Alone at the top of his sport’s mountain, Ted Ligety teeters on a precarious edge. With the Sochi Olympics in his sights, another strong season surely would vault the 29-year-old Alpine skier from being merely one of the world’s finest to lofty status as one of the best ever to buckle into skis.
“I try not to think about the whole legacy side of it,” Ligety said recently. “I just want to do as well as I can at the race at the moment. . . . It’s always something you kind of think about — you think, it’s cool to be mentioned among the heroes of the sport, among the top guys ever. I think the main thing is to do well in the moment.”
Ligety is coming off a historic season in which he claimed six World Cup wins and his fourth giant slalom title. But it was his three gold medals at the world championships — in giant slalom, super-G and the combined — that put him in rare company as he became the first man in 45 years to accomplish the feat.
“That kind of energy and that kind of confidence, it sparkles,” teammate Bode Miller said. “I think what he did is special in terms of the historical impact and all that, but it represents exactly what is so challenging and so tough about sports.”
Ligety opened this season right where he left off last year, winning the season-opening giant slalom race in Solden, Austria, in October. He missed a gate and didn’t finish his super-G run last weekend in Lake Louise, Alberta, and hopes to fare better this weekend in Beaver Creek, Colo., site of the downhill, where all eyes again will be focused on him.
“It’s something that everybody deals with a little bit differently, of course,” he said of the expectations that will surely follow him this season. “If you’re an elite athlete, I think you want to be in a place where you’re skiing well enough that the pressure’s on you. I’m looking forward to that pressure. I should be ready for it.”
Ligety says repeating his world championships performance and nabbing three golds in Sochi is “somewhat an unrealistic expectation.” He points out that no Alpine skier has won three Olympic events since France’s Jean-Claude Killy at the 1968 Games in his home country. Ligety's best shot will surely come in the giant slalom, in which he has reached the podium in nine straight races and has finished first in six of the last seven outings.
“There’s so many guys that are specialists,” he said. “The sport of ski racing, the best guy often doesn’t win. You have to have a confident nonchalance in how you’re going to go about your races because it’s not like swimming where if you’re the best guy in the world, you’re going to win.”
Just one gold in Sochi would do a lot to cement Ligety’s Olympic legacy. Entering these Games, he has won gold when he wasn’t supposed to and flopped when he was a favorite. After his surprising win in the men's combined in Turin (2006), Ligety competed in three events at the 2010 Vancouver Games, finishing no better than fifth.
A strong performance in Sochi would show that when the lights shine brightest, Ligety’s 2010 performance was the fluky one.
He said his struggles in Vancouver motivated him — “kind of flipped the switch for me,” he said — and his results last season certainly suggest a stronger, smarter competitor.
While casual fans might not tune in until February's Winter Games, Ligety is hoping for a good run-up to the Olympics. He has yet to win an individual overall title, which he says he covets more than another Olympic medal.
“Most ski racers would say the overall title is far more important than an Olympic medal because it takes a season of work instead of just one day's work,” he said.
Of course, he hopes to ski at a level this season where he isn’t exactly choosing between an overall title and an Olympic podium.
“I want to get both,” he said.