Ted Ligety

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

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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

Several women’s players spurn worlds inquiry from USA Hockey

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As sports organizations and notable hockey figures express support of the U.S. women’s team, several players say they rejected overtures from USA Hockey to serve as replacements for the upcoming world championships.

Two players told The Associated Press on Friday that USA Hockey reached out to them to gauge their interest for the worlds, which begin next week in Plymouth, Michigan.

Brittany Ott, a goaltender for the Boston Pride of the National Women’s Hockey League, and Annie Pankowski, a junior forward at the University of Wisconsin, said the email from USA Hockey was not an invitation but rather an inquiry about their availability.

“I responded to that email and I said I’m not willing,” Pankowski said.

A third player, goalie Lauren Dahm, told the AP on Saturday she also turned down an invitation. Dahm plays for the Canadian Women’s Hockey League Boston Blades.

The U.S. team has said it plans to boycott the worlds over a wage dispute with USA Hockey, which confirmed Thursday it would begin reaching out to potential replacement players. Several players posted messages on social media saying they support the national team and would decline or have declined any outreach from USA Hockey.

“From a personal standpoint I have never been invited to a USA Hockey series or camp or anything like that and I would honestly love to be invited to something like that,” Ott said by phone. “However at the current time, this is a fight that I believe in and I’m definitely going to stand up and help fight as much as I can.”

Many players posted a version of a Jerry Rice quote on Twitter on Friday: “Today I will do what others won’t so tomorrow I can do what others can’t. I said no to USAH & will not play in the 2017WC.” Not all players who tweeted that message were asked by USA Hockey if they could play.

On Saturday, NFL Players Association executive director DeMaurice Smith joined the chorus of support for the players, saying on Twitter the organization stands behind their pursuit of fairness and equality.

“These women understand inequality when they see it and are expressing their right to be treated fairly as athletes and workers,” Smith tweeted. “Of course, they have the NFLPA’s support in daring to withhold their services until a fair agreement is reached.”

Philadelphia Flyers coach Dave Hakstol posted his support on Twitter, calling players competitors and role models.

On Friday, the NHL Players’ Association and Major League Baseball players posted messages of support. The NHLPA posted on Twitter that it supports players and panned USA Hockey’s bid to stock the team with replacements, adding that the decision “would only serve to make relations, now and in the future, much worse.”

The MLBPA encouraged all female hockey players to stand united behind their national team colleagues.

Players are seeking a four-year contract that includes payments outside the six-month Olympic period. The sides met for 10-plus hours Monday, but players have called USA Hockey’s counterproposal “disappointing.”

USA Hockey said Thursday its priority was to have all the players selected for the national team on the ice March 31 when the tournament begins. But the organization added that it informed players’ representatives it would begin reaching out to potential replacements with the tournament coming up.

Star national team forward Hilary Knight said last week she wished USA Hockey luck putting together a suitable team of replacements to defend the gold medal because the player pool was united in the dispute. Ott and Pankowski said they had not heard from any players expressing a willingness to play in worlds.

“It’s a very unified front,” Ott said. “It’s a tight-knit community that we have in women’s hockey here. This is definitely a big opportunity for us to make a big change and have a big impact on our sport and have it grow. We’re all standing together.”

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World Figure Skating Championships pairs preview

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Volosozhar and Trankov couldn’t do it. Neither did Shen and Zhao. Nor Gordeeva and Grinkov.

Canadians Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford can win a third straight pairs world title next week, a feat not seen since Irina Rodnina and Alexander Zaitsev of the Soviet Union won six in a row from 1973 through 1978.

But they don’t feel like favorites.

“We’re coming in a little more under the radar,” Radford said.

They lost their two most recent international competitions — third at the Grand Prix Final in December; second at the Four Continents Championships in February.

Duhamel and Radford are seeded fifth by best international scores this season going into the world championships in Helsinki (broadcast schedule here).

“Sometimes it feels like worlds last year was so long ago,” Radford said.

Last year in Boston, Duhamel and Radford had the performance of their seven-year partnership in the world championships free skate. They tallied a personal-best 153.81 points, more than seven points clear of their previous best.

It was easily enough to overtake Chinese short-program leaders Sui Wenjing and Han Cong, who were relegated to silver behind the Canadians for a second straight year.

This season, Duhamel and Radford haven’t come within 13 points of their 2016 World Championships total. Duhamel went through “an unforeseeable circumstance” in her personal life in November that she chooses not to reveal.

They implemented the throw triple Axel, but Duhamel fell three times in a four-event stretch this fall. They lost by nearly 13 points at December’s Grand Prix Final, which ended with a Duhamel backstage meltdown.

“We never fell like that at home [in practice],” Duhamel said on the IceTalk podcast. “It started to shake us up a little bit.”

They replaced the throw triple Axel in their program. Without it in February, both skaters had trouble with jumps at Four Continents at the 2018 Olympic venue and finished nearly 13 points behind Sui and Han.

“We kind of went back to square one, to the drawing board after Four Continents, reassessing what’s gone on this season, why are we underperforming, why are we not succeeding in competition the way we are training,” Duhamel said.

They made program changes, notably on their throw and jump entrances and overhauling the footwork in their short program.

Duhamel adopted a rescue dog from South Korea. Radford, who had surgery over the summer to remove a cyst from his ankle bone, leaned on a sports psychologist.

“I personally feel a lot more relaxed and seemless,” Radford said. “That feeling has come a little bit later this season.”

Five pairs could take gold in Helsinki in perhaps the most wide-open event.

Germans Aliona Savchenko and (French-born) Bruno Massot won both of their fall Grand Prix events but missed the Grand Prix Final after she tore an ankle ligament. They returned to take silver at the European Championships in January with the best score of their two-year partnership.

Young Russians Yevgenia Tarasova and Vladimir Morozov stepped up to win the Grand Prix Final, the second-biggest annual competition, and then the European Championships. But free-skate struggles have dogged them this season.

Another Russian pair, Olympic silver medalists Ksenia Stolbova and Fedor Klimov, are perhaps the biggest wild card. They missed the fall season due to Stolbova’s left leg injury, but then beat Tarasova and Morozov in their season debut at the Russian Championships. Stolbova fell on their throw triple flip in both programs at the European Championships in January, and they finished fourth.

Then there are Sui and Han, looking to break through for a first senior world title in their sixth try (though Sui is just 21 years old, and Han 24). They missed the fall season after Sui underwent right ankle and left foot surgeries last spring. They returned at Four Continents and posted personal-best free skate and total scores, ranking only behind Tarasova and Morozov for the season.

U.S. pairs Alexa Scimeca Knierim and Christopher Knierim and Haven Denney and Brandon Frazier have both missed significant time due to injury in the last two years. They are behind the top pairs from Canada, China and Russia.

The U.S. hasn’t put a pair in the world championships top five since 2006, and that doesn’t figure to change next week.

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NBC Sports researcher Sarah Hughes contributed to this report.