Ted Ligety: Olympic SportsMan Of The Year
|Ted Ligety celebrates with his three gold medals for winning the
giant slalom, super combined and super-G at the 2013 FIS Alpine
Ski World Championships on Feb. 15, 2013 in Schladming, Austria.
One by one, the news trickled over to Ted Ligety’s parents from the ski racing world championships in Austria. Watching a live internet stream in the middle of several nights, they saw their son win the super-G gold, then the super combined gold, then the giant slalom gold.
“Unbelievable,” said Bill Ligety, Ted’s father, who, along with Cyndi, Ted’s mother, was home in Park City, Utah, during the championships. “We thought Ted had a chance in the giant slalom, but we didn’t have any expectations of other events. I missed seeing the super combined because I was skiing in the back country. But I got word. It was amazing. And, at the time, we didn’t appreciate the historical significance of winning three gold medals and what a small group of people and elite group he joined with his accomplishment."
In February, Ligety became the first man in 45 years to win three alpine ski racing events in a single world championship, an enormous accomplishment that hasn’t been recorded since Jean- Claude Killy won four world championship gold medals in 1968. Ligety, 29, is the first skier, male or female, to win the super-G, giant slalom and super combined in a world championship.
That came after the man nicknamed “Shred” did just that throughout the world cup season. In his first giant slalom race, he won by 2.75-seconds, the largest margin of victory in a world cup event in 34 years. By the time Ligety arrived at the world championships, he had already won four-of-five world cup giant slalom races. He finished the season with six giant slalom victories in eight races, and he medaled in all eight, which hasn’t been done in two decades.
Then, back home, he won the U.S. championship in the slalom, his seventh national title and first since 2007.
“He was a possessed individual who was completely determined not to lose,” said Sasha Rearick, men’s head alpine coach of the U.S. Ski Team.
All this for a kid who didn’t make his local youth ski team the first time he tried out, saw his buddies picked over him for Olympic development teams, and has learned to rely on a strong work ethic and passion for the sport.
“I think I’m innately super competitive,” Ligety said from Soelden, Austria, where the 2013-14 world cup begins this weekend. “Because I didn’t have the best physical attributes, I had to be a hard worker. And not having that success made me become a harder worker than I would have been if I was good when I was 13 years old or something. I think that’s something that, as I grew older, worked to my advantage.”
So here is Ligety’s latest prize. For his remarkable season, Ligety has been named the United States Olympic Committee’s 2012-13 Olympic SportsMan of the Year, the first alpine male skier to win the award in its 39-year history.
“I’m psyched,” Ligety said. “It’s definitely a huge honor to get an award like this. It’s really cool to be considered among the top athletes in the U.S.”
Other athlete winners this year are track athlete Raymond Martin (Paralympic SportsMan of the Year), swimmer Katie Ledecky (Olympic SportsWoman of the Year), cyclist Monica Bascio (Paralympic SportsWoman of the Year), doubles tennis champions Bob and Mike Bryan (Olympic Team of the Year) and the U.S. men’s 4x100-meter track & field team of Richard Browne, Blake Leeper, Jerome Singleton and Jarryd Wallace (Paralympic Team of the Year). The winners will be honored Oct. 29 in New York in conjunction with festivities marking the 100-day countdown to the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games.
“I have gotten the USOC athlete of the month [award] a couple times, but I hadn’t thought about the year award,” Ligety said. “There are so many legendary athletes competing under the USOC umbrella, I just figured it wouldn’t go to a lowly ski racer like myself.”
Ligety finished the alpine season ranked third in the world in the overall rankings, and he is the top-ranked U.S. male. The rankings take in results from all five disciplines of alpine — slalom, downhill, super-G, giant slalom and super combined. He is first in the world in the giant slalom, a title he has won four times, and in which he has won 17 world cup victories. He is ranked seventh in super-G.
“Going into the world championships, I actually knew I had a good chance of medaling in three disciplines, but I didn’t necessarily think I’d win three gold medals,” Ligety said.
