Ted Ligety

AP

Alexis Pinturault wins World Cup opener; Americans just miss podium

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SOELDEN, Austria (AP) — Widely regarded a main candidate to succeed retired Marcel Hirscher as World Cup overall champion, Alexis Pinturault passed his first test with flying colors on Sunday.

He beat teammate Mathieu Faivre to lead a French one-two finish in the World Cup season-opening giant slalom in spring-like, sunny conditions on the Rettenbach mountain glacier.

Pinturault held a slim lead of two-hundredths of a second over Faivre after the opening run but extended the margin to 0.54 in the final leg. It was the 12th time that Pinturault led a race after the first leg, and the ninth time he held on to the advantage to win the race.

“Everything is working really well, I have a