Ester Ledecka’s aura of sheer happiness as she crossed the finish line and saw the green light in the finish of the Lake Louise downhill was a bright spot amidst a long, snowy day. Ledecka shocked the field in PyeongChang when she skied from bib 26 into first during the super-G, taking her status from snowboarder and wannabe alpine ski racer to a multi-sport Olympic gold medalist. That same Olympics, she also won a gold in the snowboard parallel giant slalom.
On Friday, she once again stunned both her competitors and herself, winning not only the first World Cup speed race of the season but also the first World Cup race of her career. Ledecka had been skiing well in training. In fact, she finished fifth just the day before.
“This is my first win, actually, it’s my first top six,” said Ledecka. “I’m quite surprised. It’s always good when I have some confident runs in the trainings, but I already had good runs in the previous races in the trainings – I’ve won two trainings before – and then I did not do that good in the race after. But this time I think I fixed my mistakes from my last runs in the trainings and everything went in the right direction and I’m happy.”
Ledecka’s win, 0.35 seconds over Switzerland’s Corinne Suter, was also a surprise given the conditions of the course. Non-stop snow showered down upon the track in Lake Louise before, during, and after, the first women’s downhill of the season. The jury had chosen to start the race at the reserve start before inspection even opened. Volunteers and course workers shoveled, plowed, and groomed tirelessly to keep the course and the boundaries intact. After an hour start delay, the snow was still coming down hard, and coaches and athletes alike expected the race to be canceled. Yet somehow, the show went on.
“There were definitely some nerves, it was kind of a rollercoaster of a day,” said USA’s Alice Merryweather, who tied for 21st with Liechtenstein’s Tina Weirather. “I was nervous first thing in the morning, then once I inspected I knew exactly where I wanted to be in the course and was feeling really good. And then we kept getting delayed and I admit I checked out for a little while in the lodge just watching it continue to snow heavily all day, I just thought “ah there’s no chance this is gonna happen” and then, sure enough, we got the message like “okay we’re on” and the nerves came back.”
Despite the incessant snowing, the course seemed to hold up well. Where the danger came in was on the outside of the course. If an athlete were to get late on a turn, they would run the risk of skiing into powder, and downhill skis, high speeds, and powder do not mix. Fortunately, a majority of the field made it down the course without getting caught up in the snow. Yesterday, quite a few athletes missed turns during training or had skied out of the course.
By the end of the day, the weather appeared to be letting up, which could mean that the women will be able to ski the full track Saturday. Being able to start from the true top of the course could give certain athletes an advantage by allowing them to reach higher speeds before coming into the more technical sections of the course. Both Suter and third-place finisher Venier commented that they hope to see the race start at the regulation start tomorrow for that reason. A podium finish the first downhill race of the year is not bad, but both the Swiss woman and the Austrian are hungry for a win.
Venier is not the only Austrian vying for the top slot. On Friday, the women’s speed team once again showed their depth when six women finished in the top 15. Nina Ortlieb, skied into fourth from bib 30, tying Germany’s Viktoria Rebensburg. Nicole Schmidhofer, last year’s Lake Louise winner on both days, finished seventh.
Friday’s best Canadian finisher was Marie-Michele Gagnon, coming down in 28th after a wild ride late in the course.
Downhill Day 1 Top 10
1. Ester Ledecka (CZE) – 1:31.87 – Atomic/Atomic/Atomic
2. Corinne Suter (SUI): +0.35 – Head/Head/Head
3. Stephanie Venier (AUT): +0.45 – Atomic/Atomic/Atomic
4. Nina Ortlieb (AUT): +0.66 – Head/Head/Head
4. Viktoria Rebensburg (GER): +0.66 – Stoeckli/Lange
6. Sofia Goggia (ITA): +0.69 – Atomic/Atomic/Atomic
7. Nicole Schmidhofer (AUT): +0.74 – Fischer/Fischer/Fischer
8. Kira Weidle (GER): +0.82 – Rossignol/Rossignol
9. Nicol Delago (ITA): +0.94 – Atomic/Atomic/Atomic
10. Mikaela Shiffrin (USA): +0.96 – Atomic/Atomic/Atomic