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Catch rising star Ester Ledecka — if you can — on either skis or snowboard

Catch rising star Ester Ledecka — if you can — on either skis or snowboard
The Czech Republic's Ester Ledecka kisses her gold medal for the women's Super G at the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics on Feb. 17. (Javier Soriano / AFP / Getty Images)

Those ski goggles were the first clue.

Ester Ledecka kept them strapped on, concealing her eyes, as she sat down to answer questions at a news conference. When reporters grew curious, she explained that winning a gold medal had caught her off-guard.

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"I don't have no makeup," she said, the room erupting in laughter.

That's when the world knew: This woman wasn't your ordinary Olympian.

The 22-year-old Czech had delivered the most stunning victory of the 2018 Winter Games, coming out of nowhere to win the Super-G by one-hundredth of a second last week.

On Saturday, she traded her skis for a snowboard to race as the favorite in the parallel giant slalom and it almost didn't matter how she did because no one had even attempted that before.

"I wish I had as much athleticism as she has," American downhill star Lindsey Vonn said. "That I could just hop from sport to sport."

Versatility isn't the only thing that has set Ledecka apart. With these Olympics shadowed by politics, the Russian doping scandal and even a norovirus outbreak, she has been the warmest ray of sunshine in chilly Pyeongchang.

Her smile and the way she punctuates sentences with a quick laugh have brought a certain glee to these Games. This is a champion who was spotted eating at KFC just hours after a big victory, a gold medal still dangling from her neck.

"I don't really think that I've got the talent," she said. "I'm just riding down the hill and having fun with it."

To view Ledecka as an outlier might be justified — many elite athletes carry themselves more solemnly — but to dismiss her as a novelty would be wrong.

Her bloodline includes a mother who was a figure skater and a grandfather who played for the Czechoslovakia hockey teams that won bronze at the 1964 Innsbruck Olympics and silver four years later in Grenoble, France.

Maybe the difference comes from her father, Janek Ledecky, who served as frontman for a Czech pop band called Zentour and later composed a rock opera based on Shakespeare's "Hamlet."

"My wife and I just tried to let our children find their own way in life, a way interesting to them," he told the Olympics news service.

When Ester took to the slopes as a child, starting on skis and then strapping on a snowboard, Ledecky — Czechs sometimes vary the last vowel of their family name depending on gender — recalled that he and his wife "were not pushy parents. It's the other way. We're trying to take her away from training, and from the slopes, some days."

As Ledecka grew up, coaches kept insisting that no one could excel at both sports, that she would have to choose.

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Skiing and snowboarding are very different pursuits, requiring different skills, different senses of balance, but she saw a fundamental similarity.

"It's down the hill, both of them," she said after her win in the Super G. When reporters laughed, she turned serious for a moment: "No, it's the truth."

Ester Ledecka was the surprise gold medalist in the Super-G competition at the Pyeongchang Games.
Ester Ledecka was the surprise gold medalist in the Super-G competition at the Pyeongchang Games. (Alexander Hassenstein / Getty Images)

Alternating her workouts, she advanced far enough to join snowboarding's World Cup circuit in 2012 and then jump on the ski circuit in early 2016.

"It's her desire to do something completely special," said Justin Reiter, a former Olympic snowboarder who met Ledecka when she began training at the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club in Colorado.

They competed together for several years before he retired and became one of her coaches. Reiter worries about outsiders misinterpreting her sunny disposition.

"She's a really sweet girl," he said. "Yet, she's an incredible beast in the gym."

Standing 5-8 and a solid 150 pounds, Ledecka is that rare athlete who takes joy in the grind required to succeed, Reiter said. He has also seen her deftly shift gears when moving from sport to sport.

Skiing demands a straighter line down the course. In snowboarding, things are more rounded out.

"The micro-adjustments are huge," Reiter said.

Over the past few years, Ledecka has hovered at or near the top in snowboarding's parallel giant slalom and is the reigning world champion. Her career has progressed more slowly on the skiing side, where she ranks 68th overall this season.

In her first ski event at these Games, the giant slalom, she finished 23rd, which made what happened in the Super-G — in which the gates are spaced ever farther apart — even more surprising.

All the favorites had finished racing when she finally got her turn, the 26th to go. The course was rutted by then and none of the late starters were expected to contend.

Flying off the final jump, her arms cartwheeling, Ledecka seemed dumbfounded after crossing the finish line. The time on the scoreboard had to be wrong, she thought. Surely someone would realize the mistake and add a second or two.

"I was just waiting and watching," she said. "Nothing was happening and everybody was screaming … I was, 'OK, now it's weird.' "

Some rivals credited her free-spirited demeanor and willingness to take chances, while others struggled to explain the outcome. Silver medalist Anna Veith put her hand to her forehead in shock when she saw Ledecka's time. "We didn't know how strong she is," Veith said later.

Keeping those goggles strapped across her face and a beanie pulled down over her blond hair, Ledecka could not stop smiling as she faced the media afterward.

Someone asked if she had ridden to victory on a pair of skis that belonged to American star Mikaela Shiffrin. They both represent the Atomic brand and Ledecka said it isn't unusual for her to take hand-me-downs from teammates.

"It's better for me because I don't do as many runs on them because I do also snowboarding and it's quite difficult for the speed demons to have good skis when you're not riding them so often," she said.

Ledecka also told reporters that she would rather be snowboarding than talking to them, though she added: "I don't want to be rude about you, you're all great."

Later, the Associated Press ran into her at KFC. "Don't tell my coaches," she reportedly said.

Though other athletes have competed in what the Olympics characterize as "multiple sports," their events have been more closely related, such as long and short-track speedskating or cross-country and biathlon.

Asked again about the challenge of mastering two distinct styles, she said: "I don't know how to do just one. For me, it's normal."

It turns out Ledecka is also skilled at windsurfing — yet another Olympic event — which raises the question: Might she consider trying for the 2020 Summer Games in Tokyo?

"Yeah, for sure," she said. "Why not?"

With any other athlete, that response might be written off as a joke. But, as the last two weeks have shown, Ledecka isn't just any other athlete.

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