In the space of one week at the PyeongChang 2018 Winter Games, Ester Ledecká achieved something that had never been done before. Her surprise victory in a field of speed specialists in the Alpine skiing super-G on 17 February was followed on 24 February by an expected win in the snowboard parallel giant slalom, a discipline that she dominates every World Cup season. And the Czech champion’s achievement in the skiing was no one-off, as she proved this winter by winning the World Cup downhill title!
As the end of the PyeongChang Games approached, on the eve of the Closing Ceremony, the question on everyone’s lips was: would Ester Ledecká do it?
She was of course the overwhelming favourite going into the snowboard parallel giant slalom on Saturday 24 February at the Phoenix Snowpark, but the 22-year-old Czech champion had caused a huge upset the previous weekend in the Alpine skiing super-G.
She beat off competition from a field of speed specialists and pipped defending champion Anna Veith of Austria by 0.01 seconds, having never finished higher than 19th in the discipline at the World Cup. The image of Ledecká looking utterly incredulous in the finish area will live long in the memory.
She had already taken part in the Alpine skiing giant slalom on 15 February, finishing 23rd. On the programme between Ledecká’s surprise victory in the super-G and the snowboard race on 24 February were downhill training sessions on the Sunday, Monday and Tuesday, the race on Wednesday 21 February, the heats for the snowboard parallel giant slalom, and then the final on 24 February. The remarkable Ledecká, who has never wanted to choose between Alpine skiing and snowboarding, this time had to sacrifice the downhill.
Imperious on a snowboard
Prior to the Winter Games, in the 2017-2018 Snowboard World Cup, Ledecká (pronounced “Ledetska”) – the reigning world champion – had built up a considerable lead over her closest rival, Germany’s Ramona Theresia Hofmeister, before heading into the final stage and claiming victory. Over the course of the season, she beat all of the racers who would also be in contention in the parallel giant slalom competition at the Phoenix Snowpark: Switzerland’s Patrizia Kummer, at the 2017 FIS World Championships in Sierra Nevada, and in a remarkable series of World Cup victories, in addition to Hofmeister, Germany’s Selina Jörg, the Sochi 2014 Olympic parallel slalom champion Julia Dujmovits from Austria, Claudia Riegler, also of Austria, and Japan’s Tomoka Takeuchi, to name but a few.
In the morning of the Olympic parallel giant slalom competition, Ledecká began with dominant performances in the two qualification runs, with a total time of 1:28.90, far ahead of Olympic Athlete from Russia Alena Zavazina (1:30:16) and Jörg (1:30.27). In the knock-out rounds, she lived up to her status as the favourite with a series of assured performances. In the round of 16, she beat Switzerland’s Kummer by 0.78 seconds, while in the quarter-final, her margin of victory over Austria’s Daniela Ulbing was 0.97 seconds. Always in control on a course that demanded technical nous without being overly steep, Ledecká then took advantage of Hofmeister’s fall in the semi-final, before holding her nerve in the final against the imposing and experienced Jörg. The Czech stormed into the lead and kept her cool to finish the run with a winning margin of 0.46 seconds.
When asked if she was the star of the Games, Ledecká admitted that she didn’t feel as though she was, but that it certainly sounded good. What was without question was that she had established herself as a Czech sporting legend and made her mark on Olympic history by becoming the first athlete to win in both skiing and snowboarding, a feat she achieved in the space of a week. Fortunately for her, this was made possible by the Games schedule and the fact that she decided not to compete in the downhill, but throughout the Games fortnight she had to divide her time between ski and snowboard training sessions. She explained that normally, during the year, she alternates between three consecutive weeks of training for each discipline.
Torn between two disciplines
“Since the beginning, people have said to me: ‘You cannot do both sports, you have to specialise or you will never reach the highest level.’ Since I was 14, my coaches have told me: ‘You must make a choice and blah, blah, blah.’ I'd say to them: ‘I will do them both, and if that bothers you, I will find another coach because this is how it is going to be.’” And, as she proved to the world in PyeongChang, her unorthodox path to the Winter Games was a well-chosen one.
In the end, she developed through both sports. Her Alpine ski coach Tomáš Bank explains: “Snowboard gives her great balance and feeling. And skiing helps her snowboarding because it's faster. Snowboard must feel like slow motion to her. Her opponents have never been as fast as she's been.” And her snowboarding coach Justin Reiter added: “The only problem with her is that she doesn't want to get off the slope, she always wants more runs!”
After witnessing the phenomenon first-hand, French Alpine snowboarding specialist Sylvain Dufour commented: “On a snowboard, she is miles ahead of the rest of the field. Out of six races before the Games, she won five. The only race she did not win was the slalom. She is a demon on a snowboard.” Further confirmation of this came as she won the last event of the season, in Scuol (Switzerland) on 10 March 2018, to easily take the crystal globe in the discipline – for a third consecutive year.
As the FIS explains: “The route leading Ester Ledecká to professional sports was paved from the day she was born” – on 23 March 1995, in Prague. Her mother, Zuzana, is an experienced figure skater, her father Janek is a famous singer in the Czech Republic and her grandfather, Jan Klapáč, was a member of the Czechoslovakian ice hockey team that took bronze at Innsbruck 1964 and silver at Grenoble 1968. Ester wore multiple sporting hats from an early age, starting with ice hockey, then skiing at the age of four, before trying her hand at snowboarding. She plays the guitar, loves to sing, and also enjoys summer sports such as beach volleyball and sailing.
Exploits repeated at the World Cup
In the 2018-2019 season, Ledecká won her fourth consecutive World Cup in the snowboard parallel, taking her record in the discipline to 17 victories and 28 podium finishes in 50 attempts. She also competed in the Alpine skiing World Cup and World Championships (in Åre, Sweden) in the speed events, with her best result coming in the downhill in Cortina d'Ampezzo, in which she finished eighth. But then came the 2019-2020 winter season, in which the double Olympic champion decided to focus exclusively on skiing.
She lined up in the first downhill race of the season in Lake Louise (Canada) on 7 December, wearing the number 26 bib, just as she had for her victory at the PyeongChang Winter Games. She hurtled down the 2,544m slope at supersonic speed to finish 0.35 seconds ahead of Switzerland’s Corine Suter and 0.45 seconds ahead of Austria’s Stephanie Venier. As had been the case in the Republic of Korea, there were no outward displays of joy in the finish area from Ledecká, who explained afterwards that she wasn’t pleased with her performance as she crossed the finish line as she didn’t think she’d raced particularly well, and that her win had come as a genuine surprise. After her exploits at the Games, she became the first athlete to achieve the same feat in snowboarding and Alpine skiing at the World Cup. Nobody yet knows her limits.