Told to be ‘realistic,’ Ted Ligety defied his doubters
Posted by Dean Holden at February 13th, 2014
by Bill Pennington, 12 February, 2014
PARK CITY, Utah — Ted Ligety was losing races by seven seconds. And that was just to the other 11-year-olds in his town’s ski club.
When he tried out for the local developmental racing program they sent him home without a spot.
His parents recall that Ted would tell his youth coaches that, one day, he was going to race in the Olympics.
“They would say, ‘No, Ted, you have to have a realistic goal,’ ” his mother, Cyndi Sharp, said.
Everyone in this close-knit ski mecca 40 minutes from Salt Lake City knew who the racing prodigies were. Ted Ligety was not among them.
“Things didn’t look too encouraging,” Ligety said in August, sitting on the wooden balcony of his Park City home, overlooking the ski lifts he rode as a child. “I was just too stubborn to let it bother me.”
High school came and went with many of his friends named to the United States ski team. Ted was not on any coach’s list. He kept racing, but his next step was college, where he would study to be an engineer.
Ted asked his parents, who had never raced, if he could delay college for one more winter, as a last chance to reach the elite level.
“Our tolerance for this idea was about six months and no more,” his father, Bill Ligety, said.
But Ted, who had matured physically and filled out in the latter stages of adolescence, suddenly had the best season of his young life, coming home from races with medals. A few months before his 19th birthday, in 2003, Ligety was invited to join the United States ski team’s developmental squad, a big accomplishment even if it was a rung so low on the organizational ladder that his parents had to pay $10,000 so that Ted could compete.
Top ski racers have a corporate sponsor’s name or logo displayed across the brim of their helmet. That year, Ligety affixed duct tape across his helmet with these words: “Mom and Dad.”
Then a funny thing happened. Although his initial world ranking was in the 300s, he steadily gained ground. Just before the 2006 Olympics, Ligety made the contingent for the Turin Games, though seemingly in a minor role on a United States team with Bode Miller and the three-time world champion Daron Rahlves.
On one of the last days of the Turin Olympics — after Miller and Rahlves had prominently flopped — Ligety was the shock winner of the combined event.
“When I won the gold medal, my dad laughed and said, ‘I guess this skiing thing might work out,’ ” Ligety said this summer, beaming at the thought.
Bill Ligety said: “We are dumbfounded. It was all his determination.”
It would be a winsome story of perseverance if it ended there. But since then, Ligety has become a four-time world champion, an outspoken, magnetic personality on the World Cup circuit and one of the best ski racers in American history.
And he has done it, not surprisingly, with an outsider’s mentality — ready to defy the status quo as the kid who was never supposed to make it anyway. The United States has a history of producing idiosyncratic, uncompromising Olympic ski champions — see Miller, Bill Johnson and Tommy Moe.
Here comes the once disregarded Ligety, the favorite in the Olympic giant slalom and a gold medal candidate in two other events. He could be the most ballyhooed American Alpine athlete during the Sochi Games.
But Ligety, whose nickname is Shred, will not be easily typecast because his success has been the product of his own brand of rebellion, a thinking man’s tenacity and analytical doggedness that does not always endear him to the authorities.
Last year, for example, Ligety ripped the international ski federation in a scathing online treatise protesting a new rule that significantly changed the permissible shape of giant slalom skis. Then Ligety jumped on the new skis and used them to trounce his competition anyway, taking his fourth season-long World Cup title in giant slalom. He followed that with three gold medals at the 2013 World Championships — something that no male skier had done in 45 years.
“I’m fine with being a little bit of an instigator,” Ligety said.
It was not the first time that he had played the provocateur.
For many winters, Ligety goaded Europe’s elite racers for how easy they had it compared to American skiers.
“It’s like we compete at two completely different sports,” Ligety said this summer, sitting at home beneath a large poster of Sestriere, Italy, where he won his Olympic gold medal. “The Europeans race on the weekend, then go home to their families on weekdays, sometimes with a training slope right next to their house.
“They get home cooking, sleep in their own beds, see their girlfriends and then come back for the next race on the weekend. The American racers leave home in November and other than four days at Christmas we aren’t home until March. The food, language and culture is unfamiliar and we’re stuck in hotels as we arrange for our own training. Obviously, the playing field is lopsided in their favor. To win, we not only have to ski faster, we have to have a huge reservoir of mental fortitude.”
