver medal last year.

The injury earlier in the day to Sildaru made the halfpipe a seven-woman field. Sildaru pulled herself out of the pipe event, according to an ESPN media personnel, and will be re-evaluated before the start of Saturday’s ski slopestyle event.

Sildaru, 18, is a four-time gold medalist on the Buttermilk slopestyle course, including her first gold when she broke onto the scene in 2016 at age 13. Overall at Aspen, she’s won five golds, two silver and one bronze;.

Like Sildaru’s coming out moment as a rookie, Gu made the freeski world take notice of the next young phenom. Her competitive nature and drive is evident in other areas. Gu graduated from high school early so she could come out to train and compete, and is currently taking a gap year before starting at Stanford University in fall 2022.

That will come after she is set to compete in the 2022 Beijing Olympics. Gu was born and raised in San Francisco, and her mother is Chinese. Gu announced in June 2019 she would compete for China in the Winter Games.

Once she landed at her first X Games, Gu had training from 12:30 to 9 p.m. Wednesday with a 30 minute break. Thursday, she said she went from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.

“And today I had slopestyle practice, big air practice, big air contest, halfpipe practice and then halfpipe contest. So, I’m exhausted,” she said.

Despite all that, Gu said her legs are still fresh, and she credits that to eight years as a competitive long-distance runner and the endurance she learned.

“People ask, how are you not tired?’ and I tell them, ‘you know, I used to run 16 miles at a time.’ Also the adrenaline. I’m a rookie. I’m the only rookie in my events. I’m the youngest person in my events. Just knowing that and being out here is such a dream, so that energy is keeping me here and keeping me awake and excited.”

She said despite landing back-to-back 900s to open her first two runs, she wasn’t fully happy because a few things needed to be cleaned up.

“I went huge on my third run and I remember in the middle of my rodeo while I was upside down, I was like ‘I think I just won X Games,’ while I was in the air,” she said, “because I have never skied that well in my entire life.”