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Eyeing double shot at Olympic history

The Czech Republic's Ester Ledecka aims to become the first Winter Olympian to compete in both skiing and snowboarding in Pyeongchang.
The Czech Republic's Ester Ledecka aims to become the first Winter Olympian to compete in both skiing and snowboarding in Pyeongchang.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

PRAGUE • Growing up, the Czech Republic's Ester Ledecka was determined to excel in two sports - snowboarding and skiing.

Last winter, she became the first person to compete in the world championships in both. She won gold in the parallel giant slalom and silver in the parallel slalom in snowboarding at Sierra Nevada, Spain, and also placed in the top 30 in the downhill, combined and super-G in skiing in St Moritz, Switzerland.

Now the 22-year-old plans to become the first athlete to compete in both sports at the Winter Olympics in February.

"If she played golf and tennis at the level she skis and snowboards, she would be a household name in the United States," said her snowboard coach, Justin Reiter, a retired American snowboarder and 2014 Olympian. "I firmly believe she's one of the greatest living athletes."

Ledecka's father, Janek Ledecky, is a pop music star who has composed successful musicals. Her grandfather, Jan Klapac, was a hockey star, an Olympic medallist in 1964 and 1968.

She started playing hockey in Prague after picking up skiing (aged two) and snowboarding (five), but she soon stopped to focus on her favoured snow sports.

EXUDING CONFIDENCE

I said, 'No, I want to go in both, and if it matters to you that I do both, then I need to choose another coach because this is the way I will do it'.

ESTER LEDECKA, on how she warded off others' doubts about her ability.

She said: "From the start, there were a lot of people who would say, 'You cannot do both; you need to specialise, otherwise you will never reach a higher level'. Since I was 14, I already had these discussions with my coaches about 'you need to choose and blah blah'. And I said, 'No, I want to go in both, and if it matters to you that I do both, then I need to choose another coach because this is the way I will do it'."

Now, while she works with the same physiotherapist and equipment technician for both sports, she has separate coaching staff.

Reiter and Ledecka train alongside male snowboarders, including Americans Michael Trapp and Robby Burns.

Ledecka's head ski coach Tomas Bank echoes Reiter in saying one of the challenges was reining her in during training.

"She's mentally fresh because she's changing sports, but the biggest problem for Ester is that she's often really tired, and that can be dangerous if it leads to mistakes on the skis," Bank added.

She has had much greater success in snowboarding, where the depth, in her view, is not as great as in skiing. She won the parallel World Cup title the last two seasons and the last two world championships in parallel giant slalom, which will be her only chance for an Olympic medal now that parallel slalom has been removed from the programme for Pyeongchang.

She finished in the top 10 in both events at the 2014 Olympics.

She is all but certain to compete in both sports in Pyeongchang, if she remains healthy. But the Olympic programme is not ideal.

Bank considers the downhill her strongest skiing event, but it conflicts with the snowboarding schedule. So she plans to skip the downhill, focusing on the giant slalom and super-G before racing for a medal in the parallel giant slalom.

The Olympics is her dream but also taboo.

"We have a rule in the team; whoever says 'Olympics' gets a €10 (S$16) fine," Bank said.

"The Czech mentality is always a little bit difficult, and Olympic Games in my experience is getting people crazy, so we go race to race. It's the best way."

NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 11, 2017, with the headline 'Eyeing double shot at Olympic history'. Print Edition | Subscribe