KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia -- Four years ago, Ted Ligety came to the Vancouver Olympic Games as the best giant slalom skier in the world. He knew it, the other skiers knew it and the statistical rankings verified it. Yet he finished an unthreatening ninth in the event on the Whistler Creekside hill, 1.28 seconds behind gold medalist Carlo Janka of Switzerland and .67 out of the medals. U.S. alpine skiers won eight medals at those games and Ligety, who four years earlier had won a shocking gold medal in the combined event in Turin, left with nothing. He was a wallflower at the biggest Olympic party in U.S. Ski team history.
“Not getting a medal there,” said Ligety, “Was definitely a bummer.”
In fact, it was much more than that. It was a turning point in his athletic career. Ligety, then 25 years old, had climbed into the upper echelon of ski racers in much the same way that bean-counters balance spreadsheets: By carefully weighing risk against reward and calculating the best path to a safe and lucrative success. He could score points and win season-long World Cup giant slalom trophies by stringing together top-five finishes and letting others occasionally falter and crash. There was no superstar to pile up GS victories -- no Alberto Tomba, no Hermann Maier. No Bode Miller, who was past his giant slalom prime. Ligety would be the fabled tortoise and others would be the hares.
That approach does not work at the Olympic Games, where there is gold, then silver and bronze, and then a deep, empty well of everything else. Turtles do not win more medals. “One of the things he learned in Vancouver is that you’ve got to push it,” says Ligety’s mother, Cyndi Sharp.
His father, Bill Ligety, echoed that impression: “You can’t play it safe.”
Ted Ligety, 29, understood that he had to change if he wanted more time on the top step of the podium and more medals around his neck.
“I left a lot of speed on that hill in Vancouver,” he said, “by skiing a little too smart, in a way. And I had skied a lot of races that way in my career and had a lot of success. But what happened to me in Vancouver, it was really like flipping a switch. It made me realize I was going to have to do more, if I wanted to win more.”
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On Wednesday afternoon in the Olympic mountains north of Sochi, four years after that lackluster performance in Vancouver (after which Ligety went on to win yet another of those giant slalom trophies) Ligety settled his score with the Olympic giant slalom. He laid down a scorching time with a dynamic performance in the first of two runs, and then protected his lead in the second to win the gold medal by a comfortable .48 seconds over silver medalist Steve Missillier of France and another .16 seconds over bronze medalist Alexis Pinturault, also of France.
If Ligety’s gold was overdue, it was also not guaranteed. Alpine ski racing is among the most fickle of Olympic sports; the games do not acknowledge World Cup (read: regular season) results, and Ligety knows this. He had twice already failed to medal in these games, in the Super-G and combined (both of which he had won, along with the giant slalom at least year’s world championships). He even abandoned his own plan by skiing conservatively in the slalom portion of the combined after seeing several racers struggle in tough conditions.
So the giant slalom was much a burden lifted from his shoulders as a medal dropped around his neck.
“It’s a huge relief,” Ligety said after his race. “I’ve answered Vancouver questions for the last four years. I’ve moved past that. I’ve had my best years since then, and in a lot of ways because of that. [But] all season long people talk about Olympics, Olympics, Olympics. At a certain point I was like let’s do it already. Let’s get this thing over with so I can stop talking about the pressure.”
U.S. men's head coach Sasha Rearick said, “Today there was a lot of pressure on Ted. He stepped up and handled it an in unbelievable, professional, great way. He’s a great champion and today he showed how he can bounce back from two disappointing days.”
Ligety’s gold medal moved him onto hallowed alpine ground. He became the first U.S. male to win the Olympic giant slalom and also the first U.S. male alpine skier to win two career gold medals (Miller has five career medals, but only one gold; his Olympic career is likely finished at age 36 after a 20th place finish in the giant slalom and subsequent announcement that he will not ski in Saturday’s slalom). Ligety’s medal was the fourth for the U.S. at Sochi Olympics, far short of the record set in Vancouver, but more than any Games since 1994 in Lillehammer, Norway, when U.S. skiers also won four. Two slalom races remain; Mikaela Shiffrin, the 18-year-old prodigy who won last year’s world slalom title, is a medal favorite in the women’s race. Ligety will ski in the slalom but is a medal longshot.
The gold medal solidified Ligety’s place as the dominant giant slalom skier in the sport, and arguably one of the best in history. Since falling short in Vancouver, Ligety has won 16 World Cup giant slalom races, far more than any other racer in the world. “Great skier, great technique,” said Benni Raich of Austria, the 2006 giant slalom gold medalist who finished seventh Wednesday at age 35. “He’s been the best GS skier since 2004-2005, really fast turns. In the last four years… unbelievable.”
