Ted Ligety skied into the record books Wednesday in Sochi, becoming the first American man to win the Olympic giant slalom with an impressive performance under the weight of heavy expectations.
After using his trademark technique — powerfully carved, effortlessly linked turns — to storm to a first run lead of almost a second, Ligety — starting last of the top 30 placed racers for the afternoon leg -- watched as skier after skier succumbed to a choppy course that was rapidly withering under the blazing sun.
But rather than panic, the 29-year old favorite looked supremely relaxed, knowing what it would take to walk away with gold.
"I've had a lot of races where I've had this kind of lead and a pretty good track record maintaining that and winning those," Ligety told reporters between runs. "I know that I don't have to take the mega-risk."
Still, in Alpine skiing — unlike, say, halfpipe snowboarding — it's the aggregate time that counts, not the best run out of the two runs. Meaning lead or no lead, Ligety couldn't afford to coast.
Sticking to his game plan, the man nicknamed "Mr. GS" by his rivals came through with a clutch performance, no small feat considering that other favorites like Austria's Marcel Hirscher (the current leader in the World Cup giant slalom standings) and Germany's Felix Neureuther saw their medal hopes dashed thanks to ragged runs. In stark contrast to those desperate attempts, Ligety kept cool and transitioned to tactical mode, skiing a smart, risk-free line down a rutted course that looked more like a war zone than an Olympic finale.
He hit the line with some four-tenths of a second to spare over France's Steve Missillier, arcing a victory turn through the sun-splashed stadium and saluting the screaming fans, many of whom — faces painted and holding homemade banners aloft — traveled from his native Utah to cheer him on.
Speaking to reporters at the finish, Ligety said the result gave him redemption after a disappointing Olympics four years ago: "To win a gold medal now, especially after having Vancouver being really tough and the Olympics so far here being lackluster, to be able to throw down in an event I had the most passion in and I was the favorite in…is awesome."
In so doing, Ligety solidifies his status as the greatest giant slalom skier of his generation, if not one of the best in the history of the sport. He joins 1952 Olympic champ Andrea Mead Lawrence as the only other American to take the coveted prize in Alpine skiing's cornerstone event, and also becomes the first U.S. Alpine racer to win gold in multiple Olympics (Ligety is the 2006 Combined gold medalist). But it was his ability to cope with Olympic-sized media pressure and deliver a winning result that truly confirms his status as an all-time great.
Alpine ski racing remains a fringe sport in America, only drawing national attention every four years when the Winter Olympic flame burns brightly. And no American Alpine skier drew more attention in the build up to Sochi than Ligety. On the heels of a season that saw him net three gold medals in the Alpine World Championships (the first skier to do so in over 40 years) and win races by nearly three seconds (margins that drew Wilt Chamberlain analogies), the media was quick to anoint Ligety as Sochi's surefire break-out star. Even The New York Times let Olympic fever-induced hyperbole get the best of them, declaring that Ligety had "practically invented a new way of skiing" (Spoiler alert: he didn't; racers have been carving turns for decades). Add commercials for Citibank and Kellogg's, not to mention a JCPenney spot featuring Blackstreet singing their '90s-era hip hop classic "No Diggity," but swapping the chorus to "Go Ligety," and you can imagine the unassuming skier suddenly felt the weight of a nation on his shoulders.
So when Ligety failed to perform in last week's super-combined and super-G races (events in which he's the reigning World Champ), there was a collective feeling of disappointment. With Lindsey Vonn sidelined because of injury and a past-his-prime Bode Miller forced to settle for a super-G bronze, Ligety was the United States' last bold-faced name, but his gold medal window appeared to be closing.
Ligety, however, didn't let external pressure or personal disappointment rattle him as he targeted his main event.
"[The giant slalom] is the event I wanted to win," he told reporters at the finish after capturing gold. "The combined, it would have been awesome to win a medal there. But that wasn't the one I cared so much about. And I knew I was an outside chance in super-G. This is where I knew I had a good chance.
Throw down Ligety did, displaying a clinic in carved turns despite Sochi's deplorable snow and course conditions. As for his standing among the all-time greats, the two-time giant slalom World Champion and four-time overall World Cup giant slalom title holder didn't necessarily need gold to gain access to that elite club. Then again, it certainly didn't hurt. As it stands, he arguably occupies third slot on the all-time list of giant slalom skiers, behind only Sweden's Ingemar Stenmark and Italy's Alberto Tomba.
Just ask Bode Miller, who after finishing 20th in his final Olympic event on Wednesday, passed the proverbial torch to Ligety by telling reporters: ""I think he's one of the best GS skiers in history."
And at 29, Ligety still has a few more years to add to his legend, not to mention a shot at repeating his Olympic gold in four years time.