Ted Ligety is up to speed
Understated veteran skier seeks out challenges new and old
U.S. Olympics: Ted Ligety
His name has not been splashed coast to coast in headlines regarding a child custody case. He did not talk about skiing while drunk during a "60 Minutes" interview. He did not have a horse named after him race in the Kentucky Derby.
He did not pose for the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue. He is not dating a world-famous athlete equally infamous for being a sex addict. The media did not go into a frenzy speculating whether his knee would be healthy for the Olympics.
No, this is not a man to create a stir as the somewhat eccentric, often outspoken Bode Miller does. He does not crave attention the way Lindsey Vonn does. He is not someone the paparazzi stalk. But boy, can Ted Ligety ski.
Miller (33 World Cup wins, two overall championships, five Olympic medals) and Vonn (59 WC wins, four overall championships, two Olympic medals) have had considerably more success in their careers, but the blonde-haired Ligety has his own sparkling résumé, with 20 World Cup wins, four world titles in the giant slalom and an Olympic gold medal in the 2006 combined.
I like to be able to go to the grocery store in sweat pants and not feel like I need to impress somebody. It's nice to go under the radar." -- Ted Ligety
More importantly as we head into the Olympics, Ligety is the most successful American skier over the past two seasons. He's won eight World Cup races in the giant slalom since the start of last season and he also won three gold medals at last year's world championships in Schladming, Austria. No skier had done that since Jean-Claude Killy (who won four in 1968).
Killy remains well-known around the globe. Ligety? Not so much outside the ski world or Austria and Switzerland. The 29-year-old from Park City, Utah, does have a cold medicine commercial and a new JC Penney video in which R&B singer Chauncey Black performs "Go Ligety," a takeoff of his 1996 No. 1 hit "No Diggity." But when the U.S. Olympic ski team was announced this week, Ligety's name didn't even make the small story in my local paper (Miller's did).
Regardless of the headlines and Twitter feeds, Ligety is the man to watch in alpine these Olympics, even if the paparazzi are still disappointed that Lindsey and Tiger won't be in Sochi.
"With Ted, it's not that he doesn't want people to know him but he wants to live his life," says Ligety's friend since childhood, Trevor Olch. "In the spring time, he would rather come home to Park City and ride his bike or go snowmobiling than go to the Kentucky Derby and wear a suit and wave to a TV camera so he can get noticed.
"I don't think that's ever been something he's looking for. He wants to be recognized more for his work and his craft more so than for just being him."
Says the ever polite and friendly Ligety, "I like to be able to go to the grocery store in sweat pants and not feel like I need to impress somebody. It's nice to go under the radar."
Sweatpants, huh? So that means he's not going to pose in a swimsuit for a national magazine? "I don't think they want me in the SI swimsuit issue."
Sochi will be Ligety's third Olympics as a competitor but his fourth as a participant. Ligety served as a forerunner for the slalom race at the 2002 Olympics. It was kind of like getting to take batting practice at Yankee Stadium. And how he was chosen to do so explains much of his success.
Ligety was skiing with the Park City program heading into the Olympics when it held a physical conditioning test. Part of the test included a 400-meter run in which a visiting Norwegian cross-country skier capable of a very fast time was racing. Rob Clayton, then the head coach of the Park City ski team, told Ligety he could beat the Norwegian. And he did. "He put all his energy out on that one," Clayton said. "He was determined."
Next up, Clayton says, was a box jump in which the skiers jumped on and over a two-foot-high box for 90 seconds. Ligety attacked that just as ferociously. As his legs tired, he stumbled off the box a couple of times and bloodied his shins, but he kept going.
"I'm like, 'This is unusual, this is really unusual,'" Clayton recalls. "Based on that, we had to choose forerunners for the 2002 Olympics, and we picked Ted, even though he wasn't the fastest guy. Because he was determined. And gritty. And it was a message to the other guys.
"It was a reward for the hard work. There were other guys who had better results and were faster skiers, but none of them had worked as hard as Ted."
This is not to say Ligety was not a good skier. He was. It's just that the Park City competition was very, very good -- including current U.S. ski coach TJ Lanning. "It was a really competitive team and I would get beat regularly by guys just on my team alone," say Ligety. "I was far from being the best on my team."
"Every day was a competition -- I actually didn't really have to be a coach," Clayton jokes. "I could just go there and set up the timer. And the fastest skier, I would say, 'good job.' It was awesome. It was a coach's dream."
There was so much talent, in fact, that there is a private school for young winter athletes: Park City Winter Sports School. To better accommodate the students' competitive schedules, the school runs from April to November. In addition to Ligety, alumni include fellow Olympic gold medalist Julia Mancuso, bobsledder Steven Holcomb, speedskater Elli Ochowicz and ski jumper Sarah Hendrickson.