Ligety’s control of the event was already well established when FIS, the international governing body for alpine skiing, enacted rules changes in summer 2012 that increased the minimum length and sidecut (curvature measure) for giant slalom skis, which would make it more difficult for racers to turn their skis by simply setting them on edge. Ligety was a vocal critic of the changes, but then used them to his advantage.
“The new skis actually matched better with my natural skiing skills than most other skiers,” says Ligety. Many racers would slide their skis at the beginning of turns, and then allow the old, shorter skis to arc the turn more easily. Longer skis forced racers to turn quicker and more sharply, with more effort. “They required a technique that I had been using for years,” said Ligety. Throughout the 2013 season, it looked like Ligety was skiing a different event from other racers. The gap has been closed, but there is still a gap. Ligety is dynamic where others are merely efficient, and efficient where others struggle.
Tim Jitloff, Ligety’s teammate who finished 15th in Wednesday’s race, said, “He’s able to make turns where all of us say, 'I wish I could do that.' And some of his runs look just normal and clean and you think that wasn’t anything special, but he doesn’t make any errors and then he comes down and he’s got a huge margin and everyone’s jaw is on the floor and we’re saying 'How did he do that?”’
Still, this is the stuff of urban snow legend. Ligety very much needed an Olympic gold medal to validate everything else. Wednesday morning dawned clear and relatively cold (30 degrees) in the Caucasus Mountains that have hosted the Olympic events. It was in sharp contrast to Tuesday’s weather, when Shiffrin finished fifth in the women’s giant slalom in a sloppy mix of rain, sleet and snow. The men’s course, instead of hopelessly slushy, more closely resembled the hard, icy tracks typical of the World Cup. The top-ranked racers draw randomly for the first seven start positions; Ligety drew No. 7.
As he stood in the start house for that first run, he looked down on a familiar course. After last year’s world championships, Ligety was among a group of U.S. racers who came to Russia to train for five days on the Olympic race hills. “Good race hills,” said Ligety in an interview with SI in December. “It’s an advantage to have skied on them, because no one else really has. There are a couple of really sharp rolls [breakovers] where you have to be tactical or you will lose a ton of speed on the flats right afterward.” (After winning on Wednesday, Ligety went even further, saying that the first five times he skied the giant slalom hill, he blew out of the course by catching too much air on a jump called the Bear’s Brow).
With that tactical plan in mind, Ligety attacked the upper part of the course and then slowed down and kept his skis on the ground while breaking over the top of the Bear’s Brow. It cost him speed in the moment, but he didn’t need to slam on the brakes after catching too much air and thus skied the subsequent flatter sections much faster than most other racers. “I was trying to be smart over that big, tactical terrain,” said Ligety, “and then push as hard as I could in the sections where I knew I could take some risks.”
He skied into the finish corral 1.33 seconds ahead of the leader, Thomas Fanara of France. Four subsequent racers, all with start numbers from 18 to 28 squeezed in between Fanara and Ligety. Still the margin was .93 seconds over 33-year-old Ondrei Bank of the Czech Republic, who had never won a World Cup slalom race. It was a giant lead. “He had a dominant, dominant first run,” said Rearick.
“Great Ted skiing,” said Ligety’s father.
The margin cuts two ways. It’s almost impossible to catch Ligety from behind, yet by the rules of the sport, the top 30 finishers in the first run ski in reverse order of their times. Ligety would go last, protecting a lead. It is something he has done often, but forces a tricky balance between attacking and pulling back. Think of it as a prevent defense. “I’d rather have a nice buffer,” said Ligety between runs, “and not have to take crazy risks on the second run.”
Jitloff said, “It reminded me of a lot of races where Ted has a big lead, he comes down, skis a solid run and wins by a large margin.”
Just before he pushed out of the start house, U.S. assistant coach Adam Cole, who has known Ligety since they were junior racers together in Park City, Utah, said, as he always does, “Link ‘em,” meaning, link turns together. As Ligety started, second place belonged to Missillier, who was 10th in the first run, and trailed Ligety by 1.50 seconds. This time Ligety wasn’t smooth. In the middle of the course he threw his skis sideways to stay upright. He lost 1.02 seconds of his cushion, but .48 remained.
In the finish corral, he pumped his arms as if turning a giant wheel, threw his head backward and then bent at the waist. Gold in hand. Pressure lifted. Legacy secured.