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.”

Matthew Centrowitz redeems, Jenny Simpson upset at USATF Outdoors

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Matthew Centrowitz won his fifth U.S. 1500m title, while Jenny Simpson‘s run of four straight ended at the USATF Outdoor Championships in Des Moines on Saturday.

Centrowitz, who in Rio became the first U.S. Olympic 1500m champion in 108 years, emerged from a bunched pack in the final 200 meters to win in 3:43.37.

The 28-year-old returned to the top after being beaten by Olympic teammate Robby Andrews last year. Centrowitz struggled with injuries and illness in 2017, including an emergency-room visit with a viral infection. At 2017 Worlds, a listless Centrowitz was last in his first-round heat and said he was unable to get more than two straight weeks of healthy training all season.

Centrowitz crossed the Drake Stadium finish line Saturday afternoon, a comfortable .26 ahead of Izaic Yorks, and held his hand to his ear to mimic a phone call. He said he was sending a message for somebody, whom he would not name, to call him.

“Satisfaction out there,” Centrowitz told Lewis Johnson on NBC. “A little sense of relief, get back on top.”

Simpson, the Olympic bronze medalist, was beaten by Olympic 5000m runner Shelby Houlihan for the second time this season. The Sioux City native Houlihan surged past Simpson on the final straight, just as she did at the Pre Classic last month.

“I’m totally bummed, but I guess I have a lot of practice at losing as well as winning,” Simpson told media in Des Moines. “It felt a little weird being at U.S. Championships and getting outkicked.”

Houlihan won in 4:05.48, .73 ahead of runner-up Simpson.

“I feel like she’s way ahead of me,” Houlihan said of Simpson. “She’s someone I’ve looked up to since high school.”

An American record fell Saturday. Deanna Price took the women’s hammer record back from Gwen Berry with a 78.12-meter throw, the best in the world this year.

USATF Outdoors conclude Sunday on NBC (4-6 p.m. ET) and NBC Sports Gold (12:30-6 p.m.), highlighted by 200m, 5000m and 110m hurdles finals.

USATF Outdoors: TV Schedule | Results | Women’s Preview | Men’s Preview

Also Saturday, Shakima Wimbley and Kahmari Montgomery won their first U.S. titles in the 400m.

Wimbley prevailed in 49.52, lowering her personal best by .66, tying the fastest time in the world this year and torching a field lacking the last two world champions, Phyllis Francis and Allyson Felix. Wimbley showed promise at the Pre Classic last month, finishing third behind Olympic champion Shaunae Miller-Uibo and Francis.

Montgomery clocked 44.58 to win, two weeks after finishing seventh at the NCAA Championships for the University of Houston. The men’s field lacked 2008 Olympic champion LaShawn Merritt and Michael Norman, the fastest man in the world this year who opted to race the 200m this week.

World-record holder Kendra Harrison repeated as 100m hurdles champion. Harrison clocked 12.46, off of her world record of 12.20. Olympic champion Brianna McNeal, who beat Harrison in Shanghai on May 12, was not in the field.

World gold and silver medalists Emma Coburn and Courtney Frerichs went one-two in the 3000m steeplechase. Coburn, the Olympic bronze medalist, earned her seventh national title in eight years by clocking 9:17.70. She pulled away from Frerichs on the last lap to win by .99. Nobody else finished within 15 seconds.

“[Frerichs] gave me a run for my money,” Coburn, who has been beaten by a countrywoman once in eight years, said on NBC. “This is going to be a battle that’s worth watching for years to come.”

In the pole vault, Olympic bronze medalist and world champion Sam Kendricks cleared 5.85 meters for his fifth straight U.S. title.

Vashti Cunningham repeated as high jump champion by clearing 1.95 meters. Cunningham, whose father and coach is retired NFL All-Pro quarterback Randall Cunningham, was 13th at the Olympics and 10th at the world championships.

Darrell Hill upset Olympic champion Ryan Crouser in the shot put, winning with a 21.57-meter throw. Hill improved to 3-17 against Crouser. Crouser came to Des Moines with the top 23 throws by an American this year out of his 24 total legal throws, according to Tilastopaja.org. But on Saturday he had five fouls in six throws. His only legal throw was 20.99 meters for second place.

NCAA runner-up Kenny Selmon won the 400m hurdles from lane eight against a field that lacked Olympic champion Kerron Clement. Selmon clocked 48.21 seconds, three tenths ahead of TJ Holmes, who was fifth at 2017 Worlds.

The favorites advanced to Sunday’s semifinals in the 200m and 110m hurdles, including 400m indoor world-record holder Michael Norman and Olympian Ameer Webb in the 200m and world-record holder Aries Merritt, Olympian Devon Allen and NCAA champion Grant Holloway in the hurdles.

MORE: Lyles, Norman, green teens at Olympic Trials, now stars at USATF Champs

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U.S. Open changes seeding policy for pregnancies

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Serena Williams will learn Wednesday if she is seeded at Wimbledon, while a top U.S. Open official is already reportedly saying its seeds will be revised if a return from pregnancy comes into play, though not naming Williams specifically.

The U.S. Open, the fourth and final Grand Slam tournament of the year in September, would “revise the seedings if pregnancy is a factor in the current rankings of a player,” USTA president and chairwoman Katrina Adams said, according to The New York Times.

Williams, a 23-time Grand Slam singles champion, was not given one of 32 seeds at the French Open in May, her first Grand Slam since coming back from having daughter Alexis Olympia Ohanian Jron Sept. 1.

Her ranking had fallen to No. 453 due to maternity leave. She could enter the major tournament due to the WTA’s protected ranking rule, but it was up to Grand Slam organizers whether to give her a seed.

Williams reached the semifinals of her last eight U.S. Opens, missing the New York event in 2010 and 2017. She has won it six times. Her current ranking is No. 183.

If Williams neither makes a deep Wimbledon run nor plays plenty of summer hard-court matches, it’s likely the U.S. Open will have to decide whether to give her a seed. It sounds like organizers are prepared to.

“It’s the right thing to do for these mothers that are coming back,” Adams said, according to the report, adding that players should not be “penalized” for starting a family.

Williams reached the fourth round of the French Open in her first Grand Slam since winning the 2017 Australian Open while pregnant (but before the world learned). She withdrew before a round of 16 showdown with Maria Sharapova due to a pectoral muscle injury and has not played in a tournament since.

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