Ted Ligety carved his place in Olympic history

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KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia — A couple years ago, they made a rules change in the giant slalom. Citing the interest of athlete safety, they made the skiers change to longer, straighter skis.

Those skis are way harder to turn. Ted Ligety, the American who had ruled the giant slalom, complained bitterly.

And then he figured out a way to ski on those new skis, lower and longer in the turns, that further separated himself from everyone else in the world. He could now win races by astonishing margins.

At Wednesday’s men’s super-G at Rosa Khutor, Ligety put on a clinic to win the first American Alpine skiing gold of these Olympics. Indeed, he won big. It was one of the great moments of the 2014 Games. Here, for the entire world to bear witness, was sheer excellence — the excellence the sport demands as well as the excellence the man demands of himself.

VIDEO: Watch Ted Ligety’s giant slalom run

It was, in a word, awesome.

It also marked a profound moment in U.S. ski history — past, present and future.

Bode Miller announced after the race that his knees are bothering him and he is done at these Olympics; he will not ski Saturday’s slalom. He said, however, he intends to finish out the season. Miller is 36. There can be no question that — whatever Miller’s future — Ligety, 29, is now positioned to be The Man on the U.S. Ski Team.

“He carries so much speed and just doesn’t really make mistakes. Those are the things that separate him,” Miller said when asked to describe Ligety’s GS skiing.

“Other guys carry speed for a couple turns. They struggle a little bit. He just carries it smooth, top to bottom. He consistently puts time on guys the whole way down. He’s not doing a miracle in one section. He just pulls time on top, pulls more time in the middle, pulls more time on the bottom. There’s no question who is the best GS skier right now.”

Ligety now has two Olympic gold medals. His first came in the combined in Torino in 2006. He and Andrea Mead Lawrence, who won the slalom and the GS in Oslo in 1952, are now the only two American skiers with two Olympic gold medals in Alpine.

VIDEO: Ligety’s road to giant slalom gold

Ligety is the first man in Olympic history — no matter the country — to have won gold in giant slalom and the combined. Not Hermann Maier, Toni Sailer, Jean-Claude Killy, Kjetil Andre Aamodt, Lasse Kjus, or anyone else you might name.

You can bet this first Olympic GS gold for an American male skier is a big deal for the U.S. Ski Team program — there are potential donors and board members who flew all the way here through this weekend, ignoring all the controversies, just to see Ligety and 18-year-old sensation Mikaela Shiffrin. Ligety held up his end of the deal. Shiffrin, the world slalom champ, finished fifth Tuesday in the women’s GS, not her best event. She goes Friday in the slalom.

If development doesn’t seem all that sexy, consider this: Ligety and a few others on the U.S. team have trained here, on this very hill, a total of two weeks over the past two years. One particular turn on the second run gave a number of the racers fits. The first time Ligety trained here, he took five runs. And, as he said, “I didn’t finish a single one of my five runs because I was trying to take all the speed off that. So I knew how big a jump that was and how critical that was to the course.“

The medal Wednesday also means the U.S. Alpine team has won four medals in Sochi. One more ties for the second-best performance ever (the 1984 team). The 2010 team won eight — far and away best-ever.

Another slice of history: it was precisely 30 years ago — Feb. 19, 1984 — that Phil Mahre won gold in the slalom in Sarajevo, brother Steve taking silver.

VIDEO: Ted Ligety, 1-on-1

Because of the 2006 gold, it wasn’t so much that Ligety came to Sochi with the burden of having to prove himself at an Olympics. Moreover, he has ruled giant slalom for seven seasons. Beyond which, at last year’s World Championships, he won three golds — in the GS, super-G and super-combined, the first man to win three world golds since Killy in 1968.

The expectation here, though, was simple: in the United States, people tend to pay attention to Alpine skiing in a big way once every four years.

Welcome back to the Olympics, Mr. Ligety.

“In some kind of way,” said Bill Marolt, the president and chief executive of the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association, Ligety “needed this gold medal here to confirm all that he has done.”

