Ester Ledecka has a chance to enter company after a gold medal performance Saturday that’s gone without a new member for 114 years.
Ledecka, primarily a snowboarder, won the women’s super-G on skis, upsetting the likes of Lindsey Vonn and Austria’s Anna Veith, the favorites. The parallel giant slalom — on a snowboard and her strongest event — is coming up next week.
A medal there would make Ledecka the sixth Olympian to medal in two unrelated sports in the same Games.
There are dozens of athletes who compete in complimentary disciplines of the same sport (for example, cross-country skiers who participate in Nordic combined) or compete in both Olympic seasons (track athletes who join bobsled teams such as Lolo Jones).
And historically, national teams used athletes from sports that involved similar skill-sets — such as swimmers who play water polo or pentathletes who are also shooters, swimmers, fencers, runners and equestrians — to save money or because teams lacked a depth of talent.
That’s not Ledecka, who skis and snowboards in an era of unrivaled sports specialization. There simply isn’t enough time in the day for modern elite athletes to master two sports.
To the layperson, skiing and snowboarding look pretty similar. Rest assured, they’re not. Writes Washington Post columnist Barry Svrluga:
This is absurd. It can’t happen. That Ledecka is even here trying to compete in these two sports — and to be sure, they are vastly different — is beyond unlikely. People put their lives into pursuing the Olympics in one or the other. There’s just not time — not in the day, not in a month, not in a calendar year — to do both.
The last Olympian to pull off such a feat competed in an era before sports specialization, while the modern Olympic Games were still in a nascent stage.
It was Joe Lydon, who won a bronze medal as a welterweight boxer in the 1904 St. Louis Games and a silver medal in soccer. Still, Lydon’s accomplishment is controversial because soccer, even though it was played at the Olympics, was not an Olympic sport at the time.
There were only three teams to compete. Two were American. The other was Canadian. Lydon’s team, from Christian Brothers College in St. Louis, got whooped, 7-0, in the gold medal game. (The International Olympic Committee now recognizes those medals in its annals.)
But even before Lydon was Australian Edwin Flack, a distance runner in the 1896 Games who ascended from casual amateur in his teenage years to Olympic talent by his early 20s.
At the inaugural Athens Games, he won gold medals in the 800- and 1,500-meter races, then picked up a tennis racket and joined with his roommate George Roberson, a Briton, and won a bronze medal in doubles.
When Flack accepted his gold medals, Australia wasn’t yet independent from Great Britain. Officials inadvertently raised the Austrian flag at first, according to a history of Flack written by his hometown, the city of Casey, Australia, then ran up the Union Jack as a replacement and played “God Save the Queen.”
The next day, he decided to try running the Olympic marathon, though he hadn’t trained for it. He passed out while in the lead with six miles to go.
Three more athletes won medals in unrelated sports during the 1896 Olympics. German Fritz Hofmann won silver in the 100-meter dash and bronze in rope climbing.
Alexander Viggo Jensen of Denmark competed in four sports (weightlifting, gymnastics, shooting and track and field) and won medals in weightlifting (gold for two-hand unlimited and silver for one-hand unlimited) and shooting (300-meter free rifle).
Sotirios Versis from Greece won bronze medals in two-hand unlimited weightlifting and the discus throw.
Ledecka would be the first winter Olympian and first woman to medal in two sports in the same Games. She told reporters afterward she hadn’t prepared to compete for a medal in the super-G. She didn’t take her ski goggles off at her celebratory news conference because she hadn’t put on makeup that morning, she said.
“It takes a lot of effort to become a professional skier,” said Justin Reiter, her snowboard coach. “It takes a lot of effort to become a professional snowboarder. And she does both with ease.”
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