Ted Ligety, the self-proclaimed mediocre teenager who ended up with the most gold medals among American male ski racers, is making one last unique arc in a career defined by them.
Ligety will retire after the world championships that begin Tuesday in Cortina d’Ampezzo, Italy. His last race: a giant slalom on Feb. 19, exactly seven years after winning the second of his two Olympic gold medals and more than 17 years after his World Cup debut.
Ligety, 36, began this season planning to ski through the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics. He changed his mind over the last few weeks.
“Family is the reason why,” he told NBC Sports.
Ligety and wife Mia have three boys: Jax, 3, and twins Alec and Will, who are 6 months old.
Ligety pared his World Cup schedule in recent seasons, skiing almost exclusively GS events, to spend more time at home in Park City, Utah, and less of the bulk of fall and winter in Europe.
“It’s hard missing their development and growing up,” he said. “I just had a hard time squaring that with what I was doing in the mountain.
“You don’t always get to choose the perfect opportunity and your time, but this was the right time. Made the most sense for me and my family, and I’m just happy to be able to leave on my own terms.”
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Ligety, a five-time world champion with 25 World Cup victories (24 in giant slalom), underwent knee and back surgeries since his last win in 2015.
His last podium came three years ago. He came to peace with stepping away after finishing outside the top 30 in back-to-back races last month. Before the 2019-20 season, Ligety said he would not compete much longer if he wasn’t contending.
“I’ve had a lot of hard miles on this body,” he said before worlds, noting he doesn’t feel perfect but also isn’t having any acute pain. “My back has not been great for years, and that’s definitely part of the equation.”
Ligety began skiing at age 2, but when he later tried out for the local team in Park City, he didn’t make the cut. When Ligety put the Olympics as a goal, coaches told him to be more realistic.
He made it at age 17 in 2002, but as a forerunner for the Salt Lake City Olympic slalom (three weeks after finishing 71st in a lower-level slalom, 15 seconds behind the winner). After high school, Ligety still asked his parents if he could forgo college for a year to give this ski racing thing a shot.
He ended up on the U.S. development team, costing his parents $10,000, and debuted on the World Cup at age 19 with “MOM+DAD” taped to the front of his helmet in lieu of a sponsor.
The story arc changed in 2006. Ligety slept through his alarm for a World Cup in South Korea, then notched his first win on the circuit the following day.
“That was Ted in the beginning,” then-teammate Erik Schlopy said. “He persevered, he loved the sport enough to keep doing it and he proved that you don’t have to be a racer that dominates junior racing.”
Also that winter, Ligety stunned the Olympic crowd in Sestriere, Italy, by winning the combined. He was 32nd fastest in the downhill, then posted the fastest first slalom run and saw favorite Benni Raich of Austria hook a gate two-thirds down the course in the finale.
“It was neat for me to see Ted go from being this awkward, self-conscious just kind of bullied kid,” 2006 and 2010 Olympic teammate Jimmy Cochran said, “to becoming a superstar. In becoming the best in the world, he became this sort of proud but humble man.”
Ligety is still shocked by what happened that night.
“I mean, every kid dreams of being the best ever, the best in the world and all that stuff,” he said. “But I also dreamed of being John Stockton.”
Ligety left Torino hungrier, determined to back up the singular result. He won the first of his five World Cup season titles in the GS in 2008. But at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, he was fifth in the combined and ninth in the GS as a medal favorite.
“Crumbled under that pressure,” he said.
The U.S. Alpine team was a juggernaut at the time, smack in the middle of a golden generation that also included Lindsey Vonn, Julia Mancuso and Bode Miller. Ligety, the last of the quartet to retire, bagged the most combined Olympic and world championships gold medals of the group, a tally of seven that Mikaela Shiffrin matched in 2019. (A teenage Shiffrin once cherished watching Ligety study race film in silence for 15 minutes, marveling, “How do you ski so fast?”)
“Ted was so dominant that everyone tried to follow him,” Miller said. “If you’re trying to copy somebody else in a sport like that, you’re very unlikely to be able to do what they do better than they do it.”
Nobody has since replicated what Ligety accomplished in February 2013 during the best 10-day stretch of his skiing career.
He swept the super-G, super combined and the giant slalom at the world championships. He became the first man to win at least three golds at an Olympics or worlds since Frenchman Jean-Claude Killy in 1968.
By 2014, Ligety was so dominant in his trademark event, once winning by 2.75 seconds, that he was labeled “Mr. GS.” Chief rival Marcel Hirscher of Austria coined the nickname. That made his Sochi Olympic gold in the giant slalom a requisite.
“A huge sigh of relief,” he said, after pre-Olympic hype included a JC Penney music video commercial for “Go Ligety,” a remixed version of Blackstreet’s 1996 hit “No Diggity.”
Ligety’s legacy: not only his stats and championship pedigree, but also the way he arced GS turns. The special sauce came from childhood freeskiing, dragging his armpits on the snow in contests.
“He creates so much edge angle with his hip early in the turn that he can generate speed above the fall line,” Miller said. “In some cases, I’d go 10 or 15 meters less, and he could beat me in time. That just meant he was traveling much faster going a longer distance.
“My ass would hit the ground when I was skiing GS, too, but he got it so early on the turn.”
Ligety, who co-founded the ski apparel company Shred in 2006, still loves so much about skiing despite frustrations these last seasons. He will continue to rip around Park City with Jax (maybe Alec and Will, too) and even visit the circuit in Europe.
“The context is going to dramatically change,” he said. “It’s just a part of my life that I’ll be leaving behind, and it’ll be different.”
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