“It creates a lot of pressure, but on the other hand it creates a lot of opportunity. The thing neat about Ted,” Marolt said, “is that he has this unbelievable ability to focus and, in the moment, grab the whole prize. He just represents all that we believe in — get in unbelievable shape physically, work like hell and stay in the moment. It was awesome to be part of.”

Earlier at these Games, Ligety had a shot at a medal in the super-combined but uncharacteristically did not ski aggressively; he finished 12th. A few days later in the super-G, he took 14th.

WATCH: Ted Ligety peaking at right time in Sochi

“The combined was definitely a huge disappointment, mostly because I knew I could have skied a lot faster,” Ligety said, adding that in the super-G he skied “great” but simply made a mistake. “That’s frustrating but at least I knew I was skiing fast. I’ve known coming in here my GS was in a good spot. I’m happy to be able to ski the way I know how to ski.”

The women’s giant slalom Monday was messy — rain, snow, sleet, fog. Conditions Wednesday morning were perfect — bright, blue skies with the snow icy, just the way racers like it. It was exactly 32 degrees at race time, the snow exactly 32, too.

Ligety further had the decided advantage of going No. 7 Tuesday morning in Run 1, after his main rivals, France’s Alexis Pinturault and Austria’s Marcel Hirscher.

Pinturault went No. 1, finishing in 1:22.4; Hirscher No. 3, 1:22.47.

Ligety then put down a run of incredible aesthetic and athletic grace and power. A slow-motion camera would show his body perfectly in alignment with the mountain as he weaved through the gates.

The plan, he said, was to “really just nail a couple of the big rolls,” and be intelligent everywhere else in assessing risk.

“The hill,” he would say later, “is not so difficult skiing-wise. It’s difficult tactically. I was trying to be smart over those big tactical terrain changes and then push as hard as I could in the sections where I could take some risk and I knew I could push hard.”

RELATED: Rivals help Ted Ligety evolve as a racer

When he crossed, the scoreboard said 1:21.08.

He was 1.33 seconds ahead of the field. There were, literally, gasps and oohs and ahhs from seasoned watchers in the press room. In ski racing, 1.33 seconds might as well be a year.

By the time the field wound through the top 30, only Ondrej Bank of the Czech Republic was even within shouting distance— the sound of Bank’s skis telling the story of his slash-and-dash down the course from the No. 28 hole to within 93-hundredths of a second. Bank’s best-ever World Cup finish: a giant-slalom fifth in December, 2010.

Davide Simoncelli of Italy stood third, 1.27 seconds back. His last World Cup win? Eight years ago.

Germany’s Stefan Luitz actually had gotten to within 59-hundredths of a second but then straddled the final gate with his right ski. He was DQ’d. “Maybe,” Luitz said, “I let my head go.”

How good was Ligety in Run 1? He led every one of the four splits. Once more — that lead was 93-hundredths. As an exercise in math, 93-hundredths covered every guy in the field from third through 21st — Simoncelli, 1.27 behind, through American Tim Jitloff, 2.15 back.

RELATED: Model Olympian – Ted Ligety

Hirscher, leading the current World Cup GS standings, finished Run 1 in seventh, 1.39 behind. Pinturault, second in the season standings, ended Run 1 in sixth, 1.36 back.

Miller was never a factor. He finished Run 1 2.56 behind, Run 2.53, in 20th. He said his left knee in particular wasn’t feeling quite right; his precise word was “jankied.” Also, he and his tech team, after watching the women’s GS Tuesday, figured on soft snow, and then came out Wednesday to find conditions were instead excellent. After the first run, he said, “I knew after four turns, Jesus, I’m in trouble.”

Ligety, meanwhile, said between runs he no longer had “to take the mega-risk,” adding,  “It’s really important to still go as hard in the sections you can so you’re making up time in the normal turns and just be smart to carry speed through those really difficult tactical sections.”

He also said, for emphasis, “You can’t let up in ski racing. Ski racing is the kind of thing where you can blow leads really quickly. And nothing is truly safe.”

He did not let up. He almost got caught on a right-footed turn about a third of the way down Run 2 but saved himself from what would have been a catastrophic fall and, again, because he knew the hill, ran hard but intelligently, giving back time with only the 14th-fastest in Run 2.

