SOCHI, Russia — Long before the Winter Olympics came to town, Ted Ligety ventured off piste in the Caucasus Mountains. The four-time world champion wanted to leave behind the race courses he often dominates and try different terrain. That brought Ligety to the powdery ridges high above the Rosa Khutor Alpine Center.
He called what happened on his Russian free skiing adventure “pretty entertaining” and captured it all on video.
Not long after Ligety starts descending on brightly colored skis, he comes across a gun-toting guard. On the video, Ligety sounds unfazed and asks, “Do you speak English? Can I go ski just this one line right over here?” Another guard comes over and some credential checking follows. In the end, Ligety makes his way down the mountain, following a line dictated by the guards.
For an athlete who has always followed his own determined path in ski racing, it was an experience that still gives Ligety a laugh.
Away from guards, Ligety, 29, has far exceeded early expectations, and since he won a surprise gold medal in the combined at the 2006 Turin Olympics, he has perfected a unique turning style. Now, as one of the best ski racers in American history, he stands as the gold-medal favorite in Wednesday’s giant slalom. Not bad for a Park City, Utah, kid who was overshadowed by his ski racing friends when he started competing at 11.
“You have to have a confident nonchalance about how you’re going to go about your races,” said Ligety, who finished 12th in the super combined Friday and 14th in the super-G on Sunday. “It’s not swimming, where if you’re the best guy in the world you’re going to win, most likely. If you’re the best guy in the world, you’re probably not going to win in ski racing.
“So it’s a difficult sport in that aspect. You have to be ready for those kind of pressures and those kind of situations. I’m definitely wanting to win a gold medal, especially in the giant slalom where I’ve had a lot of success in the last couple years.”
In a sport where hundredths of a second often determine who wins, Ligety has a habit of beating the field by a second or more.
Take his World Cup giant slalom win in Soelden, Austria, in October 2012, when he claimed victory by 2.75 seconds. It was the biggest winning margin in the event in 34 years. At the time, Ligety called it a “once-in-a-career margin,” but he finished 2.04 seconds ahead of the field a few months later in a World Cup giant slalom in Italy, setting the tone with an astonishing 2.40-second gap after the first run.
After his second run, Ligety acknowledged that Swedish legend Ingemar Stenmark’s record margin of victory set at 4.06 seconds during the 1978-79 season may have been in the back of his mind.
But it was the total number of races Ligety won last season that set him apart and made him the skier to watch at the Sochi Games, especially his three gold medals at the 2013 World Championships in Schladming, Austria. Ligety won his specialty, the GS, as well as the super-G and combined events. The trio of titles made Ligety the first skier in 45 years to earn three or more gold medals at one World Championships.
He was again close to pretty good company. The last man to win three or more golds was French legend Jean-Claude Killy, who won four at the 1968 World Championships.
Technique on turns
Despite his successes, Ligety doesn’t seek the spotlight. He prefers immersing himself in the details of ski racing and perfecting his technique. He studies video of his races and his rivals’.
“Ted’s so focused on his skiing, on what he needs to do to not lose,” said US Ski Team coach Sasha Rearick. “He’s so professional in terms of everything he does in terms of getting up in the morning and warming up, making sure his service guys have the perfect setup for what we’re doing.
‘Ted’s so focused on his skiing, on what he needs to do to not lose. He’s so professional in terms of everything he does.’
“Then he trains his butt off. He does good recovery, eats the right foods. He does all those things in such a professional way and it takes 100 percent effort.
“You can’t do that and do all the media stuff to be that star. And I don’t think he wants to be that. He likes the competition and he wants to leave it on the hill.”
Nowhere does he do that more than in giant slalom. Last season, he won six World Cup giant slalom races on the way to the fourth World Cup giant slalom title of his career. And he was on the longer, straighter, harder-to-turn skis required after rule changes a couple years ago. While Ligety was one of the strongest critics of the new rules and new skis, they actually require more precise technique and give him an advantage.
Compared with other skiers, the most obvious difference in Ligety’s form comes mid-turn, when his body appears almost horizontal, his hip practically grazing the snow. From that position, he can create a tighter turn, cut off distance, and go faster.
Ligety also starts his turns earlier and finishes later than competitors. That all translates to large time advantages on giant slalom runs.
He hopes to add a second gold medal, especially after the disappointment of Vancouver, where he arrived ranked first in the world in giant slalom and went home without any hardware after a ninth-place finish.
“At the finish line of that race, I knew I could have gone a lot harder,” said Ligety. “I knew I could have been a lot faster with just a small change in my mentality and how I moved through the course.
“That really changed my mentality in ski racing, ever since that Games. I’ve raised my intensity and ski at a level where I’m happy every time I get to the finish line, whether that’s winning or blowing out or getting third place.
“I just want to be happy that I pushed myself as hard as I could every single run, every single race. That’s ended up being a much better strategy for me from here on out.”
Another critical part of his strategy for the Sochi Games has been familiarizing himself with the Olympic site. Like all of the American skiers, Ligety took advantage of a US-Russia partnership that gave him extra training time on the slopes at the Rosa Khutor Alpine Center. He compares the slopes favorably to those in Beaver Creek, Colo., where he has raced well.
“I’ve trained on the hill [for giant slalom] in Sochi more than any of the other nations have,” said Ligety. “So I think that definitely gives me a little bit of an advantage, especially because it’s a hill where it’s pretty moderate.
“It just has a couple big rolls, so there’s some tactical issues there. If you have a little bit more confidence in how the hill will run, I think that helps you a little bit.”
Also, there will be no gun-toting guards in his way, just gates and other skiers targeting him.Shira Springer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org; follow her on Twitter @shiraspringer.