PYEONGCHANG, South Korea (Reuters) - When veteran American skier Lindsey Vonn was first out of the gate in Saturday’s super-G, neither she nor any of the women running in the top 20 thought they faced a credible threat from the snowboarder slated to go 26th in the race.
But 22-year-old Czech Ester Ledecka barrelled down the course in one minute 21.11 seconds to seize gold, delivering the biggest upset of the Pyeongchang Games so far and a blow to the sport’s speed queens.
Ledecka not only spoiled Anna Veith’s bid for back-to-back super-G golds and overshadowed Vonn’s return to the Olympic stage after an eight-year absence, she also upended the thinking that only the sport’s elite skiers can win at this level.
After the race, the 33-year-old Vonn was left complaining to reporters about the rules that forced the world’s 10th-ranked racer to lead off the day.
“In super-G I like to watch the girls in front of me. I like to see what the speeds are, what the line is, if it’s different than what we inspected,” she said. “It’s unfortunate because I’m ranked 10th in super-G and I had no choice in my starting number.”
Vonn was, though, full of praise for Ledecka, saying: “She beat me in a training run in Lake Louise and that was also surprising. But that was a training run, this is the Olympics. So it’s definitely shocking.
“I wish I had as much athleticism as she has that I could just hop from sport to sport and just, like, win everything. But unfortunately I’m only good at ski racing.”
As for Ledecka herself, she was simply eager to get back on her board.
“I would rather go riding snowboard now,” she told a media conference.
“I don’t want to be rude — you are all great — but I didn’t expect I’d be sitting here,” said Ledecka, who has never graced the podium on the World Cup circuit as she has split her time with her snowboarding career.
“I should have already had, like, three (training) runs on snowboard now.”
Ledecka’s win marks a victory for the sport of snowboarding, which was looked down on by refined skiers on pistes around the world and banned by some ski resorts when it first emerged.
Snowboarding was introduced to the Olympics only two years before Vonn made her World Cup debut at the age of 16 in 1990 and was for a long time very much the junior of the two snow sports.
The contrast between the packed houses at the Phoenix Snow Park for the snowboard events and the sparse crowds at the men’s downhill — won by 35-year-old Aksel Lund Svindal — was marked, however, suggesting a sea change in South Korea at least.
While Ledecka is expected to compete in Wednesday’s Alpine downhill race on the same mountain, the first Olympian to ever compete in both sports was nonchalant about the game-changing upset she delivered on Saturday.
“I don’t really think that I’ve the talent (for skiing)” she said.
“I just ride down the hill and have had very much fun with it since I was a little child.”
Additional reporting by Nick Mulvenney; editing by Clare Fallon