Olympic gold medalist Ester Ledecka is the fastest snowboarder on two skis. Wait, what?
By BARRY SVRLUGA | The Washington Post | Published: February 17, 2018
BUKPEONG, South Korea — We are trained to watch for the reaction, and when an Olympic champion stops herself at the bottom of a ski hill, we have seen them all. Both hands to the helmet. Doubled over at the waist. Ski poles raised, and sometimes twirled. Jot them down and report it out, because we will equate whatever action transpires with pure, unadulterated joy.
What, then, to make of an athlete named Ester Ledecka, a 22-year-old Czech woman who stopped herself Saturday at the base of the hill at the Jeongseon Alpine Centre? The clock showed that she had taken the lead in the Olympic super-G, besting Austrian star Anna Veith by one one-hundredth of a second. The crowd, disbelieving, yelled and stared at Ledecka, encouraging her to emote.
Here's the thing: She is a snowboarder by trade. She is here to compete in the parallel giant slalom on one plank, not two. This result, beating Lindsey Vonn and Tina Weirather and Lara Gut and the best skiers in the world was not possible. So Ledecka did . . . nothing.
"I was looking at the board and I thought, 'Are they going to put a couple more seconds up there?'" Ledecka said afterward. "And I was just waiting and watching and waiting until they would change the time. And nothing was happening, and everybody were screaming. I was looking. Now, it's weird."
Welcome to the Olympics, where on a beautiful winter day, the autotrons of the Alpine skiing world can be upstaged — flat-out beaten, really — by a remarkable athlete who splits her time between two worlds that rarely overlap. If she sticks to the original plan to compete in the parallel giant slalom, which begins Thursday, she will become the first person to compete in both skiing and snowboarding at the Olympics.
Not just the same Olympics. Any Olympics.
"It takes a lot of effort to become a professional skier," said Justin Reiter, an American who represented the United States in snowboarding four years ago in Sochi and now serves as Ledecka's snowboard coach. "It takes a lot of effort to become a professional snowboarder. And she does both with ease."
Let's put this plainly: This is absurd. It can't happen. That Ledecka is even here trying to compete in these two sports — and to be sure, they are vastly different — is beyond unlikely. People put their lives into pursuing the Olympics in one or the other. There's just not time — not in the day, not in a month, not in a calendar year — to do both.
"All I can say is I wish I had as much athleticism as she does to be able to win at two sports in the same Olympics, because I'm only good at one sport, and that's ski racing," said Vonn, the Olympic gold medalist who tied for sixth Saturday. "So the fact that she's able to beat all of us and be a snowboarder is pretty darn impressive. At the Olympics, a lot of weird stuff happens."
But this isn't weird for one day in one event. This is weird, period. Weird, and beautiful.
"I love this surprise that sport can provide," said Italian Sofia Goggia, another contender.
So let's unpack how this can happen, both for a career and for the day, because there may not be a more unlikely outcome at these Pyeongchang Games. If there is, I hope I'm there, because it'll make North Carolina State over Houston and Buster Douglas over Mike Tyson and the 1980 U.S. hockey team over the Russians seem quaint.
For starters, it's exceedingly difficult to overstate the difference between snowboarding and skiing — in function, for sure, but in style and mind-set and upbringing as well. Ledecka was asked about the overlap between those worlds, and she mustered: "It's down a hill, both of them." People laughed. But really, that's the extent of it.
And Ledecka started her career as a snowboarder, plain and simple. She is accomplished in that area — twice a gold medalist at the world championships — and is considered a medal contender in snowboarding here. Reiter, her snowboard coach, trains with her in Europe when she's working on snowboarding, then hands her off to a pair of ski coaches when she floats into that world.
Managing one foot in each of two worlds involves managing a schedule and managing energy. But Reiter also believes Ledecka's mind is suited for both.
"If you give her the most mundane task, she won't step away from it until she's mastered it," Reiter said. "The way she's processing things is very slow, and then it builds to race speed. And once it's locked, it's completely automatized. She's smarter and more creative than a robot, but she can replicate moves over and over again far better than I've ever seen anyone."
And yet, skiing at the highest level is a relatively new development. She has, in her career, 19 World Cup starts. Her one top-10 finish came in December, seventh in a downhill at Lake Louise, Canada. In super-G — which has more turns than downhill, but still generates high speeds — she had never finished higher than 19th.
And then, this? Yeah, sure, Ledecka has occasionally skied fast in training runs, her competitors said. That's fine. It doesn't change the fact that this has to be one of the greatest upsets in the history of Olympic skiing. Or the Olympics, period.
The way the Alpine fields are set, the top 20 skiers in the world slot into the first 20 spots. Veith, who won gold in super-G four years ago in Sochi, had already celebrated an apparent victory by the time Ledecka took the hill, the 26th starter.
When Ledecka came to each split — where the skiers are measured in how they relate to the leader's run — the numbers were displayed on the giant scoreboard at the foot of the hill. If they're behind, the scoreboard shows red. If they're ahead, it shows green.
Wait. Ledecka was outpacing Veith?
"When you see green lights," Reiter said, "your heart starts to race."
At the finish, there was Ledecka's time: 1:21.11 seconds. Veith had skied in 1:21.12.
"For me, the first reaction was like, 'Is this possible?'" Veith said. "And then, 'Yes, it is.'"
As Ledecka stared, officials never added seconds to her time. She stared some more. Still 1:21.11. It meant one thing, and that was gold.
When Ledecka arrived at her post-race news conference, mandatory for medal winners, she declined to take off her ski goggles.
"I was not as prepared as the other girls that I would be at the ceremony," she said, "and I don't have no makeup."
That's how, on a perfect Saturday on a mountain in South Korea, a snowboarder won a gold medal in skiing at the Olympics. Given that bit of ridiculousness, we have little choice but to tune in to the parallel giant slalom finals in a week. Because over there, they'll certainly be asking, "Does this skier really think she's going to beat all of us?"