- Ted Ligety shocked the world (and his own parents) when he won gold in Torino in 2006. Now, at 33, he's decorated and wiser, even if his body is feeling a little worn down.
PYEONGCHANG, South Korea—It was late and dark and cold when Ted Ligety spilled himself into the front seat of an official Olympic vehicle, one day short of 12 years ago, in the Italian mountain ski resort of Sestriere, host to the Alpine skiing events at the 2006 Torino Olympic Games. Ligety was 21 years old and freshly minted as one of the most surprising gold medalists in U.S. skiing history. He was in just his third year on the national team and had never won a World Cup race in any discipline.
But on this night, after a mediocre morning run of downhill and two blazing evening runs of slalom, Ted Ligety had emerged as the Olympic champion in the Alpine combined event. (The combined is what it sounds like—a mix of downhill and slalom scored by total time.) It was his first Olympic race. Two of the favorites, teammate Bode Miller and Austrian Benni Raich, both all-time greats in the sport, had been disqualified for missing (or straddling) gates in the slalom, and Ligety’s winning margin was a yawning 0.53 seconds. But as his car was escorted to the Olympic athletes’ village by Italian police, Ligety struggled to embrace the moment, not only because it had been so unexpected, but also because he was terribly sick with a cold that kept him up all night. When the car stopped at the village gate, the driver handed Ligety a scrap of paper and a pen and implored, “Please sign this. You are the best.” Ligety shook his head and coughed so hard that his body shook.
“It feels like both yesterday and a hundred years ago,” Ligety said on Tuesday. “It’s pretty crazy that it was 12 years ago.”
That moment was a beginning. In the ensuing decade, the 5’ 11”, 190-pound Ligety—who was once so small that his family assumed he would just become a college skier, the minor leagues of elite skiing—grew into one of the most accomplished U.S. skiers in history. He has won 25 World Cup races, third among U.S. men behind Miller’s 33 and Phil Mahre’s 27 (Lindsey Vonn has 81 and Mikaela Shiffrin 41, leaving Ligety fifth overall among all U.S skiers). He added a second gold medal, in the giant slalom at the 2014 Olympics in Sochi (for comparison, Miller has one Olympic gold medal), along with a total of five world championships in three events.
No career, of course, is forever. Tuesday in South Korea came another Olympic Alpine combined event. This one took place under a blue sky on a gusty mountainside at the Jeongseon Alpine Center, 45 minutes south of the Olympic Stadium. At the bottom of the hill, spectators were given a blessed respite from the fierce cold that had gripped the first days of the Games. At the top, though, winds blew up the hillside and down from the top, sending powdery white plumes into the air and obscuring the workers alongside the course in the late-morning downhill and in the late-afternoon slalom. (When Ligety won gold in 2006, there was one run of downhill and two runs of slalom; now there is one run of each. There is also a good possibility that the combined will be removed from the Olympic program in 2022, in favor of the more fan-friendly city event, side-by-side, head-to-head races.)
Ligety raced again on Tuesday, a man of 33 now, with a body that has undergone major surgeries to his knee and to his back, and delivered a fifth-place finish—1.45 seconds short of gold and 0.43 from a third Olympic medal—that was both satisfying and frustrating. “I’m happy with how it went down,” he said at the finish. “Just not super-psyched not to end up with a medal.” It was a day when Ligety competed both reaching back for the greatness of his past and straining to an uncertain future that does not yet include plans for retirement.
The gold medal went to 28-year-old Austrian Marcel Hirscher, who is acknowledged as the greatest active ski racer. He has won 55 World Cup races and six consecutive World Cup overall titles (well on his way to a seventh), but until Tuesday he had never won an Olympic gold medal; he has been fourth twice in the giant slalom and was second in the slalom in Sochi. His greatness is established, but the lack of a gold medal was conspicuous. “That would be a gaping hole, for sure,” said Ligety.
After the race, Hirscher was asked how frequently his countrymen had asked when he might someday win a gold medal. “I mean, every day,” he said. “But now it’s over.” He added: “I’m super, super happy.” There is a distinct possibility that he will get happier. Hirscher is the favorite in the giant slalom and slalom, both of which are next week. The combined matches downhill (and Super-G) specialists against slalom (and giant slalom specialists) specialists. Hirscher won because he sat in 12th place after skiing a solid downhill, only 1.32 seconds behind the leader, Thomas Dressen of Germany. Hirscher easily made up that difference in the slalom and finished 0.23 seconds ahead of silver medalist Alexis Pinturault of France.
Hirscher said after his victory that he had considered not racing the combined, because it cut into his giant slalom and slalom training. He had also told this to Ligety during a January World Cup stop in Garmisch, Germany. “I said bulls--- on that,” said Ligety Tuesday after the race. “There was no chance he was going to miss a chance to win a medal in an event he was going to be favored in.”
There is a real possibility that Hirscher can become the first male to win three gold medals in one Olympics since Jean-Claude Killy in 1968. On the women’s side of the competition, 22-year-old U.S. star Mikaela Shiffrin has the potential to do likewise; the only woman to win three golds in one Games is Janica Kostelic of Croatia in 2002. But all of this is getting way ahead of ourselves. Shiffrin begins competition in the slalom, her best event, on Wednesday morning.
There is a compelling symmetry to Ligety’s and Hirscher’s careers. Hirscher is half-a-ski-generation younger than Ligety and not long ago, it was Hirscher chasing Ligety. In the seven years from 2008 to ’14, Ligety won five World Cup season-long giant slalom titles (Hirscher won in 2012). Hirscher has won the three since, along with two slalom titles and the six consecutive overall crowns. As Hirscher was improving, Ligety began to suffer injuries, including a torn right ACL in late 2015 and back surgery in 2017. The two skiers overlapped, but rarely competed when both were at their best.
“My body breaking down hasn’t helped the symmetry of our relationship,” says Ligety. “I definitely haven’t skied at a high level in the last two years. I really haven’t skied much, period. I’d like to bring it back to where we’re going back and forth with each other [in races].” Ligety finished third in a World Cup giant slalom in late January, a sign that he is regaining some of his old form. He will ski the super-G, giant slalom and slalom in PyeongChang.
He has a chance to make a last statement. When he won his first gold, those 12 years ago, his parents sat in the back of the room at his press conference, both proud and shocked. He was still living with them back home in Utah. They were in Korea Tuesday as well, but the more telling sight was Ligety walking from the competition in his white racing boots and stopping to visit with his wife, Mia Pascoe, and their seven-month old son, Jax.
It had not been 100 years, but surely a hard-earned 12.