Ted Ligety buries past Olympic disappointment to make history with gold in giant slalom

NFL columnist
Yahoo Sports

KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia – Sometimes an athlete is so good at his or her chosen discipline that the best way to sum up that athlete's dominance is a reference to other greatness.

Michael Jordan on a basketball court. Gordie Howe on a rink. Muhammad Ali in the ring. And in the giant slalom … Ted Ligety.

"It reminds me of when [Roger] Federer was so dominant there for about four years, and everybody was like 'What do you do? How do you beat him?' " said Tim Jitloff, Ligety's U.S. Alpine teammate. "I don't know."

On Wednesday, the rest of the world couldn't figure it out, either. Ligety won the second Olympic gold medal of his career, dominating the giant slalom and becoming the first U.S. skier to win the discipline in a Winter Games. He's also the first men's U.S. skier with two Alpine golds, and he gave the United States its first Alpine gold medal – men's or women's – of the Sochi Games.

[Photos: Ted Ligety wins giant slalom gold for U.S.]

With the giant slalom considered by some to be the foundation of Alpine skiing, Ligety's gold is an exclamation point on a six-year period that has seen him own the event.

It was a redemptive moment, too, brushing back four years of questions about Ligety's failure to medal in the 2010 Vancouver Games and a sluggish start in Sochi that made critics wonder if he was too conservative to be a great Olympian. Indeed, there was pressure on his shoulders entering Wednesday. There was frustration. Enough that Ligety himself had uttered the word "choke" to describe one of his earlier races. But Wednesday was something different. Even with a 2006 Turin Games gold medal in the super combined in his pocket, Wednesday was as close to a must-have race as anything he'd ever experienced.

[Related: Ted Ligety wins gold in giant slalom]

"It was a huge relief," Ligety said. "I've been wanting to win this medal for my whole life, but even more so,  in a realistic sense, the last few years. All season long, everybody talks about 'The Olympics, the Olympics, the Olympics.' At a certain point, I was like, let's do it already. Let's just get this thing over [with], so we can stop talking about the pressure and everything with it. It's awesome to be able to come here and be able to compete and finally do it and get the monkey off the back, I guess."

Ligety didn't just shed the monkey as much as he shot it into space. On the first of two runs Wednesday – with the mountain snow as perfect as it has been all week – he snaked through the course with a tight turn radius and that Ligety lean. The maneuver is a miracle of body torque and ski technology, leaving his inside hip gliding over the surface of the ice.

The difference in speed and agility through turns is remarkable, often leaving Ligety's competitors looking like they're easing a Cadillac through the course as they head to Sunday mass. That's how he amassed a .93-second lead over the field after his first run on Wednesday – a cushion that allowed him to play it conservative on his second run and glide home to an essentially unchallenged gold.

"He has found a way, somehow, with how he has set up his [equipment], to where it fits his style and abilities perfectly," Jitloff said. "He's able to just risk it to the point and make turns that all of us are sitting there going, 'Wow. I really wish I could do one of those.' And he's able to do it the whole way down the course."

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"He carries so much speed and just doesn't really make mistakes," said U.S. teammate Bode Miller. "Those are the things that separate him. Other guys carry speed for a couple turns and then they scrub a little bit. He just carries it smooth, top to bottom."

To do it when it mattered most – and this mattered a lot to Ligety – signals another step in his maturation as a skier. At 29, he is in the middle of his prime and is well accomplished on the World Cup circuit, currently ranked No. 3 overall. In 2013 he conquered the world championships, bringing home gold medals in three disciplines, including the giant slalom, super-G and super combined. Now he's got two gold medals and has removed the bad taste of Vancouver, when he finished a stunning ninth in the giant slalom and failed to medal in any events.

"I have answered Vancouver questions for the last four years," Ligety said. "So that hasn't bothered me that much. I moved past that. My best years have been since then – and in a lot of ways, because of that [failure]."

It's long forgotten now. If anything, the focus is on the future. And Ligety said he's absolutely planning on being around for the 2018 Games in Pyongyang, South Korea.

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"Who knows how much longer I will ski," Ligety said. "But definitely through Korea."

That revelation left France's Alexis Pinturault – Wednesday's bronze medalist and one of Ligety's top giant slalom foes – taking a deep breath. Sort of the way one might react when the IRS knocks on the door.

"I think for skiing, it's perfect," Pinturault said. "Because he's one of the big champion GS winners for the last four years – or maybe more, I don't remember. I was too young."

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