In one of the most astonishing tales ever scripted at the Winter Games, Ester Ledecka, a Czech snowboarder competing on borrowed skis, snatched gold in the women’s Super-G with a dramatic flourish so unexpected that US broadcasters NBC had packed up and gone home for the day.
Her reaction of pure incredulity – coupled with the anguish etched across the face of Austria’s Anna Veith, who had been presumed to have gold wrapped up – promised to be among the defining images of these Olympics.
Almost always, in the alpine events, a winner emerges from the top 20 skiers, with the rest of the field left to flesh out the spectacle in ascending order of obscurity. So, when Veith, the defending champion, tucked neatly into the lead ahead of her two main rivals, the American great Lindsey Vonn and Tina Weirather of tiny Liechtenstein, NBC, like everyone else, decided that the outcome was settled.
But this was to reckon without Ledecka, wearing bib No.26, who leapfrogged everybody with a run for posterity, despite treating this race as a merely a novelty, using skis lent by giant slalom gold medallist Mikaela Shiffrin.
The parallel giant slalom SNOWBOARD world champion is LEADING the ladies' Super-G at #PyeongChang2018! #CZE Ester Ledecka with the ski of her life, and look at her reaction! #AlpineSkiing pic.twitter.com/PvB5PnZ4A9
— 7Olympics (@7olympics) February 17, 2018
For Ledecka is far better known as a snowboarder, a world champion no less, whose moonlighting in skiing had yet to yield even a podium finish at a major event. As she stood dumbfounded at the bottom of the hill, a cameraman had to confirm to her that, yes, she truly was the fastest of them all. “I really don’t know what happened,” she said, beaming, acknowledging that she thought at first the scoreboard had malfunctioned.
“This must be some mistake, they’re going to switch the time for some others. I just saw my mum, we were watching each other and we didn’t understand.”
The daughter of Janek Ledecky, one of the Czech Republic’s most popular singers and composers, the 22-year-old had barely believed she could be even a bridesmaid in a field of this quality. But as she shredded through the Jeongseon course with the sweeping, carving turns that Super-G necessitates, faltering only with a rocky landing off the final jump, she announced her pedigree as one of the most versatile talents on snow.
Ranked a distant 43rd on the World Cup circuit, in this discipline she tore down the mountain with a devil-may-care attitude that left the Super-G specialists stupefied. “It’s definitely shocking,” said Vonn, the winner of 81 World Cup titles. “I wish I had as much athleticism as she has, where I could just hop from sport to sport and just win everything. Unfortunately, I’m only good at ski racing – and she still beats me.” Or, as Switzerland’s Michelle Gisin put it: “She shows how much you can win by just going crazy.”
In a charming press conference, Ledecka suggested that she had perhaps still not explored the full range of her sporting gifts. An expert windsurfer, she disclosed that she was tempted by a switch to the water for the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo. “For sure,” she smiled. “Why not?” She could also claim a gilded background in hockey, given that her grandfather, Jan Klapac, won two Olympic medals as part of the Czechoslovakia teams of 1964 and 1968.
Amid the delirium of the scene, she was still thinking less of what she had just done than her beloved snowboard. “Until today, I thought that I’m a better snowboarder,” she said.
“Actually, I don’t want to be rude – you are all great – but I didn’t really expect that I would be sitting here. I should have already had three runs on my snowboard by now.”
Ledecka’s coach, Justin Reiter, who competed for the US in snowboarding at Sochi 2014, said: “Every time she pulls out of the start gate, she has a fire behind her and inside her. But I didn’t know that this would be her first skiing podium. I knew it was possible, but I didn’t expect it.”
As her snowboarding career has taken flight, Ledecka has opted to ski only on her off-days. It was supposed to be a distraction for her, an experiment. But on the grandest stage it provided her with a platform to one of the most improbable glories of all.