It's one thing to win a medal on a given day. It's quite another to be Best in the World over an entire five-month season. This past weekend, two World Champions earned the right to bring crystal globes home from Europe.
Ted Ligety stood in the start house at Kranjska Gora, Slovenia, looking down on the thousands lining the Podkoren 3 course where he had won four times before. He had six-tenths to play with from his first run. But archrival Marcel Hirscher had put down a blistering second run, throwing Ted into the gauntlet much as he had been doing all season long.
It had been nearly five months since Ligety beat Hirscher on the Rettenbach Glacier in Soelden to take the World Cup lead. Since then, Ligety had won four of six giant slaloms never lower than third but could never shake the Austrian.
He pushed out of the start. At the first interval, the timing light was still green but he was losing ground. Second split the same. He was hanging in there but did he have enough? In typical Ligety fashion, he kept control on the bottom and came across with the win.
"It's a big weight off my back," he said."I had an awesome season in giant slalom but Hirscher was with me the whole way. It makes it tough going for the title. It was a head game when he was so close all along."
Nearly 1,400 miles to the north, Kikkan Randall was clicking into her skis for the final freestyle sprint of the year at the Lahti Ski Games in Finland. The reigning World Cup champion had been dominant all season long. With just two sprints to go both classic Kikkan knew that today was the day to clinch the title. She also knew that at some point during the morning, she would need to contend with Norway's superstar, World Champion Marit Bjoergen.
Randall qualified 11th and had an easy time in her quarterfinals and semifinals heats, taking margins of two-tenths and conserving energy for the penultimate battle she knew lay ahead.
The Alaskan was at the start, the entire season on the line. Alongside her was Marit Bjoergen, holder of 19 World Championship and seven Olympics medals winner of the sprint at the last two Worlds. It would be the race of the season 1.55 kilometers of sheer grit and determination.
The gun sounded. Both Bjoergen and Randall held back, letting Finland's Riikka Sarasoja-Lilja set the early pace. Bjoergen and Randall were side by side, stride by stride playing the cat-and-dog game to see who would move first. As the Finn dropped back, Bjoergen made the first move pushing a punishing pace up the one long climb on the course. Randall stayed on her tails, matching Bjoergen's every move the countless hours of dryland training last summer coming into play.
Bjoergen kept control on the flats with a few hundred meters to the finish. Randall knew she had to make a move. Coming into the stadium was a short quick climb under an inflatable banner then downhill into the finishing straight. With a burst of energy, Randall flew past the Norwegian on the uphill. Now, she thought, "can I hold on for another hundred meters?"
The fans were on their feet as two of the sport's great superstars came down to the line. Bjoergen was charging hard and fast. Randall had no defensive move other than to take on the pain and time her finish.
As the line approached, Bjoergen appeared to have the edge. That is, until Randall executed a picture-perfect telemark lunge, nipping Bjoergen by a boot length and winning the crystal globe.
Randall and Ligety left for Europe last fall. It's pretty much been their home ever since. Both took home World Championship gold last month. And as valuable as gold can be, there's something special about the Joska crystal. World Champions. World Cup Champions.
NOTE: Park City, stay tuned for an announcement soon on a welcome home celebration for Ted Ligety at Park City Mountain Resort.