“I knew the hill for super-G and for the giant slalom suited me really well. In the combined, on paper, it’s an event that I should be winning quite often, but I haven’t been able to put together a good race since the Olympics of 2006. So I finally put together a really good downhill run and was able to keep it together in the slalom portion of it and won that, and that was a big relief just because I hadn’t won that event in a long time. I was super-psyched.
“Then, in a lot of ways, winning the two golds put a lot more pressure on the giant slalom. I was a heavy favorite, and that was my biggest goal. But the main pressure I felt going into the giant slalom wasn’t external. I wasn’t concerned about the pressure from media or sponsors. The pressure was from me really wanting to win that event more than anything.”
Growing up in Park City, Ligety began skiing when he was 2. He was competitive and good in academics and in athletics, but he wasn’t a standout skier at a young age, his father said.
“A lot of kids, when they are 14 or so, are named to the development team of the U.S. Ski Team, but he was not picked,” said Bill Ligety. “Ted was driven at getting better, so he had to work much harder than the kids that made it. All of a sudden, those kids were getting greater training and great equipment and opportunities that he didn’t have, and some of those kids were his buddies. I think that really developed a work ethic in Ted that was outstanding.”
Bill Ligety also believes his son learned hard work by example.
“There are a lot of people in Park City that have a lot of money, but we aren’t one of them and weren’t one of them when Ted was growing up,” Bill Ligety said. “I think Ted saw us go to work early and coming home late and working weekends, and I think he just saw that as just what you do. Work is something you do.”
In eighth grade, Ligety left his middle school and enrolled in the Winter Sports School in Park City, a private academic program that runs from April through November, so students have the winter for the ski racing program.
“I remember when Ted was just starting the Winter School, and I would go skiing in the morning and Ted would be the only kid in the locker room,” said Dar Hendrickson, who coached Ligety at a young age in Park City. “I’d ask him if he was there for training, and he’d say no, that he just wanted to ski. He was a hard worker and never a slacker. He just had a love for skiing that he was able to translate into racing well.”
When Ligety graduated from high school, he and his parents struck an agreement. He would apply to colleges for the next fall, and, meanwhile, they would pay for Ligety to spend a year on the U.S. development team.
“That winter, Ted really had a breakout season and did phenomenally well,” Bill Ligety said. “So at that point of time it was obvious he had a future in ski racing and wanted to pursue it.”
Ligety went on to make the U.S. Ski Team and won the Olympic gold medal in 2006 in the combined. By then, Rearick was working with him.
“I have worked with Ted for 10 years, and because he wasn’t the most talented as a junior racer or even coming up through the ranks, Ted learned to fight; he learned to battle to overcome the challenges,” Rearick said. “Nothing came easy. He learned to work hard, day in and day out. That really comes from his early years, when he had to face disappointment and every day seek to get better. And those skills that he learned there he continues to use as he strives to be the best.”
Before the 2013 world cup season, Ligety was vocal in opposition to new ski equipment regulations the International Ski Federation had issued in an attempt to make the sport safer.
“I was definitely against it, but once I knew we couldn’t change it as athletes, I decided I might as well get on top of it and start working on it,” Ligety said. “My technique was naturally better suited for the new skis than for a lot of other guys, and I was able to capitalize on that. I think that’s really a big part of what happened with my success.”
Rearick sees it a little differently.
“He was upset at some of the FIS changes, and because he was vocal about it he had to prove that he could still win,” Rearick said. “He worked smarter than anybody, harder than anybody, daily, to master his sport.”
Sunday in Soelden, Ligety will race the giant slalom to begin his 2013-14 world cup season. The season will be interrupted by the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games in February, which would be Ligety’s third Winter Games. After winning gold in the combined in 2006, he did not medal in 2010.
“The best preparation for the Olympics is to have a good world cup season leading up to it,” Ligety said. “There is a little more pressure going into the season because of the Olympics, but it’s the same for everybody. I’ll have plenty of time before Sochi to let the pressures of racing out of my system a little more.”
Maryann Hudson is a freelance writer from Pasadena, California. She was previously an investigative reporter for the Los Angeles Times. She has written for TeamUSA.org since 2012 as a freelance contributor on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.