Ted Ligety

Ted Ligety craves medals, not fame but could finish Olympic season with both

Leave a comment

NEW YORK — The line outside the Times Square Planet Hollywood slithered down one block and around the corner. So did the barricades.

The first few people stationed in front, with chairs and blankets, said they waited there overnight, from 3 p.m. the day before. They knew the first 300 would receive precious wristbands, the key to a guaranteed autograph.

The Olympic champion arrived, stepped out of the car and looked.

Who are they here for, he asked.

“Miley Cyrus.”

And Ted Ligety walked, unbothered, under the red canopy and through the doors for lunch at Bond 45 across the street.

It’s not surprising for a U.S. Olympian, especially a Winter Olympian, to pass unnoticed through the tourist foot traffic capital of America. Yet the entrepreneurial Ligety owns star credentials in a showcase Olympic sport that deserve the crowd-gazing attention of Shaun White or Lindsey Vonn (but not quite that of a twerking pop singer).

He doesn’t crave it, but he is already tasting fame, with plenty more on the horizon.

Ligety placed his Putnam Investments cap on the white-clothed table. He ordered a tuna burger (rare). He discussed why sponsors and PR chose him for a media tour of New York more than 100 days before the Olympics.

“It’s much bigger this year for sure,” he said, citing sponsorships with Kellogg’s, Coca-Cola, Citi and Proctor & Gamble and two commercials he shot during a ski trip to New Zealand, one for Vicks. “What I did at World Championships, there’s been a lot more attention on me, I guess, this time around. 

“I’ve had definitely to turn down a lot of things to really prepare on what my real job is.”

Ligety could win more medals than any other American at the Sochi Olympics. In fact, he’s predicted to.

That’s big considering the company of multiple medal threats at past Games (Marion Jones in 2000, Apolo Ohno in 2002, 2006 and 2010, Michael Phelps in 2004, 2008 and 2012, Bode Miller in 2006 and Vonn in 2010).

Ligety, 29, is set to begin the most scrutinized season of a career that began in 2004, when he was 19 (and one year younger than Cyrus today). The Alpine skiing World Cup campaign starts in Soelden, Austria, on Sunday.

Universal Sports coverage of Soelden races

Vonn and Miller have made headlines for recoveries from knee injuries, but Ligety will likely be the story in race recaps posted before the NFL pregame shows.

He’s won the season opener at this ski town along the Italian border the last two years, including by a whopping 2.75-second margin in 2012.

Even more incredible than last year’s season-opening rout was his performance at the World Championships four months later, 200 miles to the east. The blond-haired Utahn who would like to jump out of a plane, ride in a fighter jet and drive a Formula 1 car before he dies did something no skier had done in 45 years.

Ligety won three gold medals at the five-race championships in Schladming, Austria, in February. The last man to do that was French legend Jean-Claude Killy in 1968, before the sport’s leap into modern equipment, technique and specialization of elite skiers focusing on one or two events.

Ligety already won Olympic gold in the combined in 2006 and three World Cup season titles in the giant slalom, Alpine’s crucible event. Before his Schladming showcase, the narrative for his third Olympic appearance was already set — redemption.

The U.S. Ski Team collected eight medals at the 2010 Olympics, its greatest haul ever. All of the medalists made a Sports Illustrated cover titled “Fast Company.”

Ligety wasn’t on it.

He just wasn’t quick enough in Whistler, British Columbia, where his best finish in four tries was fifth in the super combined (the combined, an event with downhill run and two slalom runs, was replaced by the super combined, an event with one downhill run and one slalom run, for 2010).

“I left speed up on the hill, which was really frustrating,” Ligety said, summing up 2010, especially the giant slalom, where he was ninth. “Since then, I think I’ve been able to ski in a way where I’m happy every time I get down to the finish line with my level of intensity how I skied.

“I think back then I skied a lot of races where I was just trying to be tactically smart and not put myself into too much risk.”

Now, with that triple-gold Worlds performance, the story changes. Redemption is replaced by hype.

“I guess the (Olympic) expectations have changed a little bit based on how I did at Worlds,” Ligety said. “I knew I had very good chances at three medals, but three gold medals definitely exceeded my expectations.

“I don’t think I have those same expectations (at the Olympics). I’d love to repeat that performance, but that’s an extremely difficult performance to repeat. I realize that, and I can recognize that. I’m not setting my goal as far as repeating that. I just want to go in there and repeat my ability to ski at that level, and I want to repeat my ability to have my mental sharpness at that level. That should equal medals, but it doesn’t necessarily have to equal three gold medals in order for me to be happy.”

Ligety said giant slalom gold is the Olympic medal he would like to win above all else (he plans to ski everything but downhill). Some Olympians will say they’d be happy with one medal, and the rest is icing.

Ligety craves more.

“I think I have a really good chance in the super-G and combined,” said Ligety, who has won 17 career World Cup races, all giant slaloms. “So I’m not putting all my eggs in one basket with giant slalom, that’s for sure. I’m preparing throughout the season. I’m going to race all the (World Cup) super-Gs, all the super combineds, all the slaloms.”

