CHLADMING, Austria — Ted Ligety has joined some of skiing’s legends. And in doing so, the American catapulted himself into the sport’s biggest spotlight heading into next year’s Sochi Olympics.
By winning Friday’s giant slalom by a massive margin, Ligety became the first man in 45 years to win three gold medals at a skiing world championships — since French great Jean-Claude Killy took home four golds in 1968.
“I still don’t think I recognize what I’ve done this week,” Ligety said. “It’s just been so phenomenal to win three gold medals, especially in two events that I hadn’t won in before.”
Ligety opened the championships last week by winning the super-G, then followed that up with gold in the super-combined Monday — both events he had never won on the World Cup circuit.
“That kind of added some pressure and expectations for today, because the giant slalom is really what I came here for and really wanted,” said Ligety, who won four of the five World Cup GS races this season. “It’s just been super, super surreal.”
Killy’s feat came on home snow in Grenoble in a year when the Winter Olympics doubled as the world championships. He swept gold in all three Olympic events — giant slalom, slalom and downhill — and was awarded another worlds gold for combined.
The only other three men to accomplish the feat were Emile Allais, the first great French skier, who won three events at the 1937 worlds in Chamonix, France; Norwegian pioneer Stein Eriksen, who took home three golds from the 1954 worlds in Are, Sweden; and Toni Sailer, one of the first great Austrian skiers who won four golds at the 1956 Olympics in Cortina d’Ampezzo, Italy, which also doubled as worlds, and three at the 1958 worlds in Bad Gastein, Austria.
“To be among those names, to have three gold medals at world championships, is a really cool feeling,” Ligety said. “It’s not something I set out to accomplish.”
Ligety also probably didn’t intend to put himself in position as “the next big thing” heading into Sochi. But with Lindsey Vonn having had a season-ending crash in her opening event here and Bode Miller taking this season off to recover from left knee surgery, Ligety will almost surely be thrust into the role that Miller had for the 2006 Turin Games and that Vonn dealt with for the 2010 Vancouver Games.
“I guess we’ll see,” Ligety said. “I don’t know what it’s going to be like. I know they both had a lot of external pressures and a lot of different things they (had) to go through for being the favorite and we’ll see how that goes.
“This definitely sets the bar high,” Ligety added. “I don’t know if this is repeatable. Hopefully I can just maintain the same level of skiing and give myself good chances there.”
This was a pretty decent dress rehearsal.
Before 35,000 fans, Ligety established a 1.31-second lead in the opening run and overcame a slight bobble in the second leg to finish 0.81 ahead of Austrian rival Marcel Hirscher — the only man to beat Ligety in a GS this season — and 1.75 in front of Manfred Moelgg, who finally gave Italy’s talented GS squad its first medal since Alberto Tomba in 1996.
While the numbers were impressive, what his fellow skiers marveled at was Ligety’s form — how he leaned down at near-impossible angles for each turn, dragging his hips and hands across the snow as the edges of his skis carved stayed on perfect line.
Italian GS veteran Davide Simoncelli, who finished sixth, simply couldn’t match Ligety’s flexibility.
“He leans down much further than we do and therefore the ski goes much faster, because it goes tighter around the turn,” Simoncelli said. “I’m trying everything I can but I’m not able to imitate him.
“It’s like asking the guy who finishes second in the 100-meter dash, `How do you catch (Usain) Bolt?”’ Simoncelli added.
While most of the 35,000 fans who flooded into this small Alpine village were hoping to see Hirscher win, Ligety also had supporters.
One fan banner at the race read, “Ted Ligety: You are the one and only.” Another said, “Ted Ligety: I love you,” with a heart in the place of love. And little girls had “Ted” painted onto their cheeks.
“He’s flying, not skiing. He goes from one victory to another,” Austrian Alpine director Hans Pum said. “He got his first super-G win in the first race and then he just carried on. He’s doing what he wants to.”
Ligety’s victories, plus a super-G bronze from Julia Mancuso, put the U.S. Ski Team atop the medals table after nine of 11 events. Only the two slaloms remain, and American teenager Mikaela Shiffrin is among the favorites for the women’s race Saturday.
Host Austria has the most medals overall, five, but is still seeking its first individual victory, having won only the team event.
“There’s nothing to say. It’s life, it’s sport. It’s like Barcelona,” Pum said, referring to the Spanish football team. “The best team doesn’t always win. This is sport. It’s important for sport.”
Hirscher, whose every move at these championships has been documented in this ski-crazy nation, also paid tribute to Ligety.
“He’s definitely the world champion, the triple champion,” Hirscher said. “I take my hat off to you.”
But Ligety wasn’t celebrating yet. He closes the championships with Sunday’s slalom, an event he hasn’t reached the podium in for five years.
“I don’t think I’m necessarily a medal challenger but I’ve been fast in the slalom in the past and maybe this wave of confidence can carry me through to a medal,” Ligety said. “I know that’s definitely a reach but I’ll wait for the party until after Sunday.”
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