After winning three gold medals at the 2013 Alpine World Championships in Schladming, Austria, in super combined, super G and giant slalom, Ted Ligety's 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics experience didn't get off to a great start.
A 12th-place finish in the super combined and a 14th in the super G had visions of the 2010 Vancouver Olympics (where Ligety finished ninth in the giant slalom, 19th in the super G and fifth in the super combined) looming in the heads of ski racing fans.
But on Wednesday, Ligety came through in the event that he's dominated on the World Cup tour for several years, claiming a gold medal in the giant slalom.
The 29-year-old Park City resident skied to a massive .93-second lead after the first of two runs.
But, as Park City Ski Team director Jesse Hunt noted, the course turned against Ligety in the second run, when he had to go last.
"Conditions were pretty warm [in Sochi], so the bottom of the course was pretty soft at the end of the races," he said. "What you saw was the lower part of the course slowing down quite a bit. I think Ted did a good job handling that. He understood what he needed to do and what kind of run he needed to put down. He skied the run he needed to ski."
Though his second run was slower and brought him closer to the rest of the pack, he skied his way to a gold medal, .48 seconds ahead of second-place Steve Missillier of France. Alexis Pinturault of France earned bronze to round out the podium.
"Today was awesome," Ligety told U.S. Ski Team representatives in Sochi. "There's not really any other way to put it. This is something I've been working for since I was a little kid. Being the favorite in alpine skiing is never easy, because it's an event that's so far from being guaranteed and not an event that's super simple to win, even if you're skiing the best in the world. There are so many different factors out there. It's really easy to go out of the course. It's really easy for conditions to not match up to your technique.
Hunt said that Ligety's handling of the pressure was the most impressive part of the gold-medal performance.
"There's a tremendous amount of pressure," he said. "I think that's the biggest challenge - dealing with that pressure and putting it together. Obviously, Ted has a ton of experience and everyone knows he's one of the fastest guys out there. But to be able to do it on a day when there's that kind of pressure really shows what a champion he is."
After winning a gold medal in the combined event at the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin, Italy, Ligety now stands alone in American history. He's the only two-time gold-medal-winning American male alpine skier (Andrea Mead Lawrence also won two alpine gold medals) and he's the first American male to ever win an Olympic gold in the giant slalom.
"It's always exciting to see those historic moments, when someone breaks through and does something that hasn't been done in many, many years, or ever, in this case," Hunt said. "To see it finally accomplished is amazing and it makes us all proud."
Hunt also thinks Ligety's Vancouver disappointments made him stronger in Sochi.
"In Vancouver, he went through that phase where he was the favorite and he had to manage that and deal with that," he said. "I think he learned a lot in Vancouver and applied it in Sochi. And you saw the result."
Considering some of Ligety's first ski runs as a toddler came at Park City Mountain Resort, PCMR communications manager Andy Miller said the entire town can share a tiny bit of the skier's accomplishments.
"It's just so cool for us to be able to watch them grow and feel a small, tiny part of their journey," he said. "It was the first thing on everyone's mind when they started showing up on the mountain [Wednesday] morning. Everybody who came into the office, we were high-fiving each other. Everybody knew what it was for - everyone had already heard the news."
Another Park City skier, Tim Jitloff, finished 15th in the giant slalom. Americans Jared Goldberg (Holladay, Utah) and Bode Miller (Franconia, N.H.) finished 19th and 20th, respectively. The final men's alpine event, the slalom, takes place on Saturday, Feb. 22.