There’s another reason for the busy schedule that has nothing to do with the Olympics. Ligety knows he has a hole in his résumé that no mountain of Sochi success can fill.

He’s never won the overall World Cup season title. Ligety finished third behind giant slalom rival Marcel Hirscher of Austria and super-G rival Aksel Lund Svindal of Norway this past year.

He would rather win that title in March — and the oversized crystal globe prize — than an Olympic gold medal in February.

“Because it’s a compilation of a season’s work,” Ligety said. “It’s really the mark of a true ski champion. Winning an Olympic gold medal is awesome. It shows you can really get yourself on the top level that day and push yourself. There’s a lot different things that can go into that, maybe the best guy doesn’t always win. The overall title, the best guy always wins that.”

Vonn decides if she’ll race this weekend

USA Gymnastics faces change, golden glow gone amid scandal

AP
Leave a comment

ANAHEIM, Calif. (AP) — On the floor of the Honda Center, the P&G Gymnastics Championships are imbued with a sense of normalcy and routine. Of tumbling runs and coaching tweaks. Of blaring music and chalk dust. Of leaps and leotards. Of the search for who’s next.

There is no sign of an organization in crisis trying to finds its way following a stormy year that’s seen one of the U.S. Olympic movement’s marquee brands shaken from the head of its national office in Indianapolis down to the smallest of its 3,546 member clubs.

To find the fallout from allegations of sexual abuse against a longtime former national team doctor and a subsequent independent review that called for significant changes in the manner in which USA Gymnastics protects its athletes, you need to pull back.

While the women’s field went through final preparations Thursday for Friday night’s opening round of competition (TV schedule here), in a hotel conference room across the street 2000 Olympic bronze medalist Jamie Dantzscher and fellow retired gymnast Rachael Denhollander called for several members of the USA Gymnastics Board of Directors to resign, insisting the organization needs to make a clean break from its past before it can begin moving forward.

“A complete change in USAG leadership is needed starting at the top,” said Dantzscher, part of a bronze-medal-winning team from Sydney.

In a convention center a few miles away, hundreds of gym operators and coaches tried to figure out how to best implement the guidelines outlined by Deborah Daniels, a former federal prosecutor who made 70 recommendations in June — all immediately adopted — designed to provide athletes, their parents and coaches better safeguards and greater recourse against accused abusers.

In Michigan, Larry Nassar — who spent nearly 30 years working as an osteopath for USA Gymnastics’ elite athletes — sat in prison after pleading guilty to three child pornography charges. Nassar is still awaiting trial on nearly two dozen other charges while also facing more than 100 civil lawsuits claiming he abused female athletes during his tenure at both USA Gymnastics and Michigan State. Many are in mediation and four cases in California are tied up in the courts.

The golden glow from the Final Five’s medal-hogging performance in Rio faded quickly. While Simone Biles, Gabby Douglas, Aly Raisman, Madison Kocian and Laurie Hernandez spent the last 12 months enjoying celebrity, USA Gymnastics played defense, figuring out where to go after being named as a co-defendant in civil cases filed against Nassar.

Longtime women’s national team coordinator Martha Karolyi — who along with husband Bela was named a co-defendant in some of the lawsuits — retired shortly after Rio. The organization recently pulled out of a deal to purchase the Karolyi Ranch, which has served as the de facto home of the women’s program for nearly two decades.

Steve Penny was forced out as president and chief executive officer in March for mishandling a number of abuse cases. A replacement for Penny will likely be named by September, while Valeri Liukin took over for Karolyi last fall, tasked with both continuing the women’s programs dominance while also creating a more transparent culture.

“It adds a lot of stress, but guess what, we have a lot of great people in the country, a lot of great people,” Liukin said. “Having one bad person doesn’t mean that it’s going to affect the program. We are more careful right now. We take steps to make prevent [abuse] from happening.”

Less than two months removed from Daniels’ report, there are signs of progress. National team members who fly into Houston for training camps must be escorted to the camp with at least two other people along for the ride to avoid any one-on-one interaction. Underage female gymnasts with male coaches who are picked to compete internationally must now travel with a credentialed female chaperone. One-on-one visits to cabins the athletes use during overnight stays by medical staff is now prohibited.

“They need to know that their safety is our utmost priority,” said Rhonda Faehn, the senior vice president of the women’s program. “We need to make sure that they know that and that they feel it.”

That’s at the national level. Policing at a local level is another matter entirely. Denhollander came forward as part of an investigation by The Indianapolis Star that discovered USA Gymnastics collected complaints of improper conduct by over 50 coaches between 1996 and 2006 and regularly declined to forward them on to the authorities unless expressly asked to do so.

The new guidelines require member gyms to go to authorities immediately. Daniels suggested USA Gymnastics consider withholding membership from clubs that decline to do so. The organization also named Toby Stark, a child welfare advocate, as its director of SafeSport. Part of Stark’s mandate is educating members on rules, educational programs, reporting and adjudication services.

