After historic season, Utahn can cement legacy as all-time great with strong showing in Sochi.
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Park City • Ted Ligety is about as relaxed as he's going to get for the next eight months or so, sitting casually on a stationary chairlift at the bottom of a ski hill bathed in warm summer sunshine instead of buried beneath piles of winter snow at Park City Mountain Resort.
All that is going to change, though, before you know it.
The guy who famously failed to make his local ski team the first time he tried out is about to embark on what could be the biggest year of his already illustrious ski-racing career, with the upcoming 2014 Sochi Olympics in Russia providing him a chance to cement a legacy as one of the greatest skiers of all time.
Ligety already owns one Olympic gold medal, and he's coming off a spectacular season in which he became the first man in 45 years to win three gold medals at the world championships.
"I guess that adds some expectations, in a way," he says.
The 28-year-old Park City native is sure to be considered a strong contender in every Alpine discipline but the downhill in Sochi, a staggering achievement for a skier who began his career as strictly a slalom specialist you know, once he finally did make it onto the Park City Ski Team.
In fact, years of training since graduating from the famed Winter Sports School have helped Ligety steadily mature into the kind of multidimensional skier who's capable of winning the overall World Cup championship like American predecessors Bode Miller, Lindsey Vonn, Phil Mahre and Tamara McKinney.
He finished third in the overall standings last season, his best finish ever.
"He had to work for it," says his father, Bill Ligety. "Ted has never been able to coast."
Not that he wanted to.
From the very start, Ligety has sought to broaden his repertoire, working hard on the speed events year after year, to the point that slalom with rules and regulations that have evolved away from his strengths over the years hasn't been his specialty for a long time now.
Rather, the faster giant slalom is his best event, and Ligety has won four World Cup titles in the discipline, including the one last season, when he also amazingly plundered the world championships in Schladming, Austria.
Ligety won the giant slalom, the combined and the super-G in Schladming, becoming the first man since France's Jean-Claude Killy in 1968 to win three events at a single world championships.
"No one has done this in the modern era because of the development of the World Cup," U.S. head coach Sasha Rearick said at the time. "You have tremendous athletes, programs, national teams and company support pushing at a very high level. Over the last 30 years, specialists have developed in multiple events, so to be able to win in three events has been impossible. When you think of the greats like Lasse Kjus, Kjetil Aamodt and Hermann Maier, and they haven't done it. It's an amazing, absolutely amazing achievement for Ted."
All of which has made the offseason quite a bit more hectic than usual, with Ligety in high demand from sponsors, the media, fans and his business ventures in advance of a possible masterpiece in Sochi.
"It's pretty amazing, for sure," he says.
Already this summer, he's been all over the world.
Ligety has trained with the U.S. Ski Team in Mammoth Lakes, Calif., travelled to Greenland to shoot a film with the renowned Warren Miller company, visited China and Japan to promote his gear and apparel companies Shred Optics and Slytech Protection joined a promotional photo-shoot for NBC in Los Angeles and others for sponsors in Boston and New York City.
He also held his annual ski camp at Mount Hood in Oregon, and he is in New Zealand now, training again.
Oh, he also served as the grand marshal of the Fourth of July parade in Park City. He recently signed major sponsorship deals with Coca-Cola and Kellogg's, illustrating just how much exposure he's going to get leading up to Sochi. Ligety said he has signed with two more blue-chip sponsors, too, but those agreements have not been announced yet.
"It obviously puts a lot more pressure on my time and stuff, so managing my summer and managing my time has been far more difficult this summer than in summers before," he says. "But I still feel like I get done what I need to get done. So it's not horrible. It's just a little less fun free time."
Once the season gets going, of course, Ligety will turn his eye toward a lot of prizes.
Gold medals, yes.
But also crystal globes.
Ligety said his greatest career ambition above even Olympic medals is winning that overall World Cup title and the crystal trophy that goes with it, something he could achieve within weeks of his potential Olympic success next year. The World Cup season concludes in mid-March.
"I feel like, if a couple of things go my way, I have a really good chance at that," he says.
The U.S. Ski Team based in Park City is doing what it can to support him, too, by creating a new "multi-team" for Ligety and fellow multidiscipline veteran Bode Miller under a coach dedicated entirely to them. Miller, the one-time bad boy of American skiing, is aiming for his fifth Olympics in Sochi after finally winning gold at the 2010 Vancouver Games in Canada.
The men could be the marquee headliners for the U.S. Ski Team in Sochi, especially if superstar Lindsey Vonn cannot recover well enough from a devastating knee injury to defend her gold medal in the downhill. Of course, there's also 18-year-old slalom world champion Mikaela Shiffrin, who's also the reigning World Cup champion in the slalom.
In any case, Ligety said he's trying not to dwell on the Olympics quite yet.
"I think the best preparation for the Olympics is a good World Cup season leading up to it," he says, "so I would say that I prepare for the World Cup season and the Olympics happens to be there" near the end of it.
"For sure, come January and February, you pick and choose your opportunities, and you try to get a little bit more rest and prep yourself for the Olympics more," he adds. "But until then, you're really focused on the World Cup season."
When the Olympics do finally arrive, Ligety will be eager to erase the sour memories of a disappointing performance in Vancouver where he failed to medal in any of his four races after winning surprise gold in the combined at the 2006 Turin Games in Italy.
Might have an ace up his sleeve, too.
For several years, the U.S. Ski Team has enjoyed a close partnership with the Russian skiing federation, to the extent that American skiers were allowed special access to the Alpine ski venue for the Sochi Olympics. Ligety called it a "huge opportunity," especially since nobody will have raced a giant slalom or super-G on the hill until the Olympics.
"It definitely helps your comfort level and your confidence level," he says. "It's hard to say how tangible that really is, but I think it just makes you feel more comfortable with the whole venue."
And that could be important for a guy who everybody is going to expect to do well on the slopes of the Rosa Khutor Alpine Resort outside Sochi.
"Every athlete wants to be among the favorites, you know," he says. "It's every athlete's goal to have the sort of success that, coming into a big event like the Olympics, you are talked about as one of the guys to look for. I wouldn't say that adds any pressure … because I still would have had that same pressure on myself."
Ted Ligety file
• Won three events at the 2013 world championships in Austria.
• Finished third in overall World Cup standings last season.
• Won gold medal in combined at 2006 Olympics in Italy.
• Won four World Cup titles in giant slalom, his best event.
• Native of Park City graduated from the Winter Sports School.
Ligety in Sochi
Park City's Ted Ligety figures to race in most, if not all, of the men's Alpine events at the Sochi Olympics in Russia next year:
Feb. 9 • Downhill
Feb. 14 • Super Combined
Feb. 16 • Super-G
Feb. 19 • Giant Slalom
Feb. 22 • Slalom "It's going to be a pressure situation," he says, "no matter what."