Ester Ledecka on skis

She’s pulled off the upset of the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics. Ester Ledecká, a world champion parallel snowboarder jumped into the Super-G alpine event with little aspirations of winning. She just wanted to have a great run.

Ledecká did, and to the surprise of everyone, the Czech snowboarder, ranked 43rd in the world in the Super-G, won the gold medal. How did she do it? In a rush to explain, there was very little expert commentary. The assumption was that snowboarding and skiing are very different – a lot was made about how Ledecká was the first person ever to appear in two different Olympic events in the same Olympics, and that the skills for both were quite different.

And yet, according to ski and snowboarding coaches I talked with, that is not necessarily the case.

Jon Casson, the director of sport education for U. S. Ski and Snowboard Association (USSA), was in PyeongChang to cheer on the numerous Olympians he has coached, thought that skiing and snowboarding, on the whole, are quite similar.

My personal opinion is that I don’t think they are truly as dissimilar as the experts make it out to be.  In the end, it’s about pointing your equipment downhill and going as fast as you can. You stand on the equipment and you move your body.  Those movements put pressure on the ski or board and make it do something.  In this case, it’s maintaining as flat a base as possible and taking as direct a line down the hill as possible.  As the most dominant athlete in her snowboarding discipline, she understands this innately and can make her equipment do those things. 

In other words, if you say you’re super at skiing, and you feel you need to prioritize your training, you will only focus on your skiing skills. But someone like Ledecká comes along and shows that under the right conditions, your skills in one sport are transferable in others. This is when cetain other skills can make a difference.

Jon Casson
United States Ski and Snowboard Association (USSA) Sport Education Director Jon Casson leads a coaching class at Copper Mountain.

According to wax technician extraordinaire Andy Buckley, who was also in PyeongChang, Ledecká had a skill above and beyond the other skiers. Buckley explained that in Super-G alpine skiing, racers do not get to do trial runs. Once the course is set, the skiers are given ample time to examine the course, but they can’t ski it until the competition. What Buckley said is that Ledecká had superior capability to “read the terrain, find the right lines, know where to go high or low on a gate.” a skill she picked up from both skiing and snowboarding.

And as Casson added, “Ester not only has the athleticism, she has the confidence to go fast or go big, and that transferred to skiing.”

Ester Ledecka on snowboard
Czech Republic’s Ester Ledecka wins gold in the women’s parallel slalom snowboarding at the World Championships in Spain.

So how did Ledecká seemingly come out of nowhere to win the Super-G?

  • She had mastered the movements of a snowboard, and how to manipulate it with her body, arms, legs and feet in perfect harmony to the snow-covered ground, and more importantly, she was certain in her belief that these skills transferred directly to skiing. And let’s not forget, she was indeed a skier, someone who came to PyeongChang with an intent to compete in both disciplines.
  • Ledecká was an expert at reading the terrain, a highly critical skill for a race that does not allow competitors to have trial runs, and thus feel and know the course in advance. She read it, kept it in her head to visualize, and executed.
  • And she was confident, with nothing to lose. She was in PyeongChang for the parallel snowboarding race, so why not go for broke on Super-G?

For Ledecká, the conditions were the perfect storm. And that storm begs a name.

Let’s call it Hurricane Ester.

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Julia Mancuso, Lindsey Vonn, Elisabeth Gorgi on the Downhill Medal Podium at the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics
Julia Mancuso, Lindsey Vonn, Elisabeth Gorgi on the Downhill Medal Podium at the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics
All high performance downhill skiers experience injuries and setbacks and American Lindsey Vonn is no exception.

The three-time Olympian and 2010 gold medalist in the downhill, has had more than her share: season-ending knee surgery to repair a torn ACL and broken knee bone in early 2013, re-injury of the ACL later in 2013, which kept her off the slopes for all of 2014, including the Sochi Olympics, a broken ankle in August 2015 followed by a knee fracture three months later, ending her season, and finally a broken arm in November of 2016, which required surgery. She returned to the slopes two months later.

Forbes Magazine recently interviewed Vonn, sensing that her ability to bounce back from adversity time and again features a mindset common to successful entrepreneurs – one complete with a checklist for being resilient. And while high-performance athletes and serial entrepreneurs may appear to push this mindset to levels beyond the average person, there are powerful lessons for us all in this interview. Here is the list of Vonn’s 7 Strategies to Bounce Back From a Setback Even When It Feels Impossible. This is shortened, so go to this link for more:

  1. Prepare: The key to the comeback lies in the consistent, intentional training in advance. Develop personal training routines to keep yourself sharp, strong, and prepared for the next challenge.
  2. Internalize the lesson: If you are feeling stuck, reflect on the lessons hidden in the situation.
  3. Harness pressure to your advantage: Failure can be scary, but Vonn leverages fear to propel herself forward instead of paralyze her progress.
  4. Keep an open mind: Your brain is wired to keep you safe, which is why a setback can trigger stress and strong urge to fight or flee. If you feel stuck and blinded by your current situation, create emotional distance, gain perspective, and see if there are any creative solutions you may have missed.
  5. Define yourself: The story that we tell ourselves becomes who we are. Setbacks can be a catalyst for a new self-narrative that holds you back.
  6. Visualize: During stressful situations, the mind releases cortisol, which inhibits creativity. Practice mindfulness to quiet the mind and imagine a brighter future. Paint the mental picture with crystal clarity.
  7. Keep moving: Approach each situation as an iteration to learn from for the future.

 

Lindsey Vonn
Lindsey Vonn

From a personal and leadership development perspective, there are a number of nuggets of wisdom here: the importance of a development routine to maintain focus, the ability to see ways to improve when you’re doing poorly and when you’re doing well, facing fear and pressure by visualizing the joy and glory of what is possible.

I believe that great leaders, above all else, have an incredible sense of self – one’s strengths, weaknesses, likes and dislikes, and most importantly where one has come from and a clear view of where one wants to go. The more self-aware a person is, the more likely that failure, as she said, will not define you.