Many member clubs have already adopted some of the recommended policies on their own.

Tony Retrosi, owner and coach at Atlantic Gymnastics Training Center in New Hampshire, has long prevented his staff members from having one-on-one electronic media exchanges with underage athletes. It falls in line with best practices put forward by USA Gymnastics in 2015.

There is much to be done. Dantzscher and Denhollander don’t believe real progress is possible until board chairman Paul Parilla, vice chairman Jay Binder and treasurer Bitsy Kelley are removed. All three signed a letter supporting Penny in March after the United States Olympic Committee called for his ouster.

“It is clear that the board intends to conduct business as usual,” Dantzscher said.

Parilla said in June he had no plans to step down, and late Thursday other members of the board of directors issued a statement saying they are “confident our Board officers will continue to lead us through the coming months.”

Yet for all its issues at the top, impact on the sport at the grassroots level has been minimal. USA Gymnastics membership rose by nearly 3 percent from Aug. 1, 2016 to July 31, 2017, to a record high of 198,636, showing that among members belief in the organization’s purpose remains strong.

At some point the smoke will clear. At some point the attention will turn back to what’s happening on the competition floor. Dantzscher’s goal — beyond giving the board of directors a makeover — is her sport embracing the painful but necessary steps required to create true change from “mommy and me” intro classes to the Olympic stage.

Asked if she believes such a change is possible, Dantzscher paused before answering.

“I hope so.”

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!

MORE: For Gabby Douglas, this break from gymnastics is different

Ragan Smith, Ashton Locklear lead U.S. gymnastics’ new wave

Leave a comment

ANAHEIM, California (AP) — Technically, Ragan Smith never stepped foot on the floor as a competitor at the Rio Olympics as the star-studded U.S. women’s gymnastics team beat a steady and relentless path to the podium on its way to medal after medal after medal.

Not that it mattered to Smith. Technically the 17-year-old was a “replacement athlete,” a fancy description for “alternate.” Funny, she didn’t feel like one as she trained up to and through the games just in case.

“If you ask her, she says she’s an Olympian,” coach Kim Zmeskal Burdette said.

And now she’s the center of attention.

As the “Final Five” take a break and weigh their future Simone Biles, Gabby Douglas, Aly Raisman, Laurie Hernandez and Madison Kocian are being inducted into the USA Gymnastics Hall of Fame on Saturday — the 17-year-old Smith finds herself as the face of the program as the P&G Championships begin Friday night.

This weekend marks the first time since 2005 that no one on the previous Olympic team returned to compete the following year, leaving the stage to Smith and the next wave in a program that plans to keep on rolling with Valeri Liukin taking over for retired national coordinator Martha Karolyi.

“The expectations are the same,” said Rhonda Faehn, senior vice president of the women’s program.

P&G CHAMPS: Men’s Preview | Women’s Preview
TV Schedule | Final Five Updates

No big deal or anything. All Smith and company have to do is follow in the footsteps of the most decorated team of all time. That’s fine with Smith and her coach, who won Olympic bronze at age 16 in 1992.

“People ask about pressure and adding pressure and it’s doesn’t if that’s what you were striving for in the first place,” Zmeskal Burdette said. “If you want to be the one people are talking to, it gives you more confidence.”

Something Smith is not lacking. She made a splash in 2016 in her first year as a senior, her tiny size and infectious floor exercise — set to theme from “The Addams Family” — making her instantly recognizable. She’s ditched it for something a little more grown up this year, by design.

“It’s sassy instead of very cute,” Zmeskal-Burdette said. “That’s the character she feels very good with. She is sassy. So be it.”

And a pretty good gymnast in her own right. While she’s talked openly about trying to extend her elite career through the Tokyo Games, Smith is trying to focus on the now.

“I don’t think, ‘Oh the 2020 Olympics,’ I don’t think about that ever really,” she said. “I just have it in the back of my mind as a goal.”

One that remains far off. Biles did the near impossible when she won three consecutive world all-around titles before winning a record-tying five medals in Rio. At this point, Smith would settle for a solid weekend at the Honda Center and a spot as one of four U.S. women at October’s world championships in Montreal.

So far, so good. Smith won the AT&T American Cup in March and seems at ease with being one of the favorites, though not the only one.

Ashton Locklear served as an Olympic alternate along with Smith and is eager to prove she’s more than just a wonder on uneven bars. Riley McCusker shook off a shaky performance at the American Cup — including a frightening dismount on balance beam — to bounce back and win the all-around and the beam at an international meet in Italy a few weeks later.

“That’s the gymnast she is,” coach Maggie Haney said.

One who is hardly afraid of the standards set by those who came before.

“It’s definitely cool being the next generation,” McCusker said. “I think we can prove ourselves and be the same or even better than the last generation.”

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!

MORE: For Gabby Douglas, this break from gymnastics is different