KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia — Ted Ligety snuck quietly into the Sochi Olympics on Monday. The United States is looking forward to him changing that low profile as soon as possible.
Coming off historic world championships in 2013, he's eager to oblige.
Arguably the Alpine team's most talented skier in Sochi, "Ted Shred" is looking to put some distance between himself and a forgettable experience in Vancouver in 2010. Ligety went into those Games with a super-combined gold from Turin in 2006, and he was touted as a potential breakout star after strong World Cup results. Instead, Vancouver was an unqualified dud. Ligety skied in four events but failed to hit the podium in any of them — including the giant slalom, which Ligety had dominated on the World Cup circuit.
When the lights finally went out in Vancouver, Bode Miller had taken the spotlight. And Ligety? The gold in Turin was looking like a potential anomaly — another strong World Cup skier who couldn't consistently replicate success on an Olympic or world championship stage. This was the label Ligety refused to accept.
"If anything, winning my first gold medal was bigger motivation for me to succeed more," Ligety said. "Because I didn't want to become just a one-hit wonder and win an Olympic gold medal and then not do anything else. ... I guess winning the second one has been more difficult than winning the first one."
Not that he hasn't found repeat success on the biggest stages. Ligety exited Vancouver and won a giant slalom gold in the 2011 world championships in Germany. He then blew the doors off the field in the 2013 world championships in Austria, seizing the top of the podium in giant slalom, super-G and super-combined.
The latter performance surged through the international skiing community, as Ligety became only the fifth man in history to win three golds at a world championships. His triple came in a far more competitive era, which explains why the feat hadn't been duplicated since Jean-Claude Killy pulled it off in 1968. But Ligety did Killy one better. His three golds came in the super-G, combined and giant slalom — a gold combination that no skier, male or female, has ever produced in the history of the world championships.
"It was an amazing experience, really not something you can imagine happening," Ligety told Yahoo Sports in November. "But I hope it isn't something people just expect in the Olympics. It's a hard thing to do."
Expecting it to be replicated would be a stretch, but hope and hype are another animal. While Ligety is still a relative unknown to the nonskiing masses in the United States, he no longer fits into the category of potential breakout. Indeed, he's expected to medal at these games. For him to fall flat like at Vancouver would be a significant disappointment.
The pressure isn't helped by the Alpine program's slow start, either. Thus far, the U.S. has managed an unexpected bronze in the super-combined from Julia Mancuso but missed the podium in both the men's and women's downhill events. In the latter races, both Miller and Mancuso had surfaced as serious medal contenders.
This, after the United States won three medals in the same events in Vancouver, with Lindsey Vonn capturing gold in the downhill, Mancuso grabbing silver in the super-combined and Miller getting a bronze in downhill. Vonn was also in gold-medal position in the super combined before failing to finish the slalom portion of the event.
Vonn pulling out of these Games has clearly left a void on the podium for the U.S. — not unexpected with Vonn being the best overall women's skier in the world. Other developments have accentuated that loss. The Alpine program captured a record eight medals in Vancouver and was celebrated as being on the rise, but Sochi so far looks like a step backward. The X Games contingent of the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association has also basically camped on the podium in Sochi, winning eight of the United States' first 12 medals. That haul includes all four U.S. golds.
Which is why Ligety's performance now seems so much more vital. Miller remains an enigma, seemingly capable of hitting a podium or finishing well off the pace in every race. Mancuso is a gamer but still seems unlikely to hit the podium again. Mikaela Shiffrin is dominant in slalom but unlikely to medal elsewhere. Barring a major surprise, that leaves Ligety and his world championships feat fueling hopes that he could pull off something special a second time.
Ligety arrived Monday night after skipping the Opening Ceremony to fine-tune in Austria and then began training for Friday's super-combined. It's a race that can be hit or miss because of Ligety's lack of dominance in downhill and on a run that has showed some significant softening in Sochi's warm conditions.
"You can expect it to be pretty soft on the bottom," said U.S. skier Andrew Weibrecht, who also missed the Opening Ceremony while training with Ligety. "Hopefully it gets cold enough tonight that it freezes up pretty good and we can get on it before it gets too soupy."
[Photos: Remaining USA gold medal hopefuls]
Conditions or not, Ligety said the uncertainty of super-combined — with the downhill and slalom combination making it difficult to call a favorite — suits him.
"That's what's kind of cool about super-combined is it's a little bit up in the air," he said. "There's never really truly distinct favorites. Somebody like myself or [France's Alexis] Pinturault can have really big swings in our downhill ability, and even guys like Bode can have huge swings in his slalom ability as well.
"I want to be able to try and get on the podium or win. I think that's well within my grasp if I ski well. The downhill has gotten better every [practice] run, and I feel more and more comfortable. Hopefully tomorrow I can piece together a good run and then have a good run of slalom as well. Hopefully, that equals something metallic around my neck."
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