Tom Kelly: Hometown hero Ted Ligety ends stunning career
Parkites packed the plaza in April 2013. Kids pushed their way up to the stage to get close to their hometown hero. There had been a time not so many years prior that Ted Ligety would have been in that crowd himself. Instead, he was the one stepping onto the stage with that ever-present humble Ted smile.
Just a few months earlier, Ligety quieted thousands of screaming Austrian fans, winning three gold medals at the World Championships. It put his name alongside those of Austrian Toni Sailer, Frenchman Jean-Claude Kill and Norway’s Stein Eriksen — pretty nice company!.
On the stage, Ligety was greeted by Eriksen himself, who honored him as a humble athlete and exhorted kids to “be like Ted.”
Ted Ligety’s retirement this week wraps up a career that saw the Park City native win two Olympic gold medals, seven World Championship medals (including five gold) and six World Cup crystal globes. Not bad for the kid from the Park City Devo Team! He’ll ski his final World Championship race later this month in Italy before winging back home to his wife Mia and their three boys (including 6-month-old twins). Skiing for Ligety will now become showing 3-year-old Jax around the mountain at Deer Valley, where he serves as an athlete ambassador.
If you were cruising around Park City Mountain 20 years ago, it’s likely you came across a ratpack of local young teens rippin’ it up on the west flank of Jupiter Peak. Foremost among them was Ligety. The son of local Realtors Bill Ligety and Cyndi Sharp, Ted and his buddies were notorious for pushing gnarly tracks off the ridgeline and laying their skis on edge at high speed down the groomers.
Ligety grew up in an era where Park City was the epicenter of alpine ski racing in America. The Park City Ski Team was continually producing top athletes onto the national team. In the ’90s, Park City Mountain Resort was sponsoring America’s best ski racers. And Craig Badami’s America’s Opening was still the kickoff to the annual FIS World Cup tour.
“I was really fortunate in Park City,” said Ligety. “I got to watch the best in the world every single year. Right after the World Cup, we were able to train on that same hill. Most of my best friends were all amazing ski racers at the time. So we had a great group camaraderie there, really close, tight-knit friends that really pushed each other.”
In 2002, Ligety, 16, was a forerunner for the Olympic slalom on his home hill. A few weeks later, he scored his first FIS race podium at Mt. Bachelor in Oregon. In November 2003, he had his World Cup debut in Park City (Bode Miller won).
But his life dramatically changed under the lights at Sestriere, Italy in February 2006. In his very first Olympic start, Ligety came from behind to win gold in the alpine combined at the age of 21.
“I’m still in shock when I think about it really,” Ligety said, laughing. “I had no idea what was happening. I had never won a major race before. I had been on the podium in World Cups, but to win the Olympics was pretty surreal.”
His career quickly blossomed. He started winning World Cups and took the giant slalom crystal globe in 2008. In 2010, he was the top-ranked GS skier in the world. But he came away from the Vancouver Olympics without a medal.
“That was a huge disappointment, not just from the placing, but in my approach,” he recalled. “I got to the finish line and I just knew I left time on the hill. And that hurt.”
It was a seminal moment that evolved a great ski racer into a legend.
Rather than bemoan the loss, Ligety turned it into a learning experience. Over a six-year span, he was truly Mister GS. He claimed four of six GS crystal globes. He won an unprecedented three straight giant slalom World Championships, including the 2015 title at Beaver Creek. And he went into Schladming in 2013 and won super G, combined and giant slalom.
There is a special pride residents take in hometown athletes. We remember them when they were kids and live vicariously through their success. But it means even more when you know the difference your community actually made.
Ligety grew up in a ski town with a big mountain, a focus on alpine ski racing and an outstanding club program. He attended the relatively new Winter Sports School, an innovative approach for winter athletes at the time. He had a family that supported him but also taught him independence. And he had a cadre of friends and teammates who formed the fabric of the ski racing culture in Park City in the ’90s and early ’00s.
Reflecting back on his career, Ligety talked about how he forged his own path to greatness. “I love skiing, I worked hard, but I think everybody at the highest level has to love skiing and work hard,” he said. “What really separated me from a lot of my competitors was independence and being able to ask the right questions of myself and coaches to figure out ways to get better.”
To Ligety, success has always been about what works for you. “You have to own your own path, you have to try to figure out how to progress for yourself and really take ownership in it.”
Welcome home, Ted!
Wisconsin native Tom Kelly landed in Park City in 1988 (still working on becoming an official local). A recently inducted member of the U.S. Ski & Snowboard Hall of Fame, he is most known for his role as lead spokesperson for Olympic skiing and snowboarding for over 30 years until his retirement in 2018. This will be his 51st season on skis, typically logging 60 days in recent years.
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