BONGPYEONG, South Korea — Don’t ask Ester Ledecka if she is the best athlete at the PyeongChang Olympics. She will stare through her polarized goggles and recoil at what she considers a preposterous notion.
“Uh, what?” she responded Saturday afternoon.
“I don’t think so, no,” she insisted. “There are the greatest athletes in the world here.”
And the greatest athletes in the world now gush over Ledecka, the 22-year-old Czech who just accomplished the unthinkable, winning gold medals in two different sporting disciplines, shattering all preconceived notions about the impossibility of mixing elite skiing and snowboarding — or any other exotic combination of world-class athletic pursuits. She must be the greatest.
“Yeah, whatever,” Ledecka said.
And then she walked away. It was something I’ve never seen before: a humble mic drop. It seems that Ledecka breaks new ground in everything she does.
Let’s say it for her: Ledecka is the greatest of all the greatests here. She is the defining figure of the 2018 Games. She just made parallel giant slalom snowboarding a must-see event. On Saturday at Phoenix Snow Park, she beat Selina Joerg of Germany by 0.46 seconds to capture a historic gold double. Last week, she shocked the world and won the super-G on skis, and now her snowboard is golden, too.
She has dreamed about this since she was 5. Her lifelong aspiration wasn’t simply to go to the Olympics. It was to do it her way — to compete in multiple sports, to win multiple golds — and the more she heard people say she couldn’t do it, the worse a listener she became.
In an era of sports specialization, Ledecka has been an evangelist for maintaining variety and a persistent self-believer. She didn’t want to hear about what was impossible. She just needed to know how difficult it would be, and then she could figure out the training and discipline the task required.
For most of us, Ledecka’s diverse double is an unfathomable feat. She is the first woman to win gold in two unrelated sports at the same Winter Olympics. She is only the sixth Olympian, period, to do such a thing, and most of the other multitasking medalists pulled it off back basically when electricity was still considered a luxury. In modern times, it just doesn’t happen. Athletes aren’t wired this way. They aren’t allowed to be wired this way.
But try to get Ledecka to think differently. Just try.
She is an inspiration even to those who do plenty of inspiring.
“I think everybody was like, ‘What are we doing wrong?’” U.S. skiing star Mikaela Shiffrin said. “I thought this sport was hard, but apparently not. It’s an incredible example for young aspiring skiers, snowboarders, freestylers — anybody. People are really focusing nowadays on, like, when you have an incredible champion in an event, there’s like this frenzy of everybody trying to figure out how to replicate that champion and how to be the next such-and-such — the next Lindsey Vonn, the next Mikaela Shiffrin, the next Michael Phelps. It’s a really important point that everybody should see: There’s not one path.
“There’s a million different personalities, a million different ways to go about that kind of success. The one thing that does not change is perseverance and hard work. Ester was maybe the best example of that in this Games,” Shiffrin said. “She hasn’t been just solely focusing on skiing. She didn’t specify Alpine skiing in her sports repertoire when she was 8 years old because she wanted to be the Olympic champion. But if she can find the similarities between her sport and actually help build and improve with one sport on to the other, then that’s maybe the most important thing you can take away from it — for young kids to enjoy what they’re doing and be passionate.”
Justin Reiter is Ledecka’s snowboarding coach. He is an American who competed for the U.S. four years ago in Sochi, but now he works with this wondrous talent from the Czech Republic. He wore a reversible Czech Republic coat on Saturday — white on one side, gold on the other. He donned the gold side, and on the back of the coat, it said, “Reversible for those golden moments.” For Reiter, coaching Ledecka has redefined his beliefs about many things.
“I always doubted the ability to do both,” he said. “But I think it was a big deal for us this year to stop the fighting of trying to pull her toward one direction and saying, ‘Hey, let’s just do what you want.’ That was the No. 1 focus for the year: to create a champion and not a racehorse. Empower her so that she could make her decisions, her own choices, and support them.”
Reiter can remember a pivotal moment in their relationship last October. He had spent the day trying to convince Ledecka, a two-time world champion snowboarder, that she had to focus on winning an Olympic snowboarding medal. He preached hard that day, then went home “feeling a little bit like I had thrown some water on a fire,” he said. The next morning, he approached her again.
“Hey, Ester, forget everything that I said,” Reiter told her. “If you want to ski and snowboard, I don’t give a s---. Let’s go for it. And it’s your career. It’s what you want to do. You’re different than anyone I’ve ever met in the world, so there’s no reason why we can’t.”
It’s a memory that makes tears well in Reiter’s eyes. But ask Ledecka about this pivotal moment, and it’s white noise to her memory. She can’t distinguish it as important.
“I don’t remember that, to be honest,” she said, laughing. “I need to ask him about that.”
Spend a lifetime hearing about what you can’t do, and you’re left with two ways to react: Submit to the doubt or erase it.
“There were so many of them who tell me this is not possible,” Ledecka said. “And today, I proved it possible.”
Now she is the Bo Jackson of the Olympics, a dual threat for the ages. Or, as my Washington Post colleague Adam Kilgore coined (and he is quite proud of this), she is Snow Jackson. She is not a skier. She is not a snowboarder. She is both. She executed the surprise of the Olympics in the super-G, but on this day, she thrived as the favorite. It doesn’t matter whether you expect Ledecka to succeed or fail. She is going to compete. And when she is finished, you will be impressed.
“I felt quite a lot of pressure between the super-G and now, but today, I felt like any other race,” she said. “Because I was at the hill, and I was in my skin, and it was just crazy.”
It was just a chance to live a dream that people once thought was foolish. It was just the greatest athlete at these Winter Olympics making history. Yeah, whatever. You want bragging? Go find someone to do it for her. They’re everywhere now.