It didn't start out like this. The 31-year-old Ligety felt fantastic when the 2015-16 season started, winning yet another World Cup giant slalom gold medal in the season-opener in Soelden, Austria, on Oct. 25. It was his fourth gold and seventh podium in Soelden. But the gilded start soon morphed into lingering pain. Just days after Soelden, while training, Ligety felt something he'd never felt in his back before.
He wasn't intially worried. Each World Cup season brings back pain about a couple of times a season, he said. In a sport as high-octane and high-risk as alpine skiing, the body twists and contorts and absorbs speeds unlike any other. Back injuries are not uncommon.
So he took couple of days off, thinking he'd be fine. But a two days later, he clipped into his skis and aggravated the back injury again, this time during downhill training.
"From then on," he said, "I just couldn't ski."
Ligety is suffering from three herniated discs in his spine. He couldn't bend down to touch his knees. And for the next six weeks, he played the waiting game. Back injuries, he said, are a specific kind of torture. You suffer a season-ending knee injury, you lose a season, but at least there are guideposts for what is needed to get back to top shape. But for the entire month of November, Ligety didn't feel strong enough to push hard on skis.
The injury derailed a very promising start to the Word Cup season. He did return to earn a silver medal in the super-G at Beaver Creek, Colo., in early December, but since then, he's been playing catch up due to the severity of the herniated discs.
"Always having that pain wears on your skiing, so you kind of form habits to protect it and that was kind of the issue," Ligety said. "It just came to the point where the intensity of the pain, you can't keep it up for a whole season. That's where getting healthy is so important."
Ligety has dealt with injuries before. He suffered a series of them last season, but still reached the podium five times. And of course, when healthy, the Utah native is still one of the greates alpine skiers on the planet, raching 10 podiums in two seasons ago and 13 the season before that.
But this has been different. Since Soelden, Ligety has reached just one World Cup podium. Only now is he finally back on his skis and trying to salvage the season.
Put so far behind the pack due to the enforced absence, Ligety is struggling to regain his form. He's had seven races in which he did not finish and two he did not qualify in, but he says he's getting closer.
"It's just about getting in some races and getting comfortable now," Ligety said.
Next week, the World Cup tour stops in South Korea, where men's downhill and super-G events are scheduled at Jeongseon resort for a test event leading up to the 2018 Olympic Winter Games in Pyeongchang. The last time Ligety competed in South Korea was March 2006, where he won his first World Cup gold in giant slalom at Yongpyong as a 21-year-old up-and-comer.
The 2018 Games are just over two years away. Which leads to another question: Will he still be chasing gold in Pyeongchang in 2018?
"It's a sport where you can't count on something so far up ahead because there's a million little things that can happen," Ligety said. "That's [true] with any sport, but with ski racing, there's so many injures going on, ups and downs of confidence in skiing. Two years is still a long, long way away."
Then he circled back.
"I definitely plan on skiing through the next Olympics," he said. "That's for sure."
Twitter: @chriskamrani Look at Ligety
Hometown » Park City
Age » 31
Olympics » 2006, 2010, 2014
Accolades » Two-time Olympic gold medalist (Combined, 2006 Games; giant slalom, 2014 Games), five-time World Championship gold medalist, five-time giant slalom World Cup champion (2008, 2010, 2011, 2013, 2014), 25 World Cup gold medals, 51 World Cup podiums.