Skiers understand the capricious nature of fame in a sport that is largely hidden from public view for years at a time. It's all about timing. (And back stories, too, but that's another matter. And sometimes it's about timing and back stories together). You can win all the races you like, on any mountainside in the world, but unless you win at the Olympics, you are anonymous. Ted Ligety knows all about this.
Five years ago at the 2006 Olympic Games in Turin (actually in Sestriere, in the mountains far away), Ligety won a gold medal in the combined event (a mix of slalom and downhill). Ligety was 21 years old, had never won a World Cup race and was sick as a dog with the flu. And everybody was watching Bode Miller, anyway, because Bode was in the middle of an epic meltdown and complementing it with long nights in the mountain bars and clubs. But Ligety won the gold medal by following a solid run of downhill with two terrific runs of slalom. And he was instantly famous. For a while.
In the wake of that win, Ligety kept getting better. He won the World Cup giant slalom title in 2008, but when the 2010 Olympics arrived, Ligety was less than ready. His base training had been slowed by spring knee surgery. "I wasn't fully prepared,'' recalls Ligety. "It wasn't something I could control, but that's the way it was.'' Miller atoned for '06 with three medals (including gold in the combined), and Andrew Weibrecht won bronze in Super-G. (This was aside from the four medals won by Lindsey Vonn and Julia Mancuso on the women's side of the competition). Ligety, meanwhile, was fifth in the combined, ninth in giant slalom and didn't finish his first run in slalom. (I can vividly remember what would happen during every men's race in Vancouver. As the ski media waited in the interview corral to speak with medalists, U.S. press officer Doug Haney would walk the skiers through their paces. Inevitably, he would come up to the gathered press with Ligety and say, "Here's Ted Ligety,'' and writers would shuffle forward and ask a couple of obligatory questions, because Ligety is a truly good guy. But he hadn't won anything. He knew it and we knew it and it made the whole exercise awkward. For these Games, Ligety was a bust, and largely forgotten. The window slammed shut for another four years.
So it was that America was categorically not watching on Friday when Ligety continued his climb back to the top of his sport and toward another Olympics, three years in the distance.
To the extent that any victory in the wildly unpredictable sport of ski racing can be expected, Ligety's was. He got healthy not long after the Olympics and won his second giant slalom World Cup title in 2010. This year, he won three consecutive giant slalom races in December. (There's no overstating the magnitude of this accomplishment; giant slalom is two runs contested on steep, icy hillsides, the truest test of racing skill). He had established himself as the best GS skier in the world, although that it is not always the sweet spot.
"When I won my Olympic gold medal, that was a surprise to everybody, including me,'' says Ligety. "Here, this year, there's no question I was the favorite. All the expectations were on me, and if I didn't make the podium it was a failure. That's a unique kind of pressure. It was gratifying to succeed under those circumstances.''
After the first of two runs, Ligety was in fourth place, .25 seconds behind Aksel Lund Svindal of Norway, a 28-year-old World Cup stud who won a full set of medals at the 2010 Olympics, including a gold in super-G and a bronze in giant slalom. Ivica Kostelic of Croatia, who leads the World Cup overall standings by a wide margin over ageless speed specialist Didier Cuche of Switzerland, was .02 in front of Ligety.
"Fourth place, point-two-five out of first, is a better place to be than sitting in first, with everybody gunning for you,'' said Ligety. "Anybody would rather be in that position.''
It was also the U.S. Ski Team's first gold medal at the championships. Vonn, the winner of three consecutive World Cup overall titles, battled with the effects of a concussion suffered during a pre-championship training run and won a silver medal in downhill. Mancuso, whose ability to outrace her form in the biggest events is nothing short of stunning, won a surprise silver in super-G. Miller has been shut out. Weibrecht has missed most of the season with a shoulder injury.
And in a sense, this is appropriate, too. Since his surprise gold medal in 2006, Ligety has been the leader-in-waiting for the U.S. men's team. Miller is 33 years old, and while he always been a physical freak (and Cuche, at age 36, has won four World Cup races), he hasn't won a race since the Olympics.
Ligety, at 26, is a big piece of the present and the future for a team that's thin on stars. "In the last two or three years,'' says Ligety, "I've gone from being one of the young guys on the team, to one of the older guys. Guys like Dan Spencer and Chip Knight and Scott Macartney, who were the veterans, have retired. I think Bode has at least another year or two in him, because he's still got the speed. But I'm definitely one of the veteran guys now.''
(For several years, Ligety also mixed business with business, designing and marketing Shred goggles, helmets and sunglasses. Last week I spent a day skiing in central Vermont; in the middle of the day, three racers from a local racing team clomped into the lodge wearing Shred goggles. The brand has penetration).
Ligety's victory in Garmisch represents a resurfacing of sorts. It is not the Olympics and he knows that. ("My Olympic win is still the high point,'' he says. "Because the Olympics are just a bigger event.''). But he has now piled his first world title on top of his second World Cup globe (glass trophies given to event champions). He will ski in Sunday's slalom, but his slalom has been sketchy all year. "A work in progress,'' he calls it.
His goal for the next two years is to win an overall World Cup title. He'll need to broaden his work. "I have to keep my GS right where it is,'' says Ligety. "Then get to the point in slalom where I can score points consistently. And with my GS, I should be able to score points in super-G.'' Unspoken is the obvious: All of that forms a ladder to Sochi in 2014, when the world will find his sport again.