Gu Ailing dazzles during the FIS halfpipe World Cup qualification round on Thursday at Zhangjiakou's Genting Resort in Hebei province. The superstar topped the standings to seal her spot in Saturday's final at the Beijing 2022 venue. (CHINA DAILY)
Not even her mom's plea to play it safe could hold Gu Ailing back from doing what she does best as the freeski superstar returned to the Olympic venue where her global fame took off.
Despite riding with pain in her right shoulder caused by a fall in training last month, Gu went all out on Thursday in her first competition in China since winning two gold medals at Beijing 2022.
The 20-year-old stomped two qualification runs in style to secure a spot in Saturday's final of the 2023-24 halfpipe World Cup season opener at Genting Resort in Zhangjiakou, Hebei province.
Cheered on by an adoring crowd who waved her posters and chanted her name, Gu treated the home fans to a smooth first run before stepping it up a notch in the second, throwing back-to-back 900-degree tricks to top the qualification standings with 94.75 points and revive memories of her home Olympic success.
"I am so grateful for so many people showing up today to support me and I am really stoked that I put on a show for them, even though my mom had told me not to do difficult tricks," said Gu, who decided to compete at Genting despite doctors advising that immediate surgery on her right shoulder should be considered following her training crash about 10 days ago.
"I didn't listen to my mom ... I felt like I am one of those who is born to compete. I just love the competition so much," said Gu, who was born in California, yet chose to represent her mother's home country internationally before the Beijing Winter Games.
"I am so excited and proud to land my full set of tricks in a real competition that I hadn't been able to do in training."
Hanna Faulhaber of the United States finished second with 90.75 points, with China's Li Fanghui and Zhang Kexin occupying third and fourth place, respectively. The eight-woman final takes place on Saturday morning, when each skier will be ranked by their highest score from two runs.
Developed in the States during her junior years, Gu shot to prominence as a freestyle prodigy before soaring to superstardom by winning two gold medals (Big Air, halfpipe) and a silver (slopestyle) in her senior Olympic debut at Beijing 2022.
Having visited the country regularly since childhood, she still calls China home.
"It feels so good riding at home here," said Gu, who has been warmly received at all her public appearances during this trip.
Her 6.45 million followers on Weibo are testament to her popularity, however her decision to compete for China had sparked online criticism early last year, especially from social media users in the United States.
Gu said she's learned to embrace all the attention, good or bad, as a motivation to keep pursuing her career goals — both in sports and the world of fashion, where she is a highly sought-after model.
"I have faced a lot of pressure, doubts and even some hate since I was 15. But I keep telling myself that for every hater there are perhaps 100 supporters," said Gu, who studies quantum physics at the prestigious Stanford University.
"They (the fans) have a huge impact on me. I really appreciate the support."
The Genting World Cup leg resumes on Friday with the snowboard halfpipe finals, where China's 2018 Olympic silver medalist Liu Jiayu and seven-time overall World Cup winner Cai Xuetong will go for gold in the women's competition.
As the host's sole entry in the men's final, young rider Wang Ziyang will challenge an elite field including reigning Olympic champion Ayumu Hirano of Japan and Australian star Scotty James.