Fortunately for Ligety, that is one of his developed strengths. When he sees a deficiency of any kind, he works to overcome it.
Eight years ago, he thought the snowboarding and free riding ethos had stolen some of what he called “the cool factor” from traditional skiing.
“There was a big disconnect, and skiers were seen as old school,” Ligety said. “I knew that didn’t apply to me, so I wanted to show that we could merge the two worlds. I wanted kids to know that it’s cool to be in a ski race in the morning and to go play in the terrain park in the afternoon. It’s not one or the other.”
To add a little style, Ligety started wearing brightly colored outfits and ended his races with a signature trick move in the snow. In the off-season, he made extreme skiing films in remote parts of the world, emerging from helicopters in exotic locales where he might jump off cliffs or descend radically steep pitches. With a European business partner, he started a company called Shred in 2006 and aggressively marketed what were then radically designed helmets, goggles and other goods in florescent pink and orange, and electric blue. Shred has flourished, and with the help of the free skiing/twin-tip ski movement, ski participation has made a comeback as the percentage of snowboarders on the slopes has ebbed.
Ligety recognizes the trend but is practical about his business as well.
“I did it to make money, too,” he said with a chortle. “I’m very involved in Shred, constantly checking in on something. It takes a lot of time. But it has let me leverage who I am as an athlete into a product.”
The company could well be the focus of Ligety’s postracing career. As he said: “I’ve never liked the idea of working for other people.”
But at 29, Ligety does not appear to be in too much of a rush to work behind a desk. Still the daredevil, he and his United States ski teammates were known for buying broken-down cars while training in New Zealand so they could launch them at high speeds off a ramp in an empty lot. They also used the cars for bumper car competitions.
That was the daylight pastime. At night, Ligety is more likely to be reading about finance and the stock market.
“I’m certainly not worried what Ted will do with himself when he stops racing,” said Mia Pascoe, his longtime girlfriend who lives with Ligety in Park City. “He doesn’t sit still. He’s always got a project going.”
When Pascoe, a former University of Colorado soccer player who met Ligety at a college party of ski racers, mentioned recently that she wanted a new headboard for their bed, Ligety decided to design one and make it himself. He has reconstructed or remodeled other parts of the house as well.
“That’s Ted,” said his mother, Cyndi. “When he was young, he went to Home Depot so he could build his own slalom shin guards. He was raised to be very independent.”
Both parents were real estate brokers in Park City, which was growing exponentially.
“We worked a lot and I wasn’t home to cook,” Cyndi said. “So Ted taught himself.”
The meals were sometimes for the entire family, which included his younger brother Charlie, who became a racer in college. Ted has remained an enthusiastic cook, especially when it comes to barbecuing and baking cookies.
The independent spirit led a young Ligety to tinker with his skis and boots, something he does to this day. He pores over slow-motion videos of his races and the tactics of his rivals, as well as those of skiers from previous generations. That is how he discovered the best use of the new, straighter giant slalom skis that he initially hated so much.
Ligety had always forcefully pressured and created an arc in his skis sooner on turns than other racers had. Technically, it was a faster method but it was riskier and took superior strength and balance — something Ligety had honed in hours of solitary practice as a teen. Before the 2012 rules change, skis were more hourglass-shaped and easier to turn so his opponents could get away with applying pressure later in the turn and sometimes catch up to Ligety — although Ted was still the giant slalom World Cup champ.
On the new, straighter skis, Ligety found through trial and error that his aggressive, early pressure still produced extra speed. But the technique his opponents had used for years with the older skis was much slower as the skis slid through turns.
“It accentuated the advantage I already had,” Ligety said, who began winning races by such hefty margins that Pascoe, who was back in Utah, thought she was misreading the results online.
Ligety added: “I saw pretty early that the new rule wasn’t going to hurt me.”
So why rail against it and jeopardize his standing with the sport’s hierarchy?
“Because it was bad for the future of the sport,” said Ligety, who launched his assault on the new skis through a blog post. “Young kids coming up weren’t going to be able to turn those new straight skis. I didn’t want a whole bunch of 16-year-olds to get discouraged and quit racing.
“Somebody had to speak up about it and oppose it.”
The International Ski Federation threatened to sanction athletes for social media outbursts. Ligety was undeterred.
“I wasn’t worried; I’m glad to be somewhat of a leader,” he said. “I mean, they never even asked for the athletes’ input before making the change.”
