Ester Ledecka: The snowboarder who stunned the ski world

Life as a double Olympic champion comes with its perks.

It has been almost a year since Ester Ledecka became the first athlete in 90 years to claim gold both as skier and snowboarder at the same Winter Olympics.

If her victory in the super-G alpine skiing event was somewhat unexpected — she was ranked 49th in the world prior to the Games, the reaction to her unprecedented achievement came as an even greater shock to the Czech star.

A month after her historic pair of wins, she was presented with a congratulatory message from Canadian singer Bryan Adams.

“I have been in love with Bryan Adams since forever,” Ledecka chuckles, speaking to CNN. “Four years ago, I was in Brno for his concert and my friend took me backstage and I shook his hand and he wrote on my guitar ‘love Bryan Adams.’

“Someone had the idea that he could make a video for me to congratulate me and they showed it at a press conference at the end of the season. It was the best.”

There is an innate infectiousness to Ledecka’s character; when she laughs, it is hard not to follow. Yet, alongside her sense of humour is a humility that has made the 23-year-old a star back in her home country.

“It was crazy,” she recalls of the homecoming that awaited her in Prague. “The whole old town square was full of people. Because I am shy, I was standing at the back of the stage.

“They were laughing and cheering. It was so positive and nice, and it was freezing that day — it was minus 20 degrees in Prague and I was so happy that someone came.”

Ski goggles

A strong turnout was in little doubt for an athlete who had never even medalled in a World Cup level international skiing event prior to arriving in Pyeongchang. Austria’s Anna Veith, who had won gold at Sochi in 2014, was a clear favourite to repeat the feat, only for Ledecka to upset the odds in winning by 0.01 seconds.

Ledecka’s genuine surprise would go on to lend itself to one of the more memorable press conferences. She insisted on keeping her ski goggles on, blaming her shock, as well as a lack of makeup.

If anything, the circumstances of her first victory made her second triumph in the parallel giant slalom all the more impressive.

“I wanted to forget about the first medal,” Ledecka explains of the mindset required to switch her focus from one event to another.

“I had more hopes in the snowboarding and it was difficult for me because many people were reminding me and congratulating me every time I went to the slope on my snowboard.”

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After Russia’s Anfisa Reztsova, who won gold in the biathlon and cross-country skiing, Ledecka is only the second woman to win gold in two different disciplines — the first at the same Games.

‘I will do it’

While her coaches may have encouraged the Czech to focus on a single discipline, it has never been in the thoughts of Ledecka, whose family history is entrenched in competitive sport. Her 77-year-old grandfather, a two-time Olympic medallist as an ice-hockey player, is still her fitness coach.

“Many coaches would say that you cannot do both,” she explains. “That you can never do both at higher level or World Cup — you have to choose. And I was like: ‘No — nobody has ever done that before, so how can you know if this is possible or not? I will do it. I will work for it.’ This is possible, and I proved them wrong because it is possible.”

If anything, she insists, working at one discipline has improved the other. She compares the prospect of having to pick a single sport to siding with a parent during a family divorce.

While skiing and snowboarding are viewed almost as their own tribes on the mountain, with few having made the crossover, Ledecka says they each possess transferable qualities.

“I think my snowboarding is helping me get closer to the slope,” Ledecka stresses. “And also, in snowboarding you have just one chance to do it well. If you don’t get it right, you fall on your face.

“Skiing helps me think about my speed. The discipline is very fast, so when I do snowboarding it’s like slow motion for me. That is very helpful for me because I have no fear then.”

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Despite her successes, however, Ledecka remains well aware of the challenges still ahead as she seeks to replicate the dominant forces of her sport. The nature of sport is such that the speed of her meteoric rise will count for nothing if she is unable to remain at the summit.

She highlights Marcel Hirscher, Mikaela Shiffrin and Lindsey Vonn — all three of whom have gone on to become long-term fixtures at the top of their respective disciplines.

“I would like to become the person who is at the top all the time,” she says.

“There’s a couple of people, but not so many, who are able to race at the top the whole time. I would like to reach this [level] one day, but it is still a long way in front of me.”