Ted Ligety stood in the finish line looking a bit stunned. He stared up to the scoreboard – calculations and probabilities rushing through his mind. Two skiers remained at the top of the combined slalom course in Sestriere, Italy – flood lights streaming down onto the piste as thousands stood by to watch.
The Olympic Winter Games are often about the improbable. Amidst the 2006 Olympics that saw the U.S. Ski Team’s stars come under fire, gold medals by 21-year-olds Julia Mancuso and Ted Ligety fit that bill.
It was day four of the Games, with all eyes still squarely on superstar Bode Miller – the reigning FIS Alpine World Cup champion. After missing the medals in the opening downhill and taking media heat, Miller came into the alpine combined a heavy favorite.
The combined event tests a broad range of skills from the high speed of downhill paired with the bam-bam-bam staccato rhythm of slalom. At the time of the Torino Games, the combined included a single downhill run mixed with two runs of slalom with times for all three runs combined together. By its very nature, there was a slight advantage for slalom specialists like Austria’s Benni Raich and Croatia’s Ivica Kostelic. But Miller, known more then as a downhiller, was a skilled slalom skier, as well.
As a young junior ski racer, Ligety didn’t initially stand out amongst the Park City Ski Team. Locals remember him as a kid who would rip around the mountain. As a teen, he hadn’t yet found his groove. But in the two seasons leading up to the 2006 Olympics, things had started to fall in place nicely.
In January 2005, he turned some heads at a night slalom in Westendorf, Austria during Hahnenkamm Week in neighboring Kitzbuehel, finishing third against a World Cup caliber field. In the summer of 2005, U.S. Ski Team coaches could see Ligety’s transformation unfold as he was reaching a new maturity level with his ski racing. In head-to-head matchups with Miller, Ligety, with his daring style, fared well. In December 2005, a slalom podium in Beaver Creek, Colo. got him onto the Olympic team. Two more in Kranjska Gora and Adelboden sealed his spot. The alpine combined on Feb. 14 would be his Olympic debut.
Unlike Miller, there were no medal expectations placed on Ligety. Few media really knew who he was. The race was designed to give Ligety experience. He had been 10th that season in combined races at Chamonix and Val d’Isere. He had been ninth at the World Junior Championships.
And after the downhill, few thought much about Ligety who stood 32nd – 3.06 seconds behind Miller. It was Bode’s gold to win! And in the first of two slalom runs, that’s exactly how it looked. Miller blasted to the lead over Raich and Kostelic, but an inspired Ligety all of a sudden stood fourth with the fastest time, erasing two thirds of his three second deficit in one run.
Then, improbability stepped in again. There was a buzz in the finish. Had Miller straddled a gate? On a right-footed turn to the left, the tip of Miller’s ski hit a gate dead on knocking it to the snow. The question was, did his ski pass on the proper side? The race jury needed to see video to evaluate. More than 20 minutes later the decision came back that Miller was disqualified. Ligety was next to him when Miller got the word from alpine director Jessie Hunt.
Now it was a battle between the slalom aces – Raich, the most dominant slalom and combined skier in the world; Kostelic, the Croatian super star who had never won an Olympic medal; and Ligety, the kid from Park City who was suddenly in the international spotlight.
But it was no small task for Ligety. He still stood 0.86 behind Raich. Ligety would ski third to last, followed by Kostelic and Raich. Charging out of the start gate, Ligety skied with the same abandon and style that gave him the first run win. He smashed the gates to the snow, taking risks at every turn and finishing just a hundredth off the fastest second run.
Ted Ligety had done his job. He had clinched a medal crossing the finish line. Now it was sit and wait to determine the color. Kostelic pushed out of the gate next. But right from the onset, he was well off the pace. Ligety’s lead remained.
Now there was one. Ligety’s mind was racing. At the top was the sport’s best slalom skier Benni Raich and he had nearly a second lead. Silver was sounding pretty good to Ted at the time.
Raich charged out on the course. At the first intermediate, he had lost a third of his margin over Ligety. At the next it was well over half. Then, fate stepped in once again, as Raich skied off course.
Ted Ligety was the Olympic champion!
Teammates Steven Nyman, who grew up racing with Ligety in Park City, and Scott Macartney rushed out to tackle him. Ligety grabbed an American flag and took off his helmet for all the world to see his sport’s newest star. In the stands, parents Bill and Cyndi gushed with pride.
“We expected him to ski for a top 10,” said father Bill. “We just wanted him to be realistic.”
Reality had taken a turn. Over the next decade or more, Ted Ligety would reshape the history of alpine ski racing. He would match greats like Toni Sailer, Jean Claude Killy and Stein Eriksen in winning three gold at a World Championships. He would string together three straight giant slalom wins at World Championships. And he would win Olympic gold in giant slalom at Sochi in 2014.
Kids around the world would want to shred just like Ted.
Sometimes it takes the improbable to find what reality really means.