Olympic gold medalist Eileen Gu has transfixed the sports, luxury and fashion worlds. Known as Gu Ailing in China, the California-born superstar has excelled in professional freestyle skiing, the half pipe, slope style and big air events, making controversial headlines when she competed for China instead of the US in the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics — and earned two gold medals in the process.
“I think I’m really blessed with the platform I have,” the 19-year-old tells Jing Daily at Watches & Wonders 2023 in Geneva, where she was a guest as a brand ambassador of IWC Schaffhausen. “And with that comes a lot of responsibility. I think that as a young person, the reach that you have is a new way to define your voice… And so what you do with that suddenly becomes a lot more meaningful because you have the opportunity to have a much broader reach nowadays than you could 10 years ago or in previous generations.”
Besides being an Olympic champion, Gu is also a sought-after brand ambassador, working with top-tier luxury brands such as Louis Vuitton and Tiffany & Co. With model-esque looks, multicultural and multilingual Gu (who speaks fluent Mandarin with a Beijing accent) is a China marketer’s dream. China’s obsession with Gu in no small part drove a boom in the country’s snow sports scene, inspiring many young fans to take up skiing and snowboarding.
With her fame, the Asian American athlete is “encouraging people to be unafraid to break their boundaries, to be unafraid of failure, to redefine what beauty is in the context of femininity and power,” says Gu. “And also to discover their own style. Go outside and be confident and make friends. I feel all these are things sport has brought to me… and a lot of people have not had the opportunity to experience it.”
Flying around the world, staying in competitive form and pursuing commercial endeavors — Gu’s life might seem hectic to others. But she’s a pro at multitasking: “I think that when you do a bunch of different things, you maintain the passion and you maintain the efficiency within each one of them individually.”
Her talent and competitive streak has taken her to the X Games, World Championships and, of course, the Olympics. These achievements are all the more impressive considering she’s balancing student life at Stanford, where she has taken classes in quantum physics and political science, and being a normal teen.
“Managing time is a huge thing to me, honestly. It’s my secret weapon,” the athlete adds. “And what I mean by that is it’s not really about the volume you put into something. It’s about the optimization and the efficiency that you put into it. And what I mean by that is people always ask me how I’m able to do so many seemingly completely disparate things and in the sense of, why are you an extreme sports athlete, a model, and a full-time student? Like, where is all of this time coming from?”
So just how does she manage such hyper-efficiency? She prefers to study in 90-minute intervals, taking breaks in between to go work out or do something else.
“Even if I’m only spending three hours, I’m probably getting the efficiency and the work done and the productivity that’s equivalent to six. Because if you’re actually just sitting there for six hours, you’re spacing out for three of them on your phone, you’re distracted,” Gu explains.
“Everything that I’m doing, I’m a hundred percent in it, you know. Like right now I’m in this conversation, I’m thinking about your questions, I’m doing it. Here, I’m at Watches and Wonders. I’m learning, I’m absorbing.” She’s not thinking about the assignment that’s due in two days or her friends back home. Part of her skill is to stay focused in the moment.
On her ambassadorship with IWC, Gu remarks that they share similar values. There’s a respect for history and tradition, for class and elegance, and for precision in all the things they do. At the same time, Gu says, “we’re also not afraid to innovate and break boundaries.”
Gu laughs, admitting that she is “a huge nerd” and is fascinated by aspects like the special Ceratanium material created by IWC for its watches. She waxes lyrical about these scientific innovations “on a microscopic scale…and the process of testing, and how you make something light, functional, and combine those elements in a way that won’t scratch ceramic, that you can’t scratch with anything other than diamond. That’s crazy.”
Gu’s fascination with science and innovation is perhaps not so surprising given that she studies in Palo Alto. “I’m in the center of it,” she quips. “It’s really the future.”
As for her own personal style, Gu admits that she’s a fan of “all things sparkly.” In Geneva that day, she’s wearing an IWC Portofino watch. “I like the complication. I like the day and night and I like diamonds,” she adds. When it comes to sportier watches, it’s the Tahoe that’s currently her favorite. “These two models are on the opposite ends of the spectrum, but they also represent me, right? Fashion and sports.”
Gu is no doubt collecting a few lucrative luxury deals on the back of her sports superstardom. With her popularity in China and global appeal, brands and media have been lining up to be associated with the star. But for Gu, there’s a cognizance of her “responsibility to the greater good.”
The last time she was on snow, right before the X Games, she was teaching small kids at the Aspen Valley Ski Club on a trip organized by IWC. “And at the end of the day, everybody was doing 360s! I’m not like necessarily implying, but maybe subtly implying that I’m a very good coach,” Gu laughs. “I think seeing the excitement of these kids skiing outdoors and learning new tricks was really inspiring and very meaningful to me.”