KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia — Olympic events are measured in the moment, say the 2 minutes 45.29 seconds it took for Ted Ligety to twice ski down a mountainside here Wednesday. He was darn-near perfect on his first trip, cleverly conservative on his second, and there it was: gold.
But tug on the string a little bit. Get past the fact Ligety became the only American Alpine skier to own two Olympic gold medals and beyond that he became the first U.S. man to take the giant slalom. He is a fairly simple, very mellow man of 29. Then realize the path to Wednesday’s victory — as easy as it seemed, what with a gaping margin of 0.48 seconds — was lined with expectations, both internal and external. And at the finish, where Ligety sprawled in the snow, the pressure that comes with it all was right there.
“I’ve been waiting to win this medal for my whole life,” Ligety said.
The dynamics are odd. Ligety has been so good for so long at racing giant slalom — Alpine skiing’s most beautiful, flowing discipline, with more speed than slalom and more turns than downhill — that his lack of an Olympic medal in the event became glaring. It is peculiar what happens when the Olympics arrive. Then, Ligety’s 20 World Cup giant slalom wins, his four season-long giant slalom titles and his two world championships in giant slalom can work against him. Ligety is so good that, even with the vagaries of ski racing on a given day, silver could be considered a failure, fourth a disaster.
“I know how important this race is for him,” said Adam Cole, an assistant coach for the U.S. ski team who was in the starting gate with Ligety on Wednesday. “He would do anything to be the best ‘GS’ skier. That’s what his main, main focus is all the time.”
Translating that focus into success at the Olympics is a different matter entirely. When Ligety won gold in 2006 in the combined event — which, at the time, involved one run of downhill and two of slalom — he was a neophyte. Talented, to be sure, but without the scars that inevitably come from years of competition, of losses.
“It was my first Olympics,” Ligety said. “I was only 21 years old. It was my first ever Olympic event. So to win there was a dream come true, but it didn’t have the same sort of struggles along the way and same emotions, I guess, behind it.”
Mountains of the Olympics
By the 2010 Vancouver Games, Ligety had established himself as a medal contender in giant slalom. He finished ninth. To that point, he had two Olympics with two opposite results — each wholly unexpected.
“Olympics are very funny,” his father, Bill, said Wednesday. “In Torino, he certainly was not expected to do anything. That happens every Olympics. Guys come up. Even though he’s been skiing great ‘GS,’ you just never know what to expect in the Olympics because they’re just so different.”
So that all entered into the start house Wednesday, along with the fact his results at the Sochi Games were lackluster, too: 12th in the combined, 14th in the super-G. But when he left the gate, skiing seventh, for Wednesday’s morning run, he looked like Ligety. Two years ago, international skiing’s governing body issued new rules for equipment in giant slalom, forcing racers to wear skis that are more difficult to turn. Ligety railed against the changes at first, but they actually have benefited him because his strength and power mean he can arc turns more cleanly than the competition.
“He’s able to just risk it and make turns that all of us are just going, ‘Wow, I really wish I could do one of those,’ ” said American teammate Tim Jitloff, who finished 15th. “And he’s able to do it the whole way down the course; it’s not like it’s three turns or something like that.
“That’s why it looks normal and clean and everyone’s like, ‘Well that wasn’t anything special.’ But he makes zero errors. Then he comes down, and he’s got a huge margin, and there’s jaws on the floor.”
Keys to the skis
That about captures the morning run, which Ligety completed in 1:21.08, 0.93 seconds better than Ondrej Bank of the Czech Republic, who was second. Some perspective: The next 15 skiers were all within 0.93 seconds of Bank.
“A dominating, dominating first run,” U.S. men’s Alpine Coach Sasha Rearick said. So add another element to that starting gate for the second run: What if he blew it?
“You look pretty stupid if you mess it up taking too much risk,” Ligety said. “You look stupid if you go too easy and you blow your lead.”
Ligety, though, isn’t much for letting on that all those external factors bother him. “He’s pretty much the same no matter if he has a lead or not,” Cole said. “He’s super-casual.” And with such a lead, he could be tempted to ski super-casual.
When Ligety began his second run, Frenchman Steve Missilier had the lead over countryman Alexis Pinturault. Midway through his run, Ligety nearly put his hip to the snow, a moment he later said was “just my technique.” Yet his lead over Missillier dwindled as he went down the mountain — from 1.46 seconds to 1.19 seconds to 0.87 seconds at the final timing interval.
“You’re just on the edge,” Bill Ligety said. “It’s that fine line of almost falling the whole way down or being too conservative.”
When he crossed the finish line, the scoreboard flashed in green — an indication that he had taken the lead, that he had won. Ligety skidded to a stop, falling to the snow, and when he popped up, he punched the air with a rolling, two-handed flurry.
“It’s awesome to be able to come here and compete and finally do it,” Ligety said, “and get the monkey off my back.”
The stat sheet breaks down the victory, containing it to those 2 minutes 45.29 seconds. But the gold Ted Ligety won in giant slalom is far more complex than that. As a seasoned and accomplished and odds-on favorite at the Olympics, he won gold in the event he considers his baby, and all the pressure of the past four years evaporated into the gray Russian sky.