Behind The Gold
November 6, 2012
One of the character traits of legendary sport stars is the ability to evolve. Like life, sport changes. Each competition is a new day and each season a new opportunity. Since winning Olympic gold in 2006, Park City’s own Ted Ligety has seen his share of change. But never so much as he faced over the last 18 months.
When looking to benchmark Ligety’s unheard-of 2.75-second victory margin in Soelden, Austria, it was the great Ingemar Stenmark from 34 years earlier who drew the comparison. In his day, the Swede scored a host of big-margin victories of up to four seconds.
Now, let’s get one thing straight — Ligety’s dozen World Cup wins are still a long way from Stenmark’s 86. But the two do share a common trait in their ability to succeed as their sport evolved.
Ligety’s forced evolution carried with it a certain amount of angst. In the spring of 2011, the International Ski Federation took the results of a safety study and determined that the more radical side cut on skis might be a contributing factor to injuries. So FIS, essentially, straightened out the skis with marked changes that especially impacted giant slalom — Ted’s forte. Feeling they didn’t have meaningful input into the process, Ligety was the global leader in a very vociferous revolt by athletes that ultimately went for naught.
The change that Ligety faced — albeit forced — carried some similarities to what the great Swede Stenmark endured a few decades earlier. In his career from 1973 to 1989 (his last win came in February 1989 at Aspen), Stenmark skied through myriad changes in alpine ski racing. He evolved his technique with the advent of plastic gates and, ultimately, breakaway poles that totally changed the strategic racing line. He won throughout a period when equipment itself evolved radically, with Stenmark himself experimenting with new side-cut skis. The changes forced Stenmark to adapt his style to new courses and equipment, which he did with success every time.
Setting all the rhetoric aside, Ligety accepted his fate and sought to protect his position as a three-time Audi FIS World Cup GS champ by adopting a passionate approach to be best in the world with the new 35-meter-radius skis.
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"What Ted did is a true testament to the hard work that he’s put in over the summer, working on the new skis, testing the new skis, modifying prototype after prototype, just putting in an extreme effort," said Head Coach Sasha Rearick "He’s a vocal person and that showed in his arguments against the skis. But once he figured out this is what it is, he put all that energy, all that focus, into making sure he was going to be the fastest and that he wasn’t going to lose."
The Soelden opener was only one race at the start of a long season. Ligety will, for sure, feel the heat in the Audi Birds of Prey GS on Sunday, Dec. 2 (watch it live on NBC Sports Network). But history will show that, like Stenmark, one of Ted Ligety’s greatest accomplishments was his ability to evolve with his sport and remain one of its greatest champions. While he and fellow athletes may not have agreed with the decision or the process, he etched his mark as a great champion by adapting and winning.
One of the most experienced communications professionals in skiing, Tom Kelly is a veteran of eight Olympics and serves as vice president, Communications for the Park City-based U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association. A Wisconsin native, he and his wife Carole Duh have lived in Park City since 1988 when he’s not traveling the world with the team.