A season that Ted Ligety called less than stellar, even a struggle, continued that way in the first run of the World Championships giant slalom in Beaver Creek, Colo., on Friday.
Ligety skied into fifth place in an event he’s owned for much of the last several years — consecutive World Championships gold medals, Sochi Olympic gold and five of seven World Cup titles.
Giant slalom is often called the truest test of a skier’s ability — requiring a mix of speed and technical skills — and Ligety has mastered it better than perhaps anyone ever. They call him Mr. GS.
But close observers wouldn’t have been shocked by Ligety skiing slower than four other men Friday morning. He’s won just one of five World Cup giant slaloms this season, skiing for most of the campaign with four screws inserted into his left hand following a November training injury.
Ligety stepped to the start gate for his second and final run Friday afternoon needing to make up a deficit of .24 and, more challenging, better all four men who would ski after him, punctuated by his biggest rival.
“I definitely feel, I don’t know if it’s nervous or anxious, but I always feel that for sure in the start gate,” Ligety said. “Especially in giant slaloms, where I know any time I get in the start gate of a giant slalom, I have a good chance of winning. That kind of adds that extra bit of pressure. You’re fighting for the title.
“Today I was relaxed as I possibly could be.”
It showed. Ligety was .55 faster in his second run than any other man. He won an unprecedented third straight World title in the giant slalom and by a credible margin, .45 of a second. Ligety has dominated many races by much greater margins, but this title, his seventh gold medal at a Worlds or Olympics, was special.
“I think this one is maybe a little more emotional than some of the other ones just because this year has been a little bit more of a struggle,” Ligety said on NBCSN minutes after the race, sunglasses covering palpable affection, even through TV, from a man who doesn’t often give away more than a smile and a fist pump. “In 2013, I was winning everything and so it felt like, not a given, but that I should be winning it really easily. Same with [Sochi] Olympics. I was skiing great before that. … This one was a bigger question mark.”
Ligety clinched his gold, the first by an American at these Worlds, when first-run leader Marcel Hirscher skied into silver-medal position. France’s Alexis Pinturault took bronze, .88 back.
“Ted was today in a league of his own,” fourth-place German Felix Neureuther said, according to the Denver Post.
Ligety felt extra satisfaction in overtaking Hirscher, throwing one of his skis after the Austrian crossed the finish line and sharing in the crowd’s raucous celebration. Hirscher, just 25, may be on his way to a fourth straight World Cup overall title this season, never before done by a man.
“Who knows what’ll happen the next couple of years, but he’s definitely on his way to becoming one of the greatest of all time, if not already kind of is,” Ligety said. “It adds sweetness to it when I can nab him.”
Ligety is decorated in his own right. The Park City, Utah, native captured his seventh Worlds medal overall, breaking a tie with Lindsey Vonn for most among Americans.
He’s a two-time Olympic champion with more global championship titles than any other American. Ligety is the greatest U.S. racer on the biggest stage.
Ligety’s next mountain to climb is greater than .24 of a second and four skiers. He has three World Cup giant slaloms to go this season to make up 138 points on Hirscher and take a third straight season title in the event.
“Getting my butt handed to me often times by this guy over here was definitely not something that’s super enjoyable,” Ligety said in a press conference, with Hirscher holding a bottle of water to his right.
Each race winner receives 100 points in the World Cup, with 80 for second, 60 for third and on down the line. That means Hirscher controls his own destiny, but the Austrian might not be able to afford scoring zero in one of those three races. Not if Ligety skis like he did Friday afternoon.
“My run was good,” Hirscher said, according to the Associated Press. “Ted’s run was outstanding.”
The World Championships continue with the women’s slalom, featuring defending champion Mikaela Shiffrin, on Saturday.