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Ester Ledecka becomes 1st woman to win gold in 2 sports in a single Winter Games

  • Author: Karen Crouse, The New York Times
  • Updated: February 24
  • Published February 24

Snowboard – Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympics – Women’s Parallel Giant Slalom Finals – Phoenix Snow Park – Pyeongchang, South Korea – February 24, 2018 – Ester Ledecka of Czech Republic competes. (Dylan Martinez / Reuters)

PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — Ester Ledecka warded off the late afternoon cold Saturday in a Czech Republic team jacket that was white on one side and gold on the other. It could be worn either way, which made it as versatile as Ledecka, who made history Saturday with her victory in the women's snowboarding parallel slalom.

Ledecka, who had won an Alpine skiing event, the women's super-G, in an upset a week earlier, became the first woman to win a gold medal in two different sports in a single Winter Games.

Not only did Ledecka defeat Selina Joerg of Germany in the final, but she also nudged out Jorien ter Mors of the Netherlands, who had become the first woman to earn medals in different sports in a single Olympics while Ledecka waited to compete in snowboarding. Ter Mors earned gold in the 1,000 meters in long-track speedskating and added a bronze in the 3,000-meter relay in short-track.

"I was dreaming about this moment since I was a little child," said Ledecka, whose margin of victory in her six runs was at least four-tenths of a second. "A lot of people were telling me 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."

Ter Mors and Ledecka, who was the first woman to compete in snowboarding and skiing in the same Olympics, nevertheless have upended the belief, propagated in modern-day youth sports in the United States and elsewhere, that early specialization is the one clear path to the Olympic podium.

Ter Mors, 28, who also competed in the two sports at the 2014 Sochi Olympics, took up long-track skating as a cross-training exercise to improve her conditioning for short-track. Ledecka, 22, began skiing at age 2, tried snowboarding three years later, and loves both so much she said she never considered becoming a sports monogamist.

When coaches counseled her to choose one or the other, she held her ground. She remained resolute even when her snowboarding coach, Justin Reiter, expressed his concerns last fall that she might hurt her snowboarding gold medal prospects if she chose to also compete in Alpine skiing.

"I for sure want to win every race," Ledecka said. "But the first thing is to enjoy and have good fun with what I'm doing with my sports."

Gold medalist Ester Ledecka of the Czech Republic is flanked by silver medalist Anna Veith of Austria, left, and bronze medalist Tina Weirather of Lichtenstein after the ladies’ super-G event in Jeongseon, South Korea, on Friday, Feb. 17, 2018. Ledecka stunned the favorites to win the super-G and now has won gold in the snowboarding parallel slalom event. (Doug Mills/The New York Times)

Ledecka's road to Pyeongchang contained no forks, just parallel tracks. With their distinct DNAs, skiing and snowboarding are snow sports' fraternal, sometimes rival, twins. Being good at one does not mean the same in the other, as Lindsey Vonn, the three-time Olympic medalist in Alpine skiing, can readily attest. "I tried snowboarding once, and it did not go well," she said.

Vonn, 33, is heartened by the example that Ledecka is setting. She said she became a serious skier at age 13 by default. Vonn would like to be a multisport athlete, but her forays into tennis, figure skating, soccer and gymnastics were short-lived. "I've never really been good at anything but racing," she said.

A bronze medalist in the super-G at the 2010 Olympics, Vonn finished tied for sixth in the event last week. She was 0.38 seconds behind Ledecka, who came into the event ranked 43rd in the World Cup standings. Ledecka, racing in the 26th position, edged the defending Olympic champion, Austria's Anna Veith, by 0.01 seconds, or roughly the length of a finger.

After posting the fastest time in the downhill portion of the combined event five days later, Vonn joked that her time had a chance to hold up since there were no snowboarders in the field.

"The millennials are raw and inclusive, and trying other sports is important to them, as it should be," Vonn said. "I think maybe Ester can give them hope that competing and being successful in more than one sport is possible. I think she definitely will have a long-lasting impact."

Mikaela Shiffrin, a three-time Olympic medalist who races in each of the five Alpine disciplines, called Ledecka "an incredible example" for young athletes.

"She didn't just specify Alpine skiing in her sports repertoire when she was 8 years old because she wanted to be an Olympic champion," Shiffrin said. "She was doing a lot of things. She can find the similarities between her sports and actually help build and improve with one sport off of the other."

Yet despite mounting evidence of the benefits of delaying specializing in one sport, Ledecka and Ter Mors might still be anomalies, whether it comes to women or men (The last man to earn medals in two sports at the same Winter Games was Heikki Hasu of Finland, in cross-country skiing and Nordic combined, in 1952.)

Evidence abounds that athletes should not specialize until the teenage years, to minimize the risk of overuse injuries and emotional burnout. Felix McGrath, a 1988 U.S. Olympian in Alpine skiing, was a four-sport athlete in high school. "I love the fact that Ester is a multisport athlete," McGrath said in an email from Norway, where he lives and coaches skiing. "I have many problems with what is going on with youth sports in general. In Norway and the USA, specializing in one sport at a very young age — before 13 — has become common."

McGrath played soccer, tennis and golf during skiing's offseason to maintain his connection to nature and to his fitness.

Shiffrin sees other, less obvious benefits to Ledecka's dual track. She spoke of the jaw-dropping lines that Ledecka carves on Alpine courses, a knack that Ledecka's snowboarding coach, Reiter, attributes to her experience maneuvering on a snowboard, which, because it has no steadying or stabilizing poles, requires seeing a mountain in a more imaginative way.

Shiffrin, 22, recalled a downhill training run in Lake Louise, Alberta, in November. Ledecka recorded the fastest time, she said, and "everybody stopped and jaws dropped, like that run isn't supposed to be skied that way."

"It made everybody think about how much better we could all ski the course," Shiffrin added.

If there is a lesson to be learned from Ledecka's success here, Reiter said, it is that the drive to specialize early, the better to achieve fame and fortune in sport, "should be redefined."

Michael Trapp, an American who trains with Ledecka in Colorado, said her passion, and persistence, more than her talent or versatility, is what sets her apart. "She's the hardest-working athlete I've ever met," Trapp said, adding that she will train in any conditions "and if she doesn't come out with the fastest runs she's mad about it. She acts like every day is a race day."

Trapp, 29, started out in all five snowboarding disciplines but was encouraged by his coaches to choose freestyle or racing. If he were a young child now, he might be inspired by Ledecka's example "to try more disciplines and stick with more disciplines," Trapp said. "Just with her and her resilience to say, 'No, I want to do what I want to do.' That's kind of her motto."

The evolution of sports is driven by athletes whose unique vision opens everyone else's eyes to what is possible. Ledecka is a throwback outlier, someone whose refusal to specialize has a back-to-the-future feel — and appeal. Shiffrin watched Ledecka's super-G run and knew she was seeing something special.

"I was screaming and crying when she came down and won that gold," she said. Shiffrin added with a laugh, "I thought this sport was hard, but apparently not."

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