PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — An instant after completing her run in Saturday’s Olympic women’s super-G, Ester Ledecka of the Czech Republic stood motionless in the snow as she gazed at the scoreboard where her name was atop the list of finishers.
She shook her head side to side, convinced that what she saw was a mistake or a timing glitch. Professional snowboarders racing on hand-me-down skis do not win gold medals in ski events at the Winter Olympics.
“I thought they were going to put a couple more seconds on my time,” Ledecka later said, laughing and well aware that the race would be decided by hundredths of a second. “I was waiting for it.”
Ledecka came to the Pyeongchang Games planning to make history as the first person to compete at the Olympics in both skiing and snowboarding. Instead, she crashed the Alpine party at the women’s super-G with an astonishing upset victory.
Ledecka, currently ranked 43rd in the women’s World Cup super-G standings, outpaced a field that included the American Lindsey Vonn, who was competing in the Olympics for the first time in eight years. Ledecka’s time of 1 minute 21.11 seconds was one-hundredth of a second faster — the narrowest margin of victory possible in Alpine racing — than the silver medalist Anna Veith, the defending champion in the event.
Ledecka’s highest finish in a World Cup super-G before Saturday had been 19th. Tina Weirather of Liechtenstein won the bronze medal.
Vonn had a chance at a medal, or maybe even the victory, but made a major late mistake that ruined an otherwise strong run. She finished tied for sixth.
Veith had been celebrating her victory at the bottom of the racecourse as Ledecka pushed out of the start, the 26th racer of the day. Ledecka has won world championship medals in snowboarding but never came close to winning a World Cup ski race. Since skiers ranked in the top 20 in the event are allowed to go first, the race for the medals was considered over.
Then Ledecka charged down the mountain. When her early interval times showed she was threatening to take over the lead, not everyone was surprised. Some of her colleagues knew that Ledecka had often won sections of training runs for the super-G and the downhill, the other ski event she has entered on the World Cup.
“She could never put it all together,” Italy’s Sofia Goggia, who finished 11th Saturday, said of Ledecka. “But today she did.”
Ledecka cruised across the finish line, and a giant No. 1 flashed next to her name. A dumbfounded crowd at first seemed stunned silent.
Veith said, “My first reaction was, ‘Is this possible?’”
The crowd began to cheer, growing louder every few seconds. Ledecka remained still and did not react, waiting for the scoreboard correction.
“Nothing was happening, and everybody was screaming,” Ledecka said afterward.
Her time did not change, and she remained at the top of the leaderboard. Slowly, she skied toward an area adjacent to the finish, where she was feted as the race winner.
Soon, her unforeseen victory lit up the internet, and a report circulated that she was using a used pair of skis borrowed from the Olympic giant slalom champion Mikaela Shiffrin’s supply.
Eileen Shiffrin, Mikaela’s mother and coach, disputed this. She said Ledecka had most likely chosen her skis from a batch the manufacturer Atomic provided to a number of racers. Ledecka said she always chose skis that had been used by other racers.
Whisked to a news conference, Ledecka kept her ski goggles on her face as she answered questions from the news media. Asked why she did not remove her goggles, she giggled and answered, “Because I was not as prepared as the other girls that would be at the ceremony.” Then she explained that she did not have on any makeup.
Ledecka, who has both an Alpine coach and a snowboarding coach, was scheduled to compete in the snowboarding parallel giant slalom next week. But after her victory Saturday, she said she might change her plans. “Maybe my skiing coach will be a little bit pushy after today,” she said.
Ledecka could also enter Wednesday’s Alpine downhill. Last December, she finished seventh at a World Cup downhill at the Lake Louise resort in Alberta, Canada.
Throughout her news conference, Ledecka seemed less astounded that a ski racer who splits her time on the snowboarding pro circuit could win an Olympic Alpine gold medal than her inquisitors. Asked to explain how she could be good at both, Ledecka responded:
“Well, it’s down a hill, both of them, right? That’s the basics.”
When the room broke out in laughter, she yelped, “Well, it’s true.”
Vonn was clearly impressed by Ledecka.
“I wish I had as much athleticism as her,” she said. “To be a snowboarder and win is pretty darn impressive.”
Vonn was in the unenviable position of being the first skier in the race, which prevented her from going to school on her competitors or getting course reports from coaches watching the action. Her spot was decided by pre-race seedings. Vonn is ranked 10th worldwide in the super-G and had the 10th choice among odd number bibs. The leadoff position was the last top number available when it was her turn to select.
Undaunted, Vonn roared down the racecourse with her familiar, attacking style. Seventy-five seconds later, and within sight of the finish line, she had not made a major mistake. But at the final, pivotal turn, she seemed late in transitioning from a turn powered by her left foot to one powered by her right, a move that required her to shift most of her weight from one ski to the other. She momentarily lost her balance and skied well below the fastest line to the next gate.
Vonn slid into heavy snow and lost much of her forward momentum before she regained her form. The mistake surely cost Vonn a medal as she finished 0.27 behind Weirather and 38 hundredths of a second back of Ledecka.
“I felt good until that mistake,” said Vonn, who will compete in two more events in Pyeongchang, the downhill and the Alpine combined. “I was approaching the finish thinking, ‘I got this.’ But I misjudged that last crucial section.”
But after blowing out her knee in 2013 and missing the last Olympics, Vonn was smiling more than anyone else who had been shown up by a snowboarder. She was happy to be back on ski racing’s biggest stage.
“Man, I’ve been waiting eight years for this,” she said. “I don’t take this as a negative.”
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