KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia — Ted Ligety crossed the finish line, swirled to a stop, and saw the number “1” next to his name on a large screen. The overwhelming emotion? Relief.
Ligety entered Wednesday’s giant slalom as the top-ranked skier in the world in the event, a two-time defending world champion and winner of four of the last six season titles. Simply put, he has dominated the event.
But Ligety learned at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics that gold-medal-favorite status guarantees nothing. He came away from Vancouver empty-handed, refocused his training and race mentality, and set his sights on the Sochi Games.
Ligety came for gold in giant slalom and effectively claimed it with a dominant first run. He opened a .93-second gap on the field, making his second run more coronation than competition. With trademark turns that push his body practically horizontal to the snow, Ligety made the tactically challenging course look easy. Although he finished 14th in the second run, he maintained a sizable advantage and took the gold by .48 seconds.
France’s Steve Missillier earned silver. Fellow Frenchman Alexis Pinturault, who regularly reaches World Cup podiums in the giant slalom and could be broadly considered a Ligety rival, finished .64 seconds back for bronze.
“I’ve been wanting to win this medal for my whole life,” said Ligety. “But even more so, in a realistic sense, the last few years.
“All season long everybody talks about the Olympics, the Olympics, the Olympics. At a certain point, I was like, ‘Let’s do it already. Let’s get this thing over with so we can stop talking about the pressure and everything with it.’
“It’s awesome to be able to come here and be able to compete and finally do it and get the monkey off my back, I guess.”
Ligety adds this to the gold he won in the super combined at the 2006 Turin Olympics. At the time, it was a surprise Olympic title for the then-21-year-old, coming before Ligety even won a World Cup race.
Knowing the unpredictability of ski racing and having experienced disappointment in Vancouver, he savored Wednesday’s win a little more.
“In the relative scheme of things, 2006 kind of came easily,” said Ligety, who placed 12th in the super combined and 14th in the super-G at Sochi. “It was my first Olympics. It was my first-ever Olympic event. To win there was a dream come true, but I didn’t have the same struggles along the way and the same emotions behind it.
“I knew I was the favorite coming into today. Having struggled in Vancouver and having it been a little bit of a lackluster Olympics up until today, I knew there was a lot of pressure on today and I really wanted to perform and ski the way I knew I could ski.
“To be able to perform and do what I wanted to do on skis and have it equal a gold medal is truly awesome.”
Ligety becomes the first American man to win two Olympic gold medals in Alpine skiing. The only other American to win two in Alpine was Andrea Mead Lawrence, who triumphed in the women’s slalom and giant slalom at the 1952 Oslo Games.
The US boasts four men who have won a single gold: Bode Miller, Phil Mahre, Tommy Moe, and Bill Johnson. Miller, who finished 20th Wednesday in what he said will be his final Olympic race, was duly impressed with Ligety.
“I think he’s one of the best GS skiers in history,” said Miller. “Everyone right now is trying to do what he’s doing because of the equipment and course sets.
“It’s just that he’s so much better at it than everybody else. You run into that. Guys tried to copy me for a while doing different things. It just doesn’t work.”
Added eighth-place finisher Benjamin Raich of Austria, “He’s a great skier with great technique. He’s been the best GS skier for the last four or five years. He’s been unbelievable.”
Ligety has a unique turning style, making longer, better-linked turns than other skiers. As a result, he maintains more speed from turn to turn. Those long, fluidly-linked turns helped give him a distinct advantage on his first run.
And that kept him from taking any big risks on his second run, though in the middle of the course he broke form slightly, eliciting a gasp from fans in the grandstand by the finish.
But given his dominance in this discipline, Ligety knows how to ski with large leads. While hundredths of a second often determine races, he has posted winning margins of more than two seconds.
“I’ve had a lot of races where I’ve had this kind of lead and a pretty good track record of maintaining that and winning those,” said Ligety after his first run. “I know I don’t have to take the mega-risk.
“If I was only winning by two-hundredths, you’d have to take big risks on some of those rolls in order to gain every tenth of time. A tenth isn’t super-important now. But it’s really important to still go as hard as you can in the sections you can, so you’re making up time in the normal turns. And be smart over carrying speed through those really difficult tactical sections.”
On his second run, Ligety stayed conservative over the terrain changes and smart on the Bear’s Brow jump, not catching a lot of air there. In the finish area, it wasn’t long before relief turned to elation. Ligety pumped his fists in the air to punctuate the win.
“The pressure in GS is always bigger,” he said. “It’s my best event and my best chance for a medal.
“Every single day I’m in the start gate, especially in GS, I feel that anxiety. I’m glad I was able to push myself and let myself ski the way I wanted to.”