PYEONGCHANG, South Korea (Reuters) - Czech snowboarder Ester Ledecka produced one of the biggest shocks in the history of the Winter Olympics when she tore down Jeongseon slope in bib number 26 to win the women’s Alpine skiing super-G on Saturday.
The 22-year-old rank outsider — rated 43rd in the World Cup standings in super-G — was thought to have a much better chance of gold in the snowboarding events she will also contest in Pyeongchang, an unprecedented doubling up.
Bib 26 was the starting position for a racer with only the slimmest chance of getting near the podium, and the top contenders clearly thought the medals had been sewn up by skiers in the top 20 spots.
When Ledecka started her run, Austrian Anna Veith was at the bottom of the slope already taking phone calls and receiving the congratulations of her rivals for becoming the first woman to win back-to-back titles in the Olympic super-G.
Even a smiling International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Thomas Bach seemed to be congratulating her.
Clearly, nobody had accounted for Ledecka’s near-miraculous performance.
Indeed, the Czech’s run had appeared on a par with her starting position until halfway down the course but she simply carved up the bottom of the run to clock one minute 21.11 seconds.
Ledecka could barely believe it herself when the green light indicated she had bumped Veith out of the gold-medal position by one hundredth of a second to give her country its first Alpine skiing gold medal.
“I was wondering what just happened. Is this a kind of mistake?,” she said.
“I was thinking okay, they’re going to change the time, I’m going to wait for a little bit and they’re going to switch and put some seconds on.
“I was just staring at the board and nothing was happening and everybody was screaming. I just started to think okay, this is weird.”
Veith’s time of 1.21.12 was only enough for silver, while Liechtenstein’s Tina Weirather claimed bronze in 1:21.22 after earlier bumping Swiss World Cup leader Lara Gut off the top of the timesheets by the slenderest of margins.
“I thought I had gold,” Veith said. “For me it was a big surprise that she could do this. At first I thought ‘is this possible?’
“She did a really good run and I want to congratulate her because the Olympics is so special and anything can happen. It was so tight.”
Weirather’s bronze enabled her to join her mother Hanni Wenzel and uncle Andreas Wenzel as an Olympic medallist with the family now having contributed seven of the 10 won by athletes from the tiny principality.
The 28-year-old said Ledecka’s win was “amazing” and credited her own medal-winning performance to a lot of hard work and a little bit of luck.
“There were plenty of racers who had no chance because of the wind,” she said.
“It’s difficult when it’s at the Olympics and you want a really fair race; today you needed the luck for sure. I wasn’t really lucky this season with that, but today I was.”
Swiss racer Michelle Gisin dismissed the idea that the design of the course could have contributed to Ledecka’s shock win.
“We have an amazing slope and we have an amazing course and it’s really fair,” said Gisin, who went out just behind Veith and finished ninth.
“We have fair chances from bib one to bib 50, the slope is so good.”
Despite a delay of an hour because of high winds, the race got underway under bright blue skies with a big crowd packed into the stands at the Jeongseon Alpine Centre.
Lindsey Vonn went out first but made a mistake before the final jump and skied into soft snow, getting a time that was good enough only for sixth.
The 33-year-old American, who will have another chance to become the oldest female medallist in Olympic Alpine skiing in her favoured downhill on the same mountain next week, was as surprised as anyone by Ledecka’s win.
“It’s definitely shocking, in the Olympics a lot of weird things happen,” said Vonn, the downhill champion in Vancouver eight years ago.
“Different people can jump in there that maybe wouldn’t be in there before.”
While Vonn is the second most decorated woman on the Alpine World Cup circuit with 81 victories, Ledecka has never graced the podium on the circuit as she has split her time with her snowboarding career.
World champion in the parallel giant slalom snowboarding and a former world champion in the parallel slalom, she could yet enjoy unprecedented medal success in the two separate snow sports in Pyeongchang.
“I was probably the only snowboarder on site,” Ledecka said when asked how she had managed to go so fast.
“All the other girls didn’t risk a lot. There must be a lot of pressure on them. I was just trying to do my best run.”
Additional reporting by Mark Trevelyan and Rory Carroll, Editing by Sudipto Ganguly and Clare Fallon