The school is not cheap. Ligety's parents, Bill Ligety and Cyndi Sharp, say tuition was $16,000 to $17,000 when Ted and his brother Charley attended.
"That was just school. Then you have ski team expenses," Bill says. "When both our kids were going to Winter School, we needed about $100,000 in income that was devoted just to their ski programs. Per year. That was motivating for us to work hard to earn that money -- and the kids saw that. We would go to work early and come home late. Work weekends.
"We were careful with our money and both our kids have benefited from that. They're both pretty frugal."
The Ligetys were realtors (Bill still is) who frequently worked evenings. They would drop off their sons at the ski slope around 6 p.m., telling them to have fun and that they would be back to pick them up at 10. Or they would leave them at home, where they learned to cook for themselves and wash their clothes.
Not being the best when I was younger has really helped me a lot. It gave me a lot harder work ethic. In ski racing, everybody loses more often than they win. So you have to have that mental toughness to be able to deal with those losses." -- Ted Ligety
"They learned to be very independent," Bill says. "We were not ones to spoil them. A lot of the kids' mothers would be at the middle school to pick up the kid at 3 o'clock and drive them a mile to the ski area. And we basically said, 'There are a million other kids whose mothers are doing this. Get a ride.' And they learned to be independent that way."
Although Cyndi says there was nothing specifically spelled out, Ted was expected to get "mostly A's or an occasional B" to continue in the skiing programs.
"Ski racing for me growing up was a privilege," Ted says. "I went to the Winter Sports School and my parents sacrificed a lot for me to do what I did. If I was not a nice person or if I wasn't being a good guy or had a bad attitude, it would have been pretty easy for them to say, 'All right, you're going to public school. You're not going to be able to skip school for skiing and this and that. You're not going to get your new skis.' I knew I had to be well-behaved.
"My parents instilled that in me. That was what was expected of me. Doing what I was doing was a privilege. That was something that I recognized and it's part of who I am."
Ligety didn't make the Park City team as a 9-year-old and didn't make Park City's A team until he was in high school. After graduation, his parents told him he had one year to pursue his dream of a career in skiing, and if that didn't work out, he would go to college.
As it turns out, he had a breakout season that winter, made the U.S. team and kept skiing as a career. And three years later, he won the gold medal in the combined at the 2006 Olympics, the same Olympics Miller received all the attention for failing so badly. And Ligety has just continued to get better in the years since.
"Not being the best when I was younger has really helped me a lot. It gave me a lot harder work ethic," Ligety says. "In ski racing, everybody loses more often than they win. So you have to have that mental toughness to be able to deal with those losses. So not doing as well as I wanted to when I was younger and having a lot of those tough losses and knowing I had to work harder than the other guys has really helped me."
"He's humble," Clayton says. "And I really think that probably evolved out of knowing how he got where he got. A lot of kids have talent and they're not really sure how they got there. But when you worked and climbed the ladder, your humility is much better because of that. It's just knowledge. Self-awareness."
Ligety was not expected to win a gold medal in Torino but he was in 2010 in Vancouver. By then, he had been the World Cup champion in the GS. Still, he remained in the background behind Miller, literally so in Sports Illustrated's Olympic preview issue. Four men on the American ski team posed on the cover, with Miller in front and Ligety standing in the back of the photo.
While Miller resurrected his reputation at Vancouver by winning three medals, including gold in the super combined, Ligety was a disappointment. He thought he had a good shot at two or three medals. Instead, he won none.
"That was as good a turning point in my career in that GS," he says. "I got ninth place. I was six-tenths off a gold medal and three-tenths off a medal and I knew I left speed on the hill. So that was really frustrating for me. Knowing that I could have skied a lot faster if I just had a little bit different approach and really let myself go.
We're really competitive with each other, for sure, but we respect each other's skills. It's a good relationship because we can both feed off each other." -- Ted Ligety on his relationship
with Bode Miller
"That's when the switch flipped in my mind that I needed to start racing in a way, that when I got to the finish line, I would be happy with my approach whether it was win, get fifth or get blown out. I didn't want to go so hard that I was skiing stupid, but skiing as hard as I could when I could and being smart in sections I knew I had to be smart at. And pushing myself every single turn that I knew I could. I think a lot of times I was not quite at that limit when I knew I could be."
Pushing the envelope is part of the sport and part of Ligety's style. Olch says a couple of years ago, he and Ligety were snowmobiling and decided to build a ski ramp for a snow version of waterskiing. The snowmobile would pull the skier to the ramp, and then he would let go as if on waterskis. Ligety was the first one to try it, telling Olch to floor the snowmobile. It didn't work out -- he had a painful landing short of the downhill slope -- but hey, trying something like that is part of who he is.
