American-born Eileen Gu of China landed her first-ever attempt at a four-and-a-half-rotation trick Tuesday to secure the debut Olympic freeski big air gold, simultaneously checking off the first of three events in her triple title pursuit at the 2022 Winter Games.
Reigning X Games champion Tess Ledeux of France landed the same double cork 1620 on her opening run for a 94.50, identical to the score Gu later received on hers in Run 3, but couldn't stick the landing on her other two attempts and frustratingly took runner-up silver.
“That was the best moment of my life. The happiest moment, day, whatever — of my life. I just cannot believe what just happened," Gu, 18, said. “That was a trick I have never done before, had never attempted before."
Progression in women's freeski big air has grown exponentially over the last three months. Gu won December's Big Air Steamboat competition by stomping a women's competition-first double cork 1440, and a month later Ledeux raised the bar by landing a women's competition-first 1620 at X Games.
"I was guaranteed a podium spot when I dropped in … I was thinking, 'Should I improve on my previous one and go for the sliver or should I whip out this random trick I’d never done before and go for gold?' said Gu, who was greeted by IOC president Thomas Bach after her win. "Even if I didn’t land it, I felt it would send a message out to the world and hopefully encourage more girls to break their own boundaries. That was my biggest goal going into my last run. I reminded myself to have fun and enjoy the moment and that, no matter what, I was so grateful to even have this opportunity to even be here."
At nearly 18 and a half years old, Gu's title makes her the youngest-ever gold medalist in the overarching Olympic sport of freestyle skiing. She also becomes China's first gold medalist in freeski, following seven previous in the traditional freestyle skiing sport of aerials.
Unable to find second clean landing, Tess Ledeux takes silver
Ledeux was visibly distraught after her third run. The 20-year-old tried twice on her final two attempts to land a switch 1440 – a trick that if executed correctly would likely have topped Gu's second-best run, a forward double 1440 – but both times lifted a ski upon landing.
"I am a bit disappointed, but I am so happy to grab the second place today," she said. "I'm speechless. It's been a lot of training, a lot of support. I am speechless, sorry. I just want to say thanks to my family, friends, everybody."
Ledeux praised the high degree of skill and effort from the field, saying, "the level of competition was so strong and I am just so proud to be part of the podium." Gu agreed, saying she landed the final jump because of them.
“I am really grateful that we are all in this together," Gu said. "We all have the same goal to push the sport and do our personal best on that day. I know how it feels [to lose]. It doesn’t always go your way, and I understand that. [Ledeux] still skis amazing."
Mathilde Gremaud brings home birthday bronze; plus more
Swiss Mathilde Gremaud, the 2018 Olympic silver medalist in slopestyle, grabbed bronze on her 22nd birthday by busting out a double 1260 for 89.25 and a 93.25-point switch double 1440, the latter ultimately going down as the top score among all competitors' second runs.
"It was insane. I gave it all I had and I'm so happy to have come away with a medal," she said. "It's the best present for sure … It's been a tough summer so I'm super happy to have this reward today."
American Darian Stevens finished 11th. She attempted a double 1440 on her final run but under-rotated. On camera awaiting her score, Stevens said she had tried the trick for the first time during training earlier that day.
Gu continues her hunt for three golds Sunday with slopestyle qualifying, which precedes the final on Monday – 9 p.m. Saturday and 8:30 p.m. Sunday ET, respectively. Halfpipe, arguably her best event, takes places the following Thursday and Friday, Feb. 17-18. That's 8:30 p.m. ET on Feb. 16 and 17 stateside.
SEE MORE: Women's Freeski Big Air Final