PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — Ester Ledecka’s brother, Jonas, designs comic books and dabbles in fashion on the side, putting together racing outfits for his little sister that transform the 22-year-old from the Czech Republic into something akin to a superhero.
And his next project is practically writing itself: a based-on-a-true story about a snowboarder … wait, a skier … wait, a snowboarder AND a skier … who made Olympic history with an Indian feather in her hair, a smile on her face and an unbridled fearlessness that took the dividing line between two disparate camps that long have been at odds and erased it completely.
Ledecka arrived in South Korea a month ago as close to a star as a snowboarder who races instead of soars can get — which is to say, not much of one at all.
She’ll leave with two gold medals: the one in parallel giant slalom she’s craved for years and the one that appeared out of nowhere at Jeongseon Alpine Centre on Feb. 17, when she stood motionless at the finish line of the super-G Alpine race waiting for what she thought was her actual time — not the one she saw flash across the videoboard that showed hers was best in the 44-woman field, ahead of Lindsey Vonn and all the rest — while trying to ignore the cameraman next to her telling her she’d won.
Only he wasn’t kidding. The victory transformed Ledecka in 81 seconds from a curiosity into something far more compelling. Only she doesn’t consider herself the new paradigm of the Olympic ideal after pulling off the unlikeliest of gold medal doubles and becoming just the third athlete ever to win individual golds in different sports in the same Winter Games. And don’t even get her started on whether she’s now a role model for multisport athletes everywhere.
“I hope not,” she said. “I’m too crazy.”
Though gold wasn’t always part of Ledecka’s plan, wearing custom-made racing suits designed to make her look like a superhero in two very different disciplines in Pyeongchang was, a decision that put serious pressure on Ledecka’s coaches to figure out a way to not sacrifice brilliance in one area for mere competitiveness in another.
It wasn’t easy on either side. Justin Reiter, who came on as Ledecka’s snowboarding coach just before the World Cup season started, worried that every day she had skis on her feet instead of a board gave an advantage to the women gunning for her in the PGS.
He confronted her about it on a chairlift at a resort in Colorado, asking Ledecka point-blank about her goals. If it was to win the PGS, where she was a two-time world champion, that’s where she needed to put her focus. In retrospect, Reiter realized he wasn’t pushing her agenda but rather his. The next day, on another emotional chairlift ride, he backtracked.
“For her past (snowboard) coaches, even for me, we were like, ‘Ah, the skiing, the skiing,’ because we know the potential she has in snowboarding,” said Reiter, a former PGS rider himself. “But for me, it was very liberating to just say: ‘It’s your career. I’m just here to help.'”
In the interim, Reiter — and the rest of the world — has learned it’s unwise to put limits on Ledecka.
“We needed to stop being afraid of what could happen,” Reiter said. “She’s one of a kind.”
Besides, Reiter ended up getting his way anyway. Consider this: Ledecka’s busy World Cup snowboarding schedule meant she was on skis just seven days in January before the biggest race of her life. Seven days. And she won anyway. She celebrated by eating at KFC , hung out for a week, then dominated the PGS while shifting from what she calls “Skier Ester” to “Snowboarder Ester.”
The reality is, she’s both, and perhaps even more than that. While Ledecka is doing her best to downplay two weeks that changed the arc of her athletic career — she politely laughed during a “This Is Your Life”-type presentation by the Czech Republic team on Sunday that highlighted, among other things, her love for chocolate and her guitar mastery of a pair of songs by The Beatles — Reiter would rather she embrace it.
“You see people say “it’s like two totally different sports,'” Reiter said. “They like to throw that ‘like’ in there. ‘They’re like two totally different sports.’ They ARE two different sports. Period.”
Asked for a metaphor and Reiter seizes on one that helps explain the unexplainable. Ledecka’s 2018 Olympics are the equivalent of winning a tennis tournament and a golf tournament in a span of a week. In Alpine, you’re racing the clock, like the way a golfer navigates the course. In PGS, you’re taking on an opponent 30 feet away. Both use a ball, but the similarities end there.
“It’s two different mentalities,” Reiter said.
One Ledecka bridges with remarkable ease, though old habits die hard. Asked if she now considers herself in the same class of skiers as Vonn and Mikaela Shiffrin, Ledecka shrugged, then used a term that betrayed her roots.
“I hope to be as good a rider as they are,” she said.
It was an opening skiing coach Tomas Bank jumped on instantly.
“We don’t say ‘riding,’ we say ‘skiing,'” he said with a laugh.
Ledecka has plenty of time to get the terminology down. Besides, it doesn’t matter. If it’s on snow and requires you to go fast with precision, the free spirit who buys a new Indian feather during annual visits to Colorado for training is probably good at it. Just not great. Not yet.
“We still have a lot of work in front of us,” she said. “It’s still not perfect. I want to win all the gold medals.”
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