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Armour: No One Expected Ledecka to Win Super-G, not Even Her

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Czech Republic's Ester Ledecka competes in the women's super-G at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Jeongseon, South Korea, Saturday, Feb. 17, 2018. Photo: AP

Ester Ledecka stood at the bottom of the hill, staring intently at the scoreboard while her coaches, team, family — heck, everybody in the whole place — erupted in screams of delirium.

Ledecka didn’t understand why. Nor could she understand why the scoreboard hadn’t been updated. It showed her in first place, and surely that was a mistake.

“I was thinking, `OK, they’re going to change the time. I’m going to wait for a little bit, and they’re going to switch and put some more seconds on,’ ” the Czech skier said. “I was just staring at the board and nothing was happening. Everybody was screaming and I just started to think about, `OK, this is weird. Why do they scream?’ ”

Because, Ester, you just pulled off the most spectacular upset and stunning result in Winter Olympics history.

Eric Heiden and his five gold medals? Hermann Maier and his back-from-the-dead gold? The Miracle on Ice hockey team? None of them compare to Ledecka, the snowboarder who crashed Alpine skiing and then snagged one of its biggest prizes.

Happy enough just to be the first person to compete in both sports at the Winter Olympics, Ledecka, 22, carved a place for herself in history Saturday by winning the women’s Super-G . Lindsey Vonn, Sochi Olympic champion Anna Veith, current World Cup leader Nicole Schmidhofer — Ledecka beat them all. Starting from the 26th spot, after some had already declared Veith the winner, she posted a time of 1:21.11, finishing just .01 seconds ahead of the Austrian.

“I love this surprise that sport can provide,” said Italy’s Sofia Goggia, who was 11th. “We give everything so much that’s already known. But also in life, sometimes the good surprises are something different.”

Oh, this is different all right.

Bo Jackson remains an almost mythical figure in sports because it’s impossible to imagine anyone doing what he did ever again. To be the best at the highest level of any sport requires so much time and training that there is little room for anything else. Cross training, perhaps. Maybe toy with another sport in the offseason for a mental break.

But to be world class in two different sports, ones that have similar calendars, no less, is unfathomable.

Except to Ledecka.

“It’s quite hard to answer this question because I don’t know how to do just one,” she said when asked how she juggles the two. “For me, it’s normal.”

Ledecka comes by her eclecticness naturally. Her grandfather is Jan Klapac, who played on the Czechoslovakian hockey teams that won the silver medal in 1968 and bronze in 1964. Her mother was a figure skater and her father is a well-known singer in the Czech Republic.

She started skiing when she was 2, and took up snowboarding a few years later because her older brother was doing it. As the years passed, she was told — repeatedly — that she needed to pick one and stick with it.

Snowboarding and skiing are distant cousins, with the emphasis on the distant. It wasn’t so long ago that ski resorts wouldn’t even let snowboarders on their slopes, seeing the upstart punks as one step — maybe — above juvenile delinquents.

They’ll allow them now, grudgingly, but the Alpine crowd still has something of a superiority complex about its counterculture brethren. Alpine skiers are seen as athletes, while snowboarders are looked at more as performers.

But Ledecka didn’t care. Though she’s had far more success in snowboarding — she’s won world titles in both parallel slalom and parallel giant slalom, the event in which she’ll compete next week — she refused to give up skiing.

She made her World Cup debut in 2016, and tries to split her time evenly between the circuits. Ledecka joked that she sometimes feels like the child of divorced parents as she shuttles back and forth between her snowboard and skiing coaches, but snowboard coach Justin Reiter said she is the one who makes the crazy schedule work.

“She’s unrelenting in a task,” he said.

Reiter said Ledecka’s speed in skiing gives her an advantage in snowboard while the balance and control she needs in snowboarding help her in skiing. He pointed to the last jump in Saturday’s race, where she landed in such a deep crouch he was afraid she might fall.

“She was able to save it,” Reiter said.

Ledecka said she goes to every starting gate telling herself she can win, but let’s be real. Vonn and Veith, they’re giants in Alpine skiing, Ledecka said, holding her thumb and index far apart, while she is “this big,” drawing the fingers close together.

Why, the idea of winning was so far from her mind Saturday she didn’t even bother to put makeup on before her race. She did interviews with her goggles still covering her face.

“It’s my brand,” she cracked before fessing up that she wasn’t camera ready.

Now that she’s an Olympic champion, the pressure on Ledecka to pick one sport over the other is sure to be even greater. But she’ll have none of it.

She’s a snowboarder and a skier, and there’s no way for her to be one without the other.

“I was standing there as a snowboarder a little bit in my heart, and all the girls are just (Alpine) specialists and there was a lot of pressure on them,” Ledecka said, recalling her thoughts when was at the start gate. “I was just, `C’mon, just do the best run you can, skier.’”

And then Ledecka was off, taking the Olympics on the most improbable and epic ride it’s ever seen, one that will never, ever be forgotten.

By Nancy Armour

This article was republished with permission from the original author and 2015 Ronald Reagan Media Award recipient, Nancy Armour, and the original publisher, USA Today. Follow columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour.

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