This made no sense to Ester Ledecka. Just simply couldn’t be. Could. Not. Be.
Which is why the part-time ski racer, part-time snowboarder from the Czech Republic stood so still, absolutely motionless and expressionless, for several moments after crossing the finish line in the Olympic super-G and seeing the numbers on a video board that appeared to show she was fast enough to be the gold medalist. Not merely any gold medalist, but one of the most unconventional and out-of-nowhere gold medalists in Alpine history.
This, the 22-year-old Ledecka would explain later, was what went through her mind at that moment: “Is this a kind of mistake?”
Then came this: “OK, they’re going to change the time. I’m going to wait for a little bit, and you’re going to switch and [add] some more seconds.”
That never happened. This was no mistake. This was real. Her posted time of 1 minute, 21.11 seconds was, indeed, accurate. It was, indeed, 0.01 seconds – yes, one one-hundredth of a second – better than Austria’s Anna Veith, the defending Olympic champion and, as the leader until the moment when the relatively unknown and low-ranked Ledecka took her turn as the 26th woman down the slope, the presumed repeat Olympic champion.
Instead, it was Ledecka who collected the prized medal. This is someone who has participated in only 19 World Cup skiing races in her entire career – Mikaela Shiffrin, in contrast, has been in 23 this season alone – and only once finished as high as seventh. Someone who is a far more accomplished snowboarder, owning a world championship in the parallel giant slalom, an event she plans to enter at the Pyeongchang Games next week, an unprecedented achievement.
“She’s not a medal favorite. She just wanted to come here and be the first person ever to ski and snowboard race,” Justin Reiter said, who competed for the U.S. at the Sochi Olympics in snowboarding and now is Ledecka’s coach for that sport. “She stayed in her heart and she stayed in her own head and she skied like she can ski and it was beautiful to watch.”
Everything about this was remarkable. Or maybe that doesn’t even come close to capturing it. So pick another word. Extraordinary. Astonishing. Unbelievable. It was all of those things, and more, to Ledecka herself. To the rest of the field, which included superstar Lindsey Vonn of the U.S. and other past medalists such as Lara Gut of Switzerland and Federica Brignone of Italy. To everyone.
“Definitely shocking,” Vonn said, who tied for sixth.
“Just wow,” Switzerland’s Michelle Gisin said, a 2017 silver medalist at the world championships who was ninth Saturday.
That pretty much described the day at the Jeongseon Alpine Center, which began with a one-hour delay because of blustery winds that calmed but still played a factor during the race, serving as tailwinds for some skiers but acting as a headwind to others.
When things finally began under a clear-as-can-be blue sky, Vonn went first. The bronze medalist in super-G and gold medalist in downhill at the 2010 Vancouver Games but sidelined for the 2014 Olympics was fast in stretches. However, she lost a chunk of time both before the midpoint and again on the last key part of the course, a jump-turn combination that she flubbed and was sure cost her a medal.
“That’s why it’s so difficult to win at the Olympics,” Vonn said. “Because literally anything can happen.”
Sure seemed to this time.
First Gut, the 2016 overall World Cup champ and a downhill bronze medalist at Sochi, temporarily moved into first place. Then Weirather, the super-G silver medalist at last year’s world championships, moved in front by 0.01 seconds. Then it was Veith who took over first place, by 0.10 seconds. And that’s how things stood for the next 10 skiers. It is generally considered unlikely – although not impossible, of course – for anyone outside of the first 20 starters to emerge as the winner.
Veith was sure she’d clinched a gold. Weirather figured the silver was hers. Gut couldn’t wait to get that bronze around her neck.
“They were a little bit in shock,” Ledecka said. “They were staring at me a little bit.”
Now comes a decision for Ledecka. The Alpine downhill is Wednesday and requires serious training runs down the mountain beforehand. Qualifying for her snowboard event is Thursday.
So which should she focus on?
“I’m sure that my ski coach will be a little bit pushy on downhill,” Ledecka said. “But my snowboard coach wants me on snowboard.”
Her work in the two sports can help her performance in each.
The speed from skiing translates to snowboarding. And the balance required in snowboarding is a boost for ski racing. Reiter pointed out, for example, that on the same final jump that gave Vonn trouble Saturday, Ledecka’s weight shifted too far backward, but she managed to recover.
“It was kind of scary there for a moment. She was able to save it,” he said. “And that’s because of her heart and because of her ability with a snowboard.”
Ledecka proved to be pretty adept at her other sport, too.
Unlikely as it might have seemed, she forever will be able to call herself an Olympic Alpine champion.
“The fact that she’s able to beat all of us and be a snowboarder is pretty darn impressive,” Vonn said. “At the Olympics, a lot of weird stuff happens.”
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