By Nick Mulvenney
PYEONGCHANG, South Korea (Reuters) – Czech shredder Ester Ledecka and Italian Samurai Sofia Goggia left indelible marks on the Alpine skiing at an Olympics that were supposed to be about Americans Mikaela Shiffrin and Lindsey Vonn stamping their authority on the sport.
Snowboarder Ledecka’s win in the super-G was quite simply the most stunning result in the sport for years, perhaps ever, while the irrepressible Goggia’s downhill triumph took the marquee title to Italy for the first time.
The freezing winds that tore through Pyeongchang in the first week of competition not only severely disrupted the Alpine schedule but also quickly put paid to Shiffrin’s ambitious bid for titles in all five individual events.
Once her campaign did get underway, the 22-year-old struck gold at the first attempt in the giant slalom but having to back up 24 hours later in her pet event, the slalom, proved too tough and she had to settle for fourth behind Swede Frida Hansdotter.
If Shiffrin finishing off the podium with a sub-par performance in her slalom title defense was a major surprise, it was nothing to what would follow the next day at the Jeongseon Alpine Center.
Anna Veith looked to have become the first woman to have successfully defended the super-G title and was receiving the congratulations of her rivals as the last few outsiders took their turns.
Suddenly, screaming down the mountain on a pair of skis which once had a home in Shiffrin’s extensive quiver came Ledecka, a gold medal favorite in snowboard but ranked 43rd in the World Cup super-G.
The lights flashed green as competitor number 26 crossed the line indicating a new race leader but no one – not Ledecka, not her rivals, not the crowd, not the TV stations who had already crowned Veith champion – could quite believe what she had done.
There was no mistake, though, and the 22-year-old was soon gifting the Games one of its iconic images by answering questions at the press conference in her ski goggles, unprepared to face the cameras without make-up.
If Ledecka, who went on to score an unprecedented double gold by winning the snowboard parallel giant slalom, presented the new, slightly obscured, face of Alpine skiing, Vonn was very much the establishment.
The most successful female skier of all time, the 33-year-old won downhill gold and super-G bronze in Vancouver but had been forced to sit out the Sochi Games with one of the many injuries that have scarred her career.
A mistake when she skied wide right at the end of the super-G at Jeongseon almost certainly cost her a medal, if not the gold, but her hopes had always been pinned more on regaining the downhill title.
Goggia was no Alpine unknown like Ledecka and had fought a running battle with Vonn in the downhill on the World Cup circuit, her capacity for making mistakes at key moments having undermined her natural pace.
There were to be no mistakes when it mattered most, however, as the 25-year-old from Bergamo reined in the ‘crazy horse’ of her reputation and tapped into her inner Samurai to produce a run that Vonn and none of her other rivals could match.
Vonn shed tears of joys after claiming a bronze and declared that Pyeongchang would be her last Olympics – “probably”.
Having learned her lesson from the quick turnaround between the two slalom races, Shiffrin skipped the downhill when a forecast return of the high winds prompted organizers to move the combined forward by a day.
After playing it safe in the downhill leg, she produced a brilliant performance in the slalom run only to come up just short of the gold medal-winning time set by Swiss Michelle Gisin, whose sister Dominque shared the downhill gold in Sochi.
Shiffrin was delighted with her silver, which made her the most successful individual woman Alpine skier at the Games ahead of Norway’s Ragnhild Mowinckel, who won silvers in the downhill and giant slalom, and Wendy Holdener.
Swiss Holdener won a silver in the slalom and a bronze in the combined before rounding out her Games and completing her set with a gold in the inaugural team competition.
(Reporting by Nick Mulvenney, Editing by Sudipto Ganguly)