‘Up and coming’ has arrived
March 8, 2006
After three World Cup podiums, then an Olympic gold medal and now a World Cup victory, can we still call Park City’s Ted Ligety an "emerging" talent?
The answer, by any yardstick, is to change the adjective to "emerged."
In the pre-dawn hours Sunday in Park City (mid-afternoon in Yong Pyong, South Korea), Ligety snared the first World Cup victory of his career. He won the second of the weekend’s two giant slaloms.
"To be able to pull this off today in a GS is beyond words. It’s pretty crazy for me to do it in GS," the understated Ligety said. "I would have expected it in slalom but in GS is pretty stupid."
Ligety, 21, didn’t win the first GS 24 hours earlier because, exhausted after the Olympics, battling a cold, and the monster trek from Central Europe to the Far East, he’d overslept Saturday and simply missed the race. He had a bit of a sheepish smile Sunday in recalling the episode, but he made no excuses.
"I was pretty bummed [Saturday], but today more than makes up for it because you never know. If I skied yesterday," he said, "who knows what I would have done today?"
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He was eighth in the season-opening GS on a glacier above Soelden, Austria, in October as he posted the fastest second run. But his GS since then has been OK, not great; at the Olympics, he skied 18th and had the fastest first split before he went out in a course where an eye-popping 34 skiers didn’t finish their first run. "I knew I was skiing fast" in GS, he said.
The amazing part is that after being eighth in Yong Pyong’s first run, which was pushed back four hours because of unruly winds and weather, Ligety won by producing the fastest second run time among the top eight from that first run.
He was more than a second behind first-run leader Davide Simoncelli of Italy but wound up winning in 2 minutes, 18.54 seconds – an eye-blink three-hundredths ahead of Finn Kalle Palander and Swede Fredrik Nyberg, who deadlocked for second place with Daron Rahlves, the only other U.S. skier in the second run, finishing 13th. Simoncelli skidded to seventh.
His schedule resumes this weekend on the 1998 Olympic hill in Shiga Kogen, Japan, with slaloms Saturday and Sunday. And then it’s about-face and back to Europe for World Cup Finals March 15-19 in Are, Sweden. He’ll be rubber-kneed from the travel when Ligety gets to Maine’s Sugarloaf resort for the U.S. championships March 25-30.
After a summer schedule that included training with the men’s downhill group in Chile to help broaden his racing experience beyond his trump card of slalom, and to help delete the erroneous "slalom specialist" hangtag, Ligety explained he’d wanted to be a four-event skier since he was a peewee in the Park City Ski Team program. Norwegian icons Kjetil Andre Aamodt and Lasse Kjus were his early role models as all-rounders, not the gate-runners like Alberto Tomba or silky smooth GS great Michael Von Gruenigen.
"It’s always been something I wanted to do. Slalom kinda chose me as something I’d always been good at, so I followed that line," he said Sunday. But, down deep, he wanted to move into four-event racing. He was 12th in combined at the 2005 World Championships, an indicator of things to come.
Last month, at the Olympics, he was the combined gold medal-winner, moving up a notch when Austrian Benni Raich — this winter’s overall World Cup leader and generally considered "Mr. Consistent" because he finishes almost every race — went off-course. The win "definitely gives me confidence in every race," according to Ligety.
So, he’s no longer "emerging." Ligety is "there."
"Well, Ted was ’emerging’ last year but he clearly established himself. He’s A Team this year, and he made it at 20, which isn’t exactly an easy feat," said Phil McNichol, U.S. men’s head coach, who headed the PCST program as Ligety began his development in the Nineties.
"I’ve got some great photos of him at a camp a Whistler [B.C.] when he was 12, and I think TJ [Lanning, who’s four days older] was there, too. Ted was such a little shaver…looking like Opie in Mayberry" from the old "Andy Griffith Show" on TV.
From that innocent beginning, though, Ligety has kept almost a single focus: ski racing. He played some soccer as a youngster but once he got to Park City’s Winter Sports School, it was ski racing and more ski racing. He was silver medalist on Valentine’s Day at the 2004 World Junior Championships in Maribor, Slovenia, picked off his first World Cup points 15 days later, also in Slovenia (Kranjska Gora) and used his slalom skills to kick open the World Cup door a year ago.
"He had emerged last year," McNichol went on, "and this season the jury was out on whether he’d make the next step. But if this continues, Ted Ligety’s going to be the next big player on the World Cup from that Class of ’84 [birth year]." Others in that class with Ligety and Lanning, who has battled injuries in recent years, include Canada’s Francois Bourque and Felix Neureuther of Germany.
"Ted’s been poised to win in GS for a while now but there’s always been a bobble, or a little mistake than stopped him. But every time he achieves another big accomplishment, like anyone who comes up pretty quickly, you wonder, ‘Can he handle things? Can he take care of that second run? Can he get it done?’
"Ted’s shown every time he’s got the confidence; he believes he can be there…and pressure isn’t getting to him," McNichol said.
"He’s just such a fantastic kid to work with. His parents have done a great job, he’s had that solid upbringing and he’s got good values, good discipline. He’s respectful, says ‘thanks’ and has all those qualities that can make working with a kid such a joy, all the stuff that helps give a world-class athlete — and he’s certainly that. And he’s certainly got that boy-next-door appeal.
"If this continues as you’d think it will," the coach said, "it should be fun watching him over these next years…a lot of fun."