RELATED: Ted Ligety’s extraordinary 2013 season

Hirscher would finish fourth, just out of the medals; Pinturault would get third. Another French skier, Steve Missillier, would get second.

The final difference Wednesday between first and second? A whopping 48-hundredths of a second. The slo-mo cameras, again, were so revealing — Ligety’s skis, in a beautiful physics experiment, gliding along at a 90-degree angle to the slopes.

“Today,” Ligety said, “was awesome. There’s really no other way to put it.”

Ragan Smith, after watching in Rio, leads P&G Championships

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Ragan Smith could do nothing more than watch in Rio as the Final Five dominated. The roles reversed at the P&G Championships on Friday night.

Smith, a Rio Olympic alternate, easily topped the all-around standings on the first of two nights of competition that will determine national champions.

Oh, and Simone Biles and Laurie Hernandez were among those in the Honda Center crowd in Anaheim.

It’s the beginning of a new era for U.S. women’s gymnastics. None of the Rio Olympians are competing this weekend, but all five could come back for a Tokyo 2020 run.

For now, the spotlight is on Smith.

“It’s kind of nice, like, having a new generation coming up,” Smith, who is coached by 1992 Olympic bronze medalist Kim Zmeskal Burdette, said on NBCSN. “I think it’s a little less pressure, but I still kind of feel like it’s the same because I had no idea what was going to happen last year.”

The 17-year-old Texan leads by 1.3 points over Riley McCusker going into the final day Sunday (7 p.m. ET, NBC, NBCSports.com/live and the NBC Sports app). Full scores are here. A four-woman team for October’s world championships will be named after a camp later this summer.

Smith overcame minor flaws on her first routine — uneven bars — and more significant ones on her next — balance beam. A solid floor exercise and vault gave her a first-day lead six tenths shy of Biles’ average margin from 2013 through 2016.

The second- and third-highest scores Friday actually came from the earlier junior division. With no team event at this year’s worlds, senior depth is less necessary.

Smith, after just missing the Rio Olympic team in her first year as a senior gymnast, won the AT&T American Cup on March 4 despite a beam fall. That made her the favorite this week.

The rest of the field — with no Olympians for the first time since 2008 — could not keep pace Friday. Smith’s top challengers coming in were McCusker and Morgan Hurd.

McCusker, who shares a coach with Hernandez, reeled back some difficulty. She was on crutches with a cast on her wrist in early July.

Hurd, a first-year senior who competes in glasses, took two out-of-bounds steps and sat down on back-to-back floor exercise passes.

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Simone Biles says she’s back in the gym (video)

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Simone Biles is back in the gym.

In between giggles, Biles said she returned to the gym two weeks ago in an NBCSN interview at the P&G Championships in Anaheim on Friday night.

“I actually started, like, two Fridays ago,” Biles said. “I’m weak. But I’m coming back. I’m just doing conditioning and basics right now.”

Biles last competed at the Rio Olympics, winning five medals, including four golds, for the greatest single-Games medal haul by a female gymnast in nearly three decades. That came after Biles swept every U.S. and world all-around title in that four-year Olympic cycle.

The 20-year-old said late last year and early this year that she planned to return to training in late 2017 or early 2018 with an eye on Tokyo 2020.

“It’s OK to sit out one [year],” Biles said. “I can’t imagine being out on the floor now.”

Biles has not set a return to competition. Her longtime coach, Aimee Boorman, moved from Texas to Florida after Rio.

If Biles makes the Tokyo 2020 team, she can attempt to become the first woman to repeat as Olympic all-around champion since the late Czech Věra Čáslavská in 1964 and 1968.

Gabby Douglas attempted this feat in Rio but did not qualify for the all-around final.

Douglas said earlier this month that she has not decided whether she will return to competition.

Aly Raisman said in September that she plans to return to training after taking 2017 off. Laurie Hernandez said she hopes to go for 2020 but has not set a return to training.

Madison Kocian is the lone member of the Olympic team who has competed since Rio, but it wasn’t on the elite stage. The Texan did a full freshman season for UCLA with a torn labrum and partially torn rotator cuff in her shoulder.

Kocian said in June that she has not decided if she will return to elite gymnastics.

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