Ledecka wins? What the fudge happened? | VailDaily.com

Ledecka wins? What the fudge happened?

Gold-medal winner Ester Ledecka, of the Czech Republic, arrives for the flower ceremony after the women's super-G at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Jeongseon, South Korea, on Saturday, Feb. 17. That such a long shot won is why we watch sports and what makes racers like Lindsey Vonn and Mikaela Shiffrin great.
Christophe Ena | Associated Press file photo | AP

Ester Ledecka, meet Zali Steggall.

What in the wild, wild world of sports just happened during the Olympic super-G? A snowboarder won the super-G? I have nothing against snowboarders. I think it’s pretty cool that Ledecka is competing in both alpine and snowboarding during the same games.

But a dual athlete winning gold in a sport in which she’s only been on the World Cup for two years? Maybe Ledecka turns into the Bo Jackson of snow sports? Who knows?

But, for now, it is, and this is a technical term, the what-the-fudge factor. Seriously, you always get one at the Olympics or the FIS Alpine World Ski Championships. In the folly that is attempting to predict the medals before the Olympics, my what-the-fudge pick was (and remains) Norway’s Ragnhild Mowinckel taking the women’s combined over Anna Veith and some girl named Mikaela Shiffrin.

Mowinckel nearly pulled the upset over Shiffrin in the GS, so your sports writer wasn’t too much in the woods.

But the questions remain — how much of a long shot was Ledecka and what’s the precedent for the what-the-fudge winner?

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Go to fis-ski.com and go to Cup standings, and scroll. And keep scrolling. Ledecka is tied for 68th in World Cup points with Switzerland’s Simone Wild. Both have all of 77 points this season on tour. Keep in mind that the World Cup has completed 31 of its 39 events this season.

Ledecka was tied for 43rd in super-G points with seven, yes, seven points all season. She finished 24th in the Bad Kleinkirchheim, Austria, super-G on Jan. 13. That was the only time she’s been in the points all season.

She’s only raced eight World Cup super-Gs in her life. This is no way to degrade Ledecka — alpine racing is a fair sport in this way. You get down the hill the fastest, and you win, regardless of your pedigree — but just a way of showing the improbable nature of this win.

Let’s compare Ledecka to one of our favorite upset/what-the-fudge winners of all time — Australian Steggall at the Vail 1999 Worlds women’s slalom. First off, the Vail Daily ran a headline, “Steggall: Australian for gold,” a riff on the Foster’s beer ads of the time.

Second, Steggall winning was such an unthinkable concept that the good folks in the Vail 1999 organizational committee didn’t have a recording of “Advance Australia Fair,” her national anthem. They played something else — still unidentified — during the medal ceremony and had to redo it.

As improbable as Steggall’s win was, she finished 46th in the World Cup rankings and 12th in slalom during the 1998-99 season. Unlike Ledecka, perhaps, in retrospect, we might have seen Steggall coming. The Australian was a surprise bronze medalist during the 1998 Olympic slalom and had two top 10 finishes during the 1998-99 season, coming into Worlds (seventh in Park City, Utah, and second at Mammoth Mountain, California.)

Ledecka has all of one top 10 finish in her career — seventh in the second Lake Louise, Alberta, downhill in December, won by … that Shiffrin girl.

In a twist of irony, a few media outlets like NBC and CBS, are reporting that Ledecka was using Shiffrin’s skis for the race.

What-the-fudge history

Having an out-of-the-blue winner actually happens more often than you’d think at the Olympics and/or Worlds.

I’m not making this up. Here we go:

• 2017 Worlds: The men’s combined winner was Luca Aerni, of Switzerland. He had one podium in five years before that victory.

• 2015 Worlds: Favorite Marcel Hirscher skied off course on Red Tail at Beaver Creek giving France’s Jean Baptiste Grange the win. Grange was an accomplished skier, but had not won on the World Cup/Worlds level in four years because of injuries. It was a feel-good story, but no one saw it coming.

• 2014 Olympics: Sandro Viletta, of Switzerland, wins the combined. We might know Viletta better because his only World Cup win came at Beaver Creek at the Birds of Prey super-G race, which is its own strange event, producing first-time winners.

• 2013 Worlds: France’s Marion Rolland takes the women’s downhill. She had only two podiums to her name before Schladming, Austria, and had career-ending injuries afterward.

• 2010 Olympics: Italy’s Giuliano Razzoli wins the giant slalom. The world asks, “Who?”

• 2009 Worlds: Canada’s Jon Kucera wins the men’s downhill. Nice guy. We always root for the Canadians, but Kucera won just once on the World Cup.

• 2006 Olympics: France’s Antoine Deneriaz won the downhill. He had all of three career wins and hadn’t been on the top step in three years.

Why they are great

Think of the variables involved in a ski race — great competition like, say like Anna Veith, Tina Weirather and Lara Gut in this year’s Olympic women’s super-G. Then you’re Lindsey Vonn, who was having a terrific run until she made one mistake on a turn at 55-60 mph that definitely cost her a medal, if not the win.

Now add in that you can make mistakes on a lot of turns or gates throughout a race. Some races have two runs. And on top of that, someone can come out of the blue and have the race of his or her life to ruin all your best-laid plans for Olympic or World Championship glory.

That is how hard it is to win on the World Cup or at the Olympics. It’s why we watch. That is why what Vonn and Shiffrin do on a regular basis is crazy, and that their careers include Olympic and Worlds gold medals all the more remarkable.

Sports Editor Chris Freud can be reached at 970-748-2934, cfreud@vaildaily.com and @cfreud.

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