"Ted is fearless," Olch says. "He was always the most daring of the group. We would build a jump as little kids and we would stop at the top of the hill and say, 'Man I don't know, I don't want to go first.' And Ted would always go first. He was never scared. He would put his skis on, buckle his boots, put his helmet on and he would go first and go bigger than anybody the rest of the day.
"That has always been his sort of mentality and part of the reason he's always been so successful."
Ligety's parents recall the time when a young Ted needed some shin guards for ski racing. Rather than spend at least $50 for a pair, he went to Home Depot, got some sheet medal and made his own shin guards. His parents took a close look at the sheet metal and calmly warned him that perhaps they weren't such a good idea. He might slice his leg off with them.
Equipment remains a passion with Ligety. After the 2006 Olympics, he and Carlo Salmini started Shred (Ted's nickname) and began producing ski goggles. Their business has grown and Shred now also sells helmets and other accessories, along with protective body armor for skiers and snowboarders under the joint company Slytech (both Shred and Slytech are owned by Ligety and Salmini's company Anomaly Action Sports).
"He's always fiddling with better equipment and better fabrics to improve it, whether it's his shin guards, goggles or the shape of the goggles," Olch says. "He has a lot to say. He has an opinion and he definitely thinks that the hours he puts in are worth an opinion.
"Now, they're making these new gloves. He says they're warmer, last longer and provide better protection than the ones the ski team has always given out."
Ski equipment not only is a business for Ligety -- regulations on ski equipment is an area where he is very much not under the radar. He is very vocal on the subject, practically Bode-like. When the International Federation of Skiing (FIS) increased the minimum length of giant slalom skis as well as their turn radius, Ligety ripped the FIS on his website, calling the governing body a "dictatorship" and saying the new regulations would not make the sport any safer.
He did so even though the new rules favor his particular skiing style. That those regulations hinder other skiers, though, strikes Ligety as unfair. He says that the FIS proves itself to be wrong every time it imposes a new ski regulation.
"If they leave the regulations open, it's not like we're going to be doing anything so crazy and different from outside the rules," he says. "But it would allow guys with different body size and skill types to create a ski that would enable them to go fast and make competition better."
By the way, Slytech sells carbon shin guards for $429. They do not cut your legs off.
This season hasn't been quite as strong for Ligety as last year was, but he has won three World Cup races -- the GS at Soelden and Beaver Creek and the super combined at Wengen -- and has been on the podium in two other races. The super combined was the first non-GS win of his career outside the world championships, and provides a confidence boost going into the Olympics. He also has skied the slopes of Sochi and says the Olympic courses favor him, particularly in the GS.
"My goal in Sochi is to win three medals," he says. "It would be extremely difficult to win three gold medals like I did in Schladming, but I know I have the ability to be on the podium in the super combined and the super-G, which stack up well for me, and of course, the GS is my main goal."
Three medals? Hey, no pressure.
"You want to be at a place where you're skiing well enough to feel the pressure," he says. "I'm looking forward to that pressure and I think I should be ready for it."
Also competing for several of those medals will be Miller, who missed last year with a major injury before returning to competition this season. In excellent shape, Miller has been skiing very well of late, finishing second in the super-G and third in the downhill at Kitzbuehel last weekend. He also finished second to Ligety in the GS at Beaver Creek in December.
"We have a good dynamic," Ligety says. "We both learn a lot from each other, skiing-wise. Especially my first years on the ski team, I learned a lot from him. And the way my GS has gone, he's learned from me. So it's a good dynamic. We're really competitive with each other, for sure, but we respect each other's skills. It's a good relationship because we can both feed off each other."
This is Miller's fifth Olympics and he once again will dominate the ski headlines going into the Games. In fact, he is once again on a cover of Sports Illustrated's Olympic preview issue. Ligety, of course, is not, though he was on the cover of a recent issue of that other well-known sports publication, Popular Science.
"I enjoy being a ski racer. I don't feel a need to be super famous or anything like that," Ligety says. "I enjoy the process of skiing more than I enjoy trying to be a celebrity. I'm fine with being in the background to Bode and Lindsey. They've done bigger things than I have, and that's, of course, how it goes.
"That's what happens when you have Lindsey win as often as she does and whatnot, she's going to be a huge story. And Bode has done some amazing things in the sport of ski racing and he also has this extremely intriguing story to go with him as well. Those things both make logical sense why they're a bigger story than me."
Ligety will do what he can to make himself the big story in Sochi. Whether he gets the bigger headlines is not so important.