Over 54 seasons of FIS World Cup skiing, no Czech ski racer has ever hoisted a discipline title globe, a feat that Ester Ledecka believes she can accomplish this winter.
“It would be great – I think we can agree on that,” Ledecka says. “Obviously, there are a lot of races in front of me.”
Ledecka, who left the ski racing establishment incredulous with her otherworldly double gold medal performance in the super G and snowboard parallel giant slalom at the PyeongChang 2018 Olympic Winter Games, is prepared for a season of uncertainty with intentions to once again juggle both skiing and snowboard World Cup races.
“I think the priority right now is to focus on downhill training because we haven’t had so many days and I need to get used to the speed and more difficult courses,” Ledecka tells Ski Racing Media during a virtual press conference from her home in Prague, Czech Republic.
“It is obviously not so easy right now with this coronavirus situation, but hopefully we will find some solutions and I will gain more confidence.”
Ledecka said she benefited from quality snow days during a downhill training session in Saas-Fe, Switzerland, prior to opening her season in Soelden, where she finished 20th in a giant slalom. Immediately following the Austrian race, she quickly transitioned back to snowboard training.
In the 2019-20 season – cut short by the coronavirus outbreak – Ledecka amassed 322 World Cup downhill points, finishing runner-up to Swiss Corinne Suter, who tallied 477.
The dominant Czech snowboarder, turned ski racer, would like nothing more than to add a ski racing crystal globe to her collection of seven snowboard globes.
“I have plenty of space on my shelf at home and it is a better decoration than flower pots or vases,” Ledecka says with a laugh.
Ledecka, 25, concedes that there is still tremendous room for improvement concerning her speed racing skills and comfort level on the mountain.
“I still feel like a beginner in downhills and super G,” she said. “The other girls have much more experience than me – I can get much faster with more experience on more World Cup hills.
“I still feel like I’m a baby downhiller,” says Ledecka, who made her World Cup skiing debut in February 2016, finishing 24th at a Garmisch-Partenkirchen downhill.
Ledecka announced that she will be parting ways with one of her two alpine skiing coaches, former World Cup racer Ondrej Bank, while continuing to work alongside Ondrej’s brother Tomas. She hasn’t revealed who will replace Ondrej.
“I can’t tell you the name today, sorry, it is a secret now, but I will inform you as soon as possible,” Ledecka said at the Nov. 6 virtual event.
Regarding her setup, Ledecka also reveals some, but perhaps not all of her secrets.
“I’m very happy with Atomic – actually I got some new skis which are even faster,” she said. “It is a special connection because they found me when I was 16-years-old and saw the potential in me.”
Ledecka says she will lean heavily on her small team racing independent of the Czech Ski Team, especially considering uncertainties and the potential for the virus to cause havoc on the schedule. Cooperating with Bank will once again be Ledecka’s American snowboard coach Justin Reiter.
“Actually, I think I have the strongest team on the whole World Cup circuit,” Ledecka says. “I rely on them and they will find the best solutions for training and races. The cooperation will also be a key, as always, because I am doing two sports.”
“We are looking at this season as an excellent opportunity to continue learning, working and training,” says Reiter, a 2014 Olympian and 10-time U.S. national snowboarding champion. “The added complication of COVID has only strengthened our resolve to be flexible in our approach, but concrete in our commitment to excellence.”
“Based on travel, energy, snow conditions, and desire we will communicate and work to find a solution to do everything we can as a team with the highest quality possible,” he said.
Ledecka sped to top-10 finishes in six of nine downhill races last season, including her first career World Cup victory in Lake Louise, Canada, on Dec. 6. She also attained third-place results in a Garmisch-Partenkirchen downhill (Feb. 8) and at a Crans-Montana combined event (Feb. 23).
While Ledecka’s super G results did not live up to her lofty Olympic benchmark, she ascended to a 10th-place showing in last season’s overall World Cup standings.
The 2018 Olympic super G champion believes that she can make the necessary adjustments and raise her super G game.
“Everywhere – there are so many spots and where I can be faster and better,” Ledecka said, asked specifically where she can improve. “I hope with my new coach we’ll figure out some faster lines and faster ways to get down the hill.”
On course for Beijing
Ledecka has made her intentions clear that she plans to defend both her super G and snowboard gold medals at the Beijing 2022 Olympic Winter Games.
“That’s the plan so far – I think there is nothing holding me back,” Ledecka recently revealed. “I’m healthy and I still have fun riding down the mountain, whether it’s on a snowboard or skis. That’s the most important thing for me in the end – to still have fun doing it.”
Ledecka is excited to continue pursuit of these aspirations on the future Olympic speed courses in Yanqing, China, at this season’s World Cup and Olympic test event, Feb. 24-28.
The ski races conflict with the FIS Snowboard World Championships, also being held in China, but in Zhangjiakou, which is approximately 130 kilometers northwest of the Xiaohaituo alpine skiing venue. Snowboard worlds are Feb 18-28, with the parallel races on the 26th and 28th.
Ledecka kidded about finding a way to race at both despite the obvious scheduling conflict.
“I was thinking maybe if a snowboarding race is in the morning and a ski race is in the afternoon, we can switch back and forth, but my coaches are like no, no, no,” she says with a laugh.
Team Ledecka’s plans are to continue the season at Lech/Zuers, Austria, for parallel races, Nov. 26-27. Back-to-back super G in St. Moritz, Dec. 5-6, are the opening speed races on the revamped World Cup schedule.
“I will try to do as many races and see where everything falls,” Ledecka says, once again referring to her hefty double dose of skiing and snowboarding.
Solving the mystery of Shiffrin’s skis
If assists were awarded in ski racing as they are in hockey, Mikaela Shiffrin would add to her numerous accolades having most likely tested and ultimately casting aside a pair of Atomic Redster G9s that Ledecka apparently nabbed and raced to her unlikely Olympic super-G gold medal.
Ledecka tried to shed light on a mystery that has been tossed around more than a garden salad, but remained unconfirmed at the PyeongChang Games and thereafter.
“When you are a factory rider, there is an order where the best on the World Cup list goes first and chooses their skis,” Ledecka explains. “When they don’t like the skis, they return them to the factory.
“Mikaela chose her skis and then returned the other ones. Then many others skiers went and I was somewhere down on the list.
“I took these skis and I didn’t know if they were Mikaela’s skis.”
In PyeongChang, Shiffrin opted to sit out the Olympic super G, having won giant slalom gold and then finishing a disappointing fourth in slalom on consecutive days preceding the speed race.
“My tech guy did a really good job on them and made them the fastest skis, for sure during this one run,” Ledecka continued.
“When I finished my run, everyone was asking him at the start where did you get such fast skis and he said ‘maybe they were Mikaela’s skis and we just took them.’ Ledecka said Shiffrin informed her that everybody was asking about this.
“This happened – it is partly true,” Ledecka says confidently, trying to cast aside any lingering doubt.
“They were her skis, but she chose another pair and luckily I got them.”
Case closed? Perhaps.
Author’s note: I’d like to dedicate this story in the memory of Ski Racing friends Gary Black Jr. and Hank McKee. Was very fortunate to enjoy some memorable times with these guys over the years, particularly in Soelden, at the 2011 Garmisch-Partenkirchen and 2017 Beaver Creek World Championships, among other race venues and ski towns. Quick story about Hank – of course we decided to ask for a photo with the Italian legend Alberto Tomba after a press event at the GAP Worlds. While Hank was about to snap our photo and Tomba seemed reluctant to smile, the soft-spoken McKee shouted “C’mon Alberto smile!” which the Italian skier then did. Thank you Hank! Miss these guys.