Olympic Notebook: Ted Ligety's rise, Sarah Hendrickson's comeback
With 100 days to go before the start of the Sochi Olympics, U.S. athletes in several sports converged in New York's Times Square on Tuesday, turning the bustling thoroughfare into a haven of hockey, snowboarding and even ski jumping. Here are notes from some of the countries once and future Olympians as they head into the home stretch:
• Ted Ligety knows the expectations are higher now. The top U.S. alpine skier won the Olympic combined title in 2006, the world championship in giant slalom in 2011 and four world cup season titles in giant slalom in 2008, 2010, 2011 and 2013. But after a career-defining meet at the worlds in Schladming, Austria, where he won three gold medals and dominated the competition last winter, Ligety became a popular conversation subject. In Schladming, he conquered his specialty, the GS, but also won the combined and Super-G events. Ligety proved he could win a world-class speed race as well as the technically demanding, quicker turning GS. It was a breakthrough for Ligety, who had reached the podium 30 times in world cup giant slalom races, winning 17 of them.
He became the first man to win three races at a world championship or Olympics since Jean-Claude Killy, the legendary Frenchman, took all three events in front of his home crowd in Grenoble in 1968. The sport has since changed significantly. Two of the five events -- the Super G and the combined -- did not exist then. A comparison to Killy's accomplishments in what is now an age specialization is more than he ever imagined. "I know that there is a target on my back now," Ligety says, "and I'm okay with that. But I don't want to compete against the past. I have enough challenge trying to get better every day and compete against my own."
Ligety has raced and trained on the Sochi courses before. In his eyes, the slalom course is the most technically challenging, while the Super G is more predictable and less demanding. He calls the course for GS "moderate, similar to Beaver Creek with long flat sections. It lasts a minute and 40 seconds, which is maybe 20 seconds longer than a lot of courses, so stamina and concentration are important factors."
• Ski jumping ace Sarah Hendrickson is fighting against the clock. Hendrickson said on Tuesday that she still hoped to compete in Sochi despite an expedited comeback from complicated knee surgery two months ago. The 19-year old from Utah, the reigning world champion, was favored to strike gold as women ski jumpers make their debut at the Sochi Games. Then she tore both the ACL and MCL in her right knee after a training jump in Oberstdorf, Germany on Aug. 21. Though she expects to remain off skis for another eight weeks, Hendrickson has been putting in 35-hour gym weeks at the U.S. Ski Team's High Performance Center in Park City. She marked it a positive step four days ago when she said she "forgot which knee had surgery during an exercise."
• Even these days, five years after radical eye surgery, bobsled driver Steven Holcomb has to strike a balance between good vision and too much good vision. For years, Holcomb drove his sleds mostly by feel as a worsening case of keratoconus was slowly destroying his eyesight. Before the 2008-09 season, Holcomb underwent a radical corrective surgical procedure to help restore his deteriorating vision -- "I went from life in a fog to life in 3-D High Definition," he says -- but also caused him to react to every little passing image in front of him. In short, his driving got worse before it got better. Holcomb drove his four-man sled to gold at the Vancouver Games and took both two and four-man sleds to gold at the World Championships in Lake Placid two years ago. These days Holcomb has a trick when he drives. He keeps the shield in front of his face nice and spotty. "I make sure to keep it dirty and messed up," he says. "I don't want to see too much. I don't want too much information."
• Kikkan Randall has a chance to make history in Sochi. With the team's breakthrough in the Nordic combined event in Vancouver four years ago, cross-country skiing remains a rare sport in which no U.S. athlete has won an Olympic gold medal, and not a medal of any color since Bill Koch's silver in 1976. But at 31, Randall knows she has been building to something special. An Olympic gold medal in the sprint in Sochi is within reach. She made her first of three Olympic teams in 2002 and she became the first U.S. woman to win a world cup event in cross-country skiing in 2007. In 2009, she won silver in the individual sprint at the world championships and, last season, struck gold in the team sprint at the world championships with rising star Jesse Diggins, when she also finished first in the cumulative world cup sprint event. Her aunt and uncle, Betsy and Chris Haines were both Olympians in cross-country at separate Olympics. She was made for this.
While many of her fellow prospective Olympians were in New York this week, Randall was stuck in a windstorm on an Alaskan glacier where she was training and loving it. "It's fantastic training for Sochi because our cross-country venue is on the top of the gondola, " she said. "Up here in Alaska with the variable weather conditions, it gets us well prepared for the Olympics." The glacier stands at 5,500 feet, an comparable altitude to Sochi's. The humidity swings off an arm of Cook Inlet, around Anchorage. Most would find it deplorable or at least annoying. "I love it," Randall says. "You get the same weather patterns you'd get there coming off the water coming around the mountains, dumping precipitations . . .
"It still makes me feel like a kid on Christmas. I remember being at my first Olympics in Salt Lake City, so excited to be representing team USA and dreaming about the skier I want to become [The passing time] feels like the blink of an eye."