PYEONGCHANG, South Korea – Another course conquered, another field slayed, another gold medal cinched, Ester Ledecka wanted to memorialize the history she just made. At the bottom of the parallel giant slalom snowboarding course in Phoenix Snow Park, she wrapped her left arm around the shoulder of her coach Justin Reiter. Cameras snapped. Then Reiter turned to Ledecka and reminded her someone was missing.
“We need one for Erich,” he said.
She nodded, and they tiptoed away from one another, still touching arms, far enough apart for someone to stand between them. That was supposed to be Erich Pramsohler, Ledecka and Reiter’s coach, who was diagnosed with cancer a year ago. He stepped aside, Reiter retired from his alpine snowboarding career to take over and Saturday afternoon he found himself at the epicenter of an all-time-great Olympics achievement.
Ledecka, the bubbly 22-year-old from the Czech Republic who faced mountains of doubt in her efforts to snowboard and ski race at an elite level, carved her final path through it with a dominant win in the PGS race. Coupled with her shocking Super-G gold on the alpine mountain a week earlier, Ledecka secured her place as the first woman ever to win gold in two sports at the same Winter Olympics. And seeing as the others were cross-country skiers who doubled in biathlon, a sport that is mostly cross-country skiing, calling Ledecka’s feat the single most impressive of the PyeongChang Games is no exaggeration.
All ski and snowboard racing have in common is snow and downhill slopes. They use different equipment. They travel different speeds. They rely upon different muscles. Ledecka is the frosted-over version of Bo Jackson – or, as The Washington Post’s Adam Kilgore called her, Snow Jackson.
And at the heart of it was Pramsohler, a former racer from Italy who for a year stewarded the team of Ledecka and three American men, Reiter, Robby Burns and Mike Trapp. With alpine snowboarding defunded by the United States Ski and Snowboard Association, American riders sought refuge elsewhere. For two-time gold medalist Vic Wild, it was Russia. For Reiter, Burns and Trapp, it was with Ledecka and Pramsohler.
“He had the best attitude for every day of training, every day of racing and everyday life,” Trapp said. “It’s unfortunate he got sick and that he couldn’t be here today. He’s just got this personality that everything is gonna be all right.”
It was Saturday. Ledecka cruised through the first two qualifying rounds and found little competition in her final four races, in which two riders race side-by-side down the same course, snaking in and out of gates. The closest to Ledecka was silver medalist Selina Joerg, and even she finished .46 seconds back, an eternity in PGS.
“Since I was 5 years old, I was thinking about to get to the Olympics and win golds,” Ledecka said. “But a lot of people were telling me through this way that it is not possible to do both sports and to be on a high level in both sports. And today, I proved it is possible.”
The emergence of the possibility itself came from a Super-G win so unexpected NBC declared Anna Veith the gold medalist and cut away from Ledecka’s run until an oopsie-daisy correction. The network wasn’t the only one: Ledecka herself stood slack-jawed at the foot of the hill, certain the electronic timer that placed her one-hundredth of a second ahead of Veith was off. It wasn’t.
And while Ledecka chafed at the idea of skiing the downhill – her best event – she couldn’t deny the effect of the Super-G on her snowboard training. Had Ledecka run only the PGS, the entirety of her month would have been devoted to snowboarding. In reality she had less than a week. Issues cropped up. On the day before the race, Ledecka fell twice in practice runs, a death sentence in PGS racing. All the nerves evaporated by Saturday, when Ledecka declared herself ready to race.
“She’s a special person, man,” Reiter said. “She’s once in a lifetime.”
He’s known that for years, and Pramsohler learned quickly, too. On Friday, he called Reiter to talk about the race, and as soon as Ledecka crossed the finish line in the finals, he dropped a congratulatory text to Reiter. Ledecka, asked about Pramsohler last week, said: “I’m sorry. I can’t talk about that.” And it wasn’t that she couldn’t. It just hurt.
Typically, Ledecka is full of glee. Trapp loves to tell the story about the time Ledecka found out he was engaged. “So,” she asked him and his now-wife Kelly, “when are the kids coming?” They laughed. They had no idea. “Well,” Ledecka said, “I’ll be your child!” Trapp, now 29, and Kelly looked at one another. “You are my diddy,” Ledecka said to Trapp, and then she turned to Kelly and said: “You are my mummy!” When Ledecka won the Super-G and saw Trapp, she yelled: “Diddy!”
On Saturday, she was equal parts funny and charming. She credited her real mummy, Zuzana, with encouraging her to stick with snowboarding and skiing. Then Ledecka thanked her for coming to PyeongChang, since Zuzana hates flying. “She has taken many drugs to get here,” Ledecka said, “and she will need to take many drugs to get back to Czech.”
As was the case after the Super-G, Ledecka didn’t take off her goggles. Her rationale in skiing: She didn’t expect to win, so she didn’t put on makeup that morning. There was no makeup Saturday, either. “I woke up very early,” Ledecka said.
She is used to long days. Doing two sports as well as anyone in the world professionally takes immense work and dedication. The plan is for Ledecka to return to Prague for two days, then head back onto the snowboarding World Cup circuit for a meet in Turkey. It is endless, twice as much as necessary – and twice as gratifying, too, even if Ledecka doesn’t realize it.
When it was mentioned that her accomplishments were the best in PyeongChang, she didn’t even seem to consider it a possibility. Yes, France’s Martin Fourcade has one more gold than her. It’s in biathlon, which can be grueling and exacting but, well, Ledecka is hurtling herself down mountains, not ski-running and sniping fixed targets. As for anyone else: They do one sport. Snow Jackson does two. Seems pretty simple: She is the athlete of PyeongChang.
“What?” Ledecka said, her incredulity genuine. “I don’t think so, no. There are the greatest athletes in the world here.”
She’s the one with two golds, she was reminded.
“Yeah, whatever,” Ledecka said.
It was the first time she sounded like a stereotypical snowboarder, and for Ester Ledecka, that’s no insult. It’s a reminder of who she is and what she wants to do and how this all happened. It is one goal, two golds and three people who deserved to celebrate together and got the closest to it they could.
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