Feb 20, 2014 12:05 AM by Greg Smith
KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia - The last time Ted Ligety won an Olympic gold medal, he was a wide-eyed Olympic neophyte. That was back in 2006. He was only 21 then and competing in his first Olympic race, the combined.
Eight years later, on the slopes of Rosa Khutor, Ligety won his second Olympic gold medal, this one in giant slalom. He is now the second U.S. skier to have won two Olympic gold medals, tying Andrea Mead Lawrence who won hers at the 1952 Olympic Winter Games.
Known as the best GS skier in the world, Ligety knew the gold was his to lose. As he crossed the finish line after his second run and fell to the snow, his first emotion was one of relief.
"To be able to perform and do what I wanted to do on skis and have it equal a gold medal is truly awesome," he said. "It's awesome to come here and finally do it and get the monkey off the back."
That monkey hopped on Ligety's back four years ago at the Vancouver Games. A favorite to defend the Olympic combined title and win another in GS, he came up short.
Since 2010, the 29-year-old from Park City, Utah, has won four world championship gold medals (two in GS) and three overall GS world cup titles. And in the past two years - since the International Ski Federation (FIS) mandated that GS skis have less sidecut - he has dominated GS, often winning races by huge 1+-second margins. Again, he was a favorite to win at least one Olympic medal in Sochi.
But the monkey looked like it was on his back again at this Olympic Games. Last week, he finished a disappointing 12th in super combined and then 14th in super-G. He is the reigning world champion in both events, as well as in GS.
"To win [in Torino in 2006] was a dream come true," said Ligety. "But it didn't have the same struggles along the way and the same emotions behind it. Having struggled in Vancouver, having a lackluster Olympics up until today, I knew there was a lot of pressure here. And I wanted to perform and ski the way I knew I could ski."
"The pressure on him was amazing," said head coach Sasha Rearick. "Ted came through as he always does in clutch performances."
Carving down the GS course at Rosa Khutor, he gave the world a lesson in how to ski GS. His first run, he built speed in almost every turn - classic Ligety style - and gained a margin of 1.33 seconds on the rest of the field. A few other skiers would whittle the margin down to 0.93 of a second. But it was clear that everyone else was racing for silver and bronze.
Ski racing, though, is one of the least guaranteed sports, and it's rare when favorites win, particularly at the Olympic Games. So even with a huge buffer after the first run, Ligety found the second run stressful.
"You look pretty stupid if you mess it up," he said. "If you blow out or take too much risk, you look stupid. If you go too easy and you blow your lead, you look even more stupid. It's not such an easy position."
Still, the buffer allowed him to take fewer risks on the tricky knolls, then charge on the easier sections.
"It definitely made things a little easier second run," he said, "but it still wasn't a super comfortable feeling knowing there was a gold medal on the line."
Asked if he expected Ligety to win today, Benni Raich of Austria said yes with hesitation. The 2006 Olympic GS champion said he does not know how to beat his American rival.
"I try all the time," he said, "but up to now, it's impossible."
Tim Jitloff, who finished 15th in the GS, compared Ligety to Roger Federer when the Swiss tennis player was dominant in the mid-2000s.
"Everyone was like, ‘What do you do? How do you beat him?'" Jitloff said. "I don't know. I think it's going to get there. But it's going to take time and effort on all of our parts to get to the level that he's at."
Bode Miller finished 20th right behind Jared Goldberg in 19th in what will probably be Miller's final Olympic race. Asked how Ligety skis GS so well, Miller explained that it's a combination of elements, including equipment, his turn initiation and shape, when he puts pressure on his skis, and smoothness, to name just a few.
Without being as technical, Coach Rearick summed up Ligety's success to "lots of years of hard training, hating to lose and continually working day in and day out to get better."
In the end, Ligety only won the GS gold medal by 0.48 of a second, and his competitive side was a tad disappointed.
"I was a little mad at myself for not pushing harder at some points," he said. "But all I really cared about was seeing a green light when I crossed the finish line, whether I won by one-hundredth or two seconds."