BY PEGGY SHINN I DEC. 4, 2013
Ted Ligety is the best giant slalom skier in the world. Period. With the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games only two months away, the 29-year-old two-time Olympian will be a favorite to win the GS gold medal. He’s also a threat in super-G and super combined. After all, he is the reigning world champion in all three disciplines — and an Olympic gold medalist in combined.
As much as he would like to have another Olympic gold medal placed around his neck, Ligety has bigger goals this season.
Ligety’s transformation to the best GS skier in the world began in 2006 — a pivotal year for the 21-year-old up-and-comer from Park City, Utah, who competed with “Mom and Dad” as his primary sponsor handwritten on the front of his helmet when he first made the U.S. Ski Team in 2004. After he won an Olympic gold medal in combined at the 2006 Olympic Winter Games, he started Shred, his growing goggle and helmet company, with friend Carlos Salmini. And he also began learning how GS should be skied.
A thinking man’s skier, he realized that the key is to arc the full turn starting high above the gate.
“It’s not really the traditional way most guys ski,” Ligety explained recently. “Most guys kind of skip the top 10 percent of the turn in the air or on the slide, then get onto an arc (later in the turn).”
Two years later, Ligety won his first of four overall world cup GS titles. At the 2009 world championships, he took the bronze in GS. In 2010, he went to the Vancouver Games favored to win another Olympic medal.
It didn’t happen. Ligety finished ninth in GS and fifth in combined. Despite his disappointment, he talked with his fans and the media for hours after both races. But the experience “flipped a switch” for him.
“I felt like a lot of times when I won or was on the podium, I’d still left something on the hill,” he said. “I tried to play it too tactically or too safe.”
With new intensity, he won over half of the world cup GS races over the next three seasons. In the previous Olympic quadrennial, he won only 17 percent.
Last season, the International Ski Federation changed the rules on GS ski dimensions, requiring competitors to use skis with less sidecut. Skis with a more pronounced sidecut allow skiers to accelerate out of the turn. Not so on the new straighter skis.
“On the new skis, if you slide the top 10 percent of the turn, you get nothing out of the skis [at the end of the turn], so you don’t get any speed,” explained Ligety, who was vehemently opposed to the rule change for a variety of reasons, even though it would ultimately benefit him. “The way I ski, I’m able to arc the top of the turn more cleanly than most of the other guys. That way, I’m able to get the acceleration out of the turn that other guy’s aren’t.”
|Alpine skier Ted Ligety poses during the NBC Olympics/United
States Olympic Committee photo shoot in West Hollywood, Calif.
in April 2013
The straighter skis also take more effort to turn, so Ligety changed his off-season workouts to build up muscle endurance.
He dominated GS last season, winning the first race in Soelden by 2.75 seconds — the widest margin of victory since 1979. Of the eight world cup giant slaloms on last year’s calendar, Ligety won six. He also had a handful of top 10s in super-G.
Going to the 2013 world championships, he knew he had chances to medal in three events: GS, super-G, and super combined. But not gold medal chances, except in GS.
The super-G was turny and technical, perfect for a GS skier. Then in combined, he finished third in downhill — his best downhill result ever. A second place in slalom gave him his first combined win since the 2006 Games. Then came his marquee event. The pressure was suddenly more intense than if he hadn’t medaled yet.
“I felt like if I didn’t win the GS, it would have been a failure in a way,” he said.
Leading by 1.30 seconds after the first run, he held on during the second run for the win, beating Marcel Hirscher by 0.81.
No skier had won three gold medals at worlds since the legendary Jean-Claude Killy in 1968 — back when the world championships piggybacked on the Olympic Winter Games. Ligety did not learn this statistic until the post-race press conference. Hearing his name mentioned along with Killy’s was “pretty surreal.”
“Ski racing has really become a sport where a lot of guys specialize in one or two events, so it’s become really difficult to win in multiple disciplines,” Ligety said.
Head coach Sasha Rearick hoped Ligety’s performance at worlds would inspire other ski racers to “do what he’s done to get to this level.”
“It's tremendous hard work since he was a little kid but especially hard work when he made the development team — day in and day out coming in and training more professionally and harder than anyone,” said Rearick. “It shows that hard work is fun, hard work is rewarding.”
Although he initially joked that he wasn’t impressed with Ligety’s performance at worlds, Bode Miller was also inspired, especially when Ligety overcame nerves, expectations and pressure in his second run of GS.
“Everyone wants to go to the Olympics, everyone wants a medal,” said Miller. “But when you’re standing in the start gate crapping your pants because you don’t know if you’re going to do it or not, and all the hard work you’ve put in and all the expectations and all the pressure is sitting right on your head, there’s a lot of places a lot of us would rather be than in that position.”
Miller then watched Ligety blast through the pressure, leaving nothing on the hill.
Ligety knows the Olympic Games are an entirely different experience than worlds — more hype, more media coverage, more expectations. His chances of a multi-medal sweep are slim.
But he has a bigger goal than more Olympic medals. He wants to win the world cup overall title: a big crystal globe to go with his four smaller overall GS globes. He finished third overall last year, 523 points shy of winner Marcel Hirscher from Austria (world cup skiers gain 100 points for each win, 80 points for second place, 60 for third and on down to 30th place).
“Most ski racers would say the overall title is more important than an Olympic gold medal because it takes a season’s work instead of a day’s work,” Ligety said.
But if he had to choose, which would he pick: another Olympic gold (or two) or the overall title?
“I already have one Olympic gold medal,” he said laughing. “But I don’t want to have to choose between one or the other. I want to get both.”
Peggy Shinn is a freelance contributor for TeamUSA.org. This story was not subject to the approval of the United States Olympic Committee or any National Governing Bodies.