Ligety considers it a victory that there is now athlete involvement on a council that advises the ski federation leaders. And the giant slalom ski rule may be repealed, which he considers another triumph, even though it might be to his detriment.
“I’ll just try to figure another way to be faster,” he said with a laugh. “It’s all part of the learning process.”
And Ligety insists he never stops learning. Heading into his third Olympics, it will be the lessons gained from his past experiences at the Games that will shape his approach to the competition. Ligety disappointed himself when he skied too cautiously at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, like a favorite just trying to do what came naturally. He ended up not winning any medals. Now he is determined to attack his races with an intensity that always has him on the verge of crashing.
“The 2010 Olympics were a tipping point, and after that I decided to go all-out every time,” Ligety said. “There are always two or three sections of a race where you have to be smart but otherwise I’m going to hammer it. At the last Olympics, I tried to be too smart and I blew it. I’m never going to let that happen again.
“Just attacking has made me a more consistent winner. I want to go hard and be happy with my approach.”
Bode Miller had the same attitude at the Olympics and flamed out in 2006. Under the radar in 2010, Miller won three Olympic medals.
Ligety had a front-row seat to both performances.
“First of all, Bode made his own bed in a lot of ways,” Ligety said, speaking of the 2006 Turin Games. “He played into the media’s hands.”
Ligety talked about how Miller, in an interview on “60 Minutes,” admitted to racing while badly hung over.
“But that came out as racing while drunk,” Ligety said, “which is not what he meant. But you do have to be careful with what you say.”
Ligety also said Miller seriously injured his ankle days before the 2006 Olympics and never revealed it publicly.
“He rolled it playing basketball while we were there in Italy,” Ligety said. “His ankle was the size of a grapefruit and he could barely get his ski boot on. He could have used it as an excuse, but he owned up to the results instead.”
At the 2010 Olympics, Ligety saw in Miller a more peaceful attitude — confident but not keyed up.
“I think that’s the way to approach the Olympics,” Ligety said. “I’d call it optimistic nonchalance. I really want to win as much as I can, but you can’t let that get into your head. I’ve always been a better racer than trainer and most of the other guys on the World Cup ski worse in racing than they do in training.
“They freeze up. You watch guys in training and they’re crazy fast. Then they’re different when the actual race is on.”
Ligety’s ability to execute a race plan, even one that changes on the fly, may be his greatest attribute, said the United States head coach, Sasha Rearick.
In a super combined victory in Wengen, Switzerland, on Jan. 17, Rearick advised Ligety to make some changes to his intended line on the downhill portion of the race just seconds before Ligety pushed out the start gate. Rearick was acting on advice from Miller, who had run through the course moments before Ligety.
“They were changes on many sections where he could trim the line and pick up some time,” Rearick said. “Right there, you’re altering the original plan, which is not always the easiest thing to do. But Ted executed every one of them beautifully and aggressively.
“That was impressive.”
Ligety shrugs his shoulders when asked about what allows him to adjust so seamlessly, whether it is his race tactics or his equipment.
“I’ve been working at this my whole life,” he said.
At his parents’ home in Park City, across town from where he now lives, Ligety’s boyhood bedroom is filled with racing bibs from around the world and pictures of Ted and his brother in racing garb as children. There are not a lot of trophies from those early years or pictures of Ted celebrating from a medal podium as a boy or preteen.
But in every photo from a ski hill, Ted Ligety is smiling.
“He was very shy when he was young, but not on skis,” Cyndi Sharp said, standing in the bedroom. “And even though he wasn’t getting top results he just remained so incredibly driven. It was almost like he knew he was going to prove everyone wrong.”
Next up: backing up his shocking upset at the 2006 Turin Games with more Olympic hardware. A second, or third, Olympic gold medal would look good next to Ligety’s four World Championship golds.
If that were to happen, those closest to Ligety are certain it would not change him.
“When I’m at a race in Europe, he’ll be getting mobbed by fans and people will come up to me and say, ‘Oh my God, you’re Ted Ligety’s girlfriend. What’s that like?’ ” Pascoe said. “And I laugh because, you know, he’s just Ted. We go back to Utah and he hangs out with the same old friends he had from years ago.”
Ligety calls it a key to his success.
“I’m nobody special at home,” he said, walking unnoticed through the Park City streets. “They know me from way back. I’m just the kid who learned to ski faster.”
<Thanks to Tim Taylor for alerting me to this article! – DH>
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