Just over a year ago, Ted Ligety wrote on his blog that the FIS’s new rules for giant slalom ski dimensions would be bad for the sport. The longer, straighter skis are more difficult to turn and will have “a negative effect” on younger racers, wrote Ligety.
But on Sunday, on the Rettenbach Glacier above Soelden, Austria, the new skis proved to be good for Ligety. In poor visibility and on soft snow, the American skier made up a 0.04 second deficit after the first run to win by a whopping 2.75 seconds.
“What?!” gasped Universal Sports commentator Doug Lewis when he saw Ligety’s time.
“This is kind of an unbelievable gap,” Ligety said after the race. “I never expected it. I was taking a ton of risks [second run]. In hindsight, it might not have been the smartest approach.”
No alpine skier has won by this large a margin since March 11, 1980, when the legendary Swedish skier Ingmar Stenmark took a World Cup GS by 2.6 seconds.
Ligety has been outspoken against the FIS’s ski regulations since the federation announced the changes in 2011. Effective this season, giant slalom skis must be at least 195 centimeters long and have a turning radius greater than 35 meters. From 2009-2012, GS skis had to be at least 185 centimeters in length with a turning radius greater than 27 meters. In other words, the new skis are longer and straighter.
When asked by Warner Nickerson, a self-funded American skier who competed at Soelden, to describe the new 35-meter skis in one word, other men on the World Cup tour referred to them as “planks” and “two-by-fours.”
In truth, the 35-meter skis are closer in shape to the skis Stenmark used in the 1970s and 80s. Skis with a parabolic shape were introduced in the 1990s. Shape skis, as they were first called, are easier to turn. Rather than weight and unweight skis in order to turn them, skiers simply have to roll their ankles, knees, and hips, and the skis almost carve on their own.
Bode Miller was the first alpine skier to embrace racing on shape skis. At the 1996 National Junior Championships, a 17-year-old Miller clicked into a pair of K2 Fours and took three firsts and a second. Two weeks later, he finished third in slalom at senior nationals and made the U.S. Ski Team.
Soon, all ski racers embraced shaped skis with more radical sidecuts, including 28-year-old Ligety who made the U.S. Ski Team nine years ago. Since then, he has won three overall giant slalom World Cup titles, the 2006 Olympic gold medal in combined, and 12 World Cup GS races, including Soelden last year.
But “to enhance athlete safety and reduce risk of injury,” the FIS changed equipment specs for skis. Ligety was one of the most outspoken skiers about the change, not because he feared the new ski design would impact his World Cup results. He and Miller both thought that “the FIS should remove itself from equipment issues.” He also feared the impact the change would have on young ski racers, who don’t have the strength to muscle straighter skis into turns.
When asked by Nickerson to describe the 35-meter skis in one word, Ligety said, “Exhausting.”
Unable to fight the FIS’s decision, Ligety began testing skis with his sponsor, Head, and adapting his technique. In a blog post on February 5, 2012, titled “35 Meters of Irony,” he confessed that he was faster — significantly faster — on the straighter skis.
But he also said that the skis “do not turn as easy, they lock onto the edge hard, are slightly smoother through small bumps, take more muscling and twisting of the ski (manual pressure as opposed to body position), recoveries are slower, there is less energy out of the turn and are far more tiring to ski on.”
Ligety knew it would take hard work to be fast on the new skis in GS — what he calls his “bread and butter” on the World Cup.
“I’ve been working really hard on these new skis to get to the point where I knew I was going to be among the best,” he said.
With snow falling, Ligety had to work for speed from the start. “Right away, because it’s so slow, he’s needing to step off that ski, that’s old style,” explained Lewis on Universal Sports. “I did that when I raced.”
A two-time Olympian, Lewis raced for the U.S. Ski Team from 1981-1988 and took bronze in downhill at the 1985 World Championships.
“First run, a lot of people were skidding, sliding, really struggling with the skis,” added Lewis in his commentary. But not Ligety. “He’s high on the line, he’s got his skis out and away at the top [of each turn].”
Though he made it look effortless, Ligety was tired by the finish.
“I’m probably in the best shape that I’ve been in, but I was still more tired at the bottom of the hill than ever before,” Ligety told The New York Times. “It’s a testament to how much more strength that you need on these skis.”
Head coach Sasha Rearick credited hard work for Ligety’s win in Soelden — and huge margin of victory.
“What Ted did [in Soelden] is a true testament to the hard work that he's put in over the summer — really since last winter — working on the new skis, testing the new skis, modifying prototype after prototype, just putting in an extreme effort,” said Rearick. “He also had a few weaknesses in his skiing that we really focused on this summer to make him more of a complete skier so that on any hill on any day he could execute the best skiing in the world.”
“The key now is he's won by 2.75 — he put the rest of the world in the tank,” added Rearick. “But we can't rest. What do we need to do now? The rest of those guys also hate to lose. They're going to work extremely hard over the next month until the next race in Beaver Creek. It won't be easy next month.”
AUTHOR’S NOTE: Thanks to Warner Nickerson for information from his video “World Cup Athletes Review 35 Meter Skis” and from his website, warnernickerson.com.
Peggy Shinn is a freelance contributor for TeamUSA.org. This story was not subject to the approval of the United States Olympic Committee or any National Governing Bodies.