World Champion snowboarder Ester Ledecka pulled the upset of the ages in PyeongChang, winning the women's super-G by 0.01 seconds over Austria's Anna Veith. She won Olympic gold in parallel GS snowboarding just a week later. The Czech athlete rides a snowboard and shreds on skis, creating a conundrum for the alpine skiing community: Is her super-G win an embarrassment for the field of full-time skiers or does it boost people's interest in a declining sport?
When Ester Ledecka came down in the super-G run at the 2018 Olympic Winter Games, I was only half paying attention to the race. I was simultaneously pulling stats on past Olympic super-G performances. She came through the finish line, and I saw the flash of green out of the corner of my eye. First thought: “What the heck just happened?”
Based on Ledecka’s face in the finish area (and her post-race interview), she had the exact same thought.
"I really don't know," the Czech athlete said. "You tell me. I was riding. I really don't know what happened. It was great."
Once we all got over the shock, the question that immediately rose to the forefront of conversation: What does it mean for ski racing if a snowboarder can win Olympic gold in our sport?
I believe that her unexpected success in our sport helps us with everything from media coverage to athlete retention. Let's begin by addressing the idea that her speed is surprising.
Olympic GS gold medalist Mikaela Shiffrin saw Ledecka's potential in the years before the Games. When I interviewed Shiffrin after one the downhill training runs in Pyeongchang, she noted that Ledecka had shown her speed on the World Cup and in South American Cup races. Even this season, Ledecka proved she had potential when she won a downhill training run in Lake Louise back in December much to the surprise of the small audience that was there.
On a similar note, Ledecka's snowboarding event, parallel GS, is relatively similar to alpine skiing. It's not like she switches between being Shaun White flying in and out of a half pipe and then moseys on over to a race course. The equipment changes between the two sports, but the racing mentality and tactics are similar. So, yes, she is a "part time skier," but Ledecka is a full-time racer. There is no need for the ski racing community to feel that her win is an embarrassment to our sport or the other amazing athletes in the field.
When we eliminate this idea of embarrassment, we are left with the fact that Ledecka is simply an extraordinary talent who has a stubborn belief that she can compete in both.
"I decided since I was a little child. For me it was a decision since I was four years old, or something like that, that I would compete in snowboarding GS and skiing," she said in South Korea. "I don't know how to train (in) just one."
Ledecka proves that athletes do not necessarily have to specialize in sports at a young age to compete at an elite level. Sure, not everyone will get to a level where they can win Olympic gold across to two sports, but if athletes do not have to choose between their passions, hopefully, they will stay in ski racing longer. Her advice for young athletes?
"Do whatever you want," she says. "If you want to choose just one, then choose just one. I wanted to choose both and a lot of people told me that it's not possible to get to the top in both. I mean, obviously, it's not easy."
As the old adage goes, nothing worth having is easy. Ledecka proved in Pyeongchang that the struggle can pay off in gold.
I didn’t see Ledecka’s winning run live. Unlike Gabbi, I was actually home in the US watching NBC’s primetime broadcast, busy formulating my storyline for -- at the time -- Veith’s amazing back-to-back Olympic super-G titles after NBC’s ski racing crew had signed off and figure skating droned on in the background.
Would I go with the injury storyline of an elite athlete battling through setback after setback before her triumphant return? Or would I go with something a little more edgy given NBC analyst and American skiing legend Bode Miller’s ‘colorful’ commentary and subsequent awkward on-air apology about Veith’s married life during the women’s giant slalom? Hmmm decisions, decisions…
I should have known better.
“This is a mistake,” I thought. I’ve seen the live timing on the FIS app have malfunctions before, so, in the moment, there was no need to panic. Slowly but surely, however, reality set in and I was forced to come to terms with what was staring me right in the face.
I’ll be honest, the ski racing purist in me hated, and I mean hated, the idea of a part-time World Cup athlete – and a snowboarder, no less – walking away with an Olympic gold medal in alpine skiing. These other athletes have dedicated their entire lives to ski racing, how could this be?
I was having an identity crisis. Maybe snowboarders were right this entire time, maybe we really do suck? Is ski racing really as easy as freeski icon Tanner Hall infamously said it was during a feud with American Downhiller Daron Rahlves back in 2004? This is a disaster!
Then, I watched her run. Wow. She owned it, start to finish. She put absolutely everything on the line and came out on top. It was a performance worthy of an Olympic gold medal, no doubt in my mind.
Primarily covering the men’s beat, I knew very little about Ledecka apart from her multisport ambitions before February 24. Once I had sufficiently calmed down and started to dig a little deeper, however, things began to come into better focus for me.
Is a snowboard athlete winning super-G gold bad for our sport? If anything, Ledecka’s performance was probably a little embarrassing for the current crop of top-tier women’s speed skiers. Other than that, I actually think that a result like this will actually do more for the sport than a predictable ‘the favorites walked away with the medals’ race we are so accustomed to seeing.
If you are a subscriber to the notion that ski racing is indeed on the decline, then a character like Ledecka might be just what we need to generate renewed interest in the sport. Yes, the Vonns, Shiffrins, and Hirschers of the world are incredibly inspiring in their own right, but someone who transcends sports like Ledecka opens up an entirely new realm of possibility.
If it takes a *gulp* snowboarder winning a gold medal in ski racing to encourage the next generation of superstars to hop in gates for the first time, then that’s a pill I will gladly swallow.