PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — Ted Ligety was all of 21 years old when he stepped on this stage for the first time. The youngest member of the U.S. ski team at those 2006 Olympics, he’d not yet even won a World Cup race. He was projected to be a star four years later in Vancouver, but racers prefer to do things quickly and Ligety surprised even himself by winning an Olympic gold medal in Turin.
“I have no idea how this will change my life,” Ligety said then.
Twelve years, 25 World Cup victories and one more Olympic gold later, Ligety is the face of the U.S. men’s Alpine team. Now 33 with a repaired back, a reconstructed knee and three Olympics in the rearview mirror, Ligety stood at the top of an Olympic giant slalom course perhaps for one final time Sunday. He turned in a pair of runs that bore little resemblance to what that 21-year-old Ligety once had and finished tied for 15th place, 3.21 seconds behind Austria’s Marcel Hirscher, who won his second gold medal of these PyeongChang Games.
Ligety did little reflecting at the top or bottom of the course, not ready to concede that his astounding Olympic career might have reached the finish line.
“I didn’t really think about that today,” he said. “I know I’m going to keep racing after this season. It is just one race. Obviously, it’s one really important race. It’s a big one where you really want to ski at a high level. I have more to come besides just this.”
Sunday’s race, in fact, was his best — and last — chance at an Olympic medal in PyeongChang. He’d won three world titles in giant slalom and was the defending Olympic champion. He entered the Games ranked eighth in the World Cup standings in the event, still a strong candidate to contend for the podium. But neither run went as planned and Ligety had essentially knocked himself out of medal contention in the day’s first trip down the course. Following this initial run, he was 2.44 seconds off the lead and would eventually finish with a total time of 2:21.25.
“Today was just a really off day,” he said. “Really bad day and time to not ski up to the level I wanted to.”
There were 110 competitors in Sunday’s field. Ligety was older than all but three. The winner was a 28-year-old Austrian who attacks the gates like a lion, a man Ligety once frequently beat.
But not Sunday. Hirscher won gold with total time of 2:18.04, which was a 1.27 seconds faster than Norway’s Henrik Kristoffersen, who took the silver.
Hirscher, who already won gold last week in the combined event, was this event’s overwhelming favorite. He’d raced five World Cup giant slaloms this year and won four of them, taking bronze in the fifth. He hasn’t missed the podium in the event since 2016.
“He’s been good all year,” Ligety said, “so that’s no surprise.”
For Ligety, the giant slalom was his third and final event of these PyeongChang Games. He was fifth in the combined event last week but failed to finish Friday’s super-G race.
On Sunday, Ligety felt good and looked smooth but wasn’t bounding through the gates quite like his younger self, and certainly not like the day’s top finishers. The conditions were near-perfect, and the course felt easier than he’d anticipated. But still, he said, “I just didn’t attack the way I should have or could have.”
Six months ago, even returning to the sport’s biggest stage was no sure thing. He’d battled injuries in recent years — a torn anterior cruciate ligament in 2016 and then back surgery a season later. But as the season approached, he started feeling good with his recovery, and Jan. 28, in his last competition before the Olympics, he posted a confidence-building third-place finish.
He knows he’s not ready for retirement but doesn’t know whether he’ll hang up his skis in one year or four. “I’ll be 37 years old then,” he said of the 2022 Games in Beijing. “That’s not out of the realm of possibilities. We’ll see. Hope to keep skiing at a high level and get back to where I think I can and should be.”
If Sunday is his last time on this stage, he seems content. Despite his PyeongChang results, he’s still the only American male skier to ever win two Alpine golds. And while these fourth and likely final Olympics were nothing like his first one 12 years earlier, just like that maiden trip, in many ways Ligety was just happy to be here.
Following Sunday’s race, he found his wife, Mia, who was wearing the couple’s 7-month old son, Jax, in a carrier on her chest. The two shared a kiss and he touched his son’s head before glancing over his shoulders, where competitors were still coming down the hill.
“I don’t know if I’m going to keep going for another four years. But I know I’m for sure going to race next year and we’ll see after that. It all depends,” he said. “When you have a family and stuff like that, it kind of changes your perspective. There’s other priorities sometimes in life now than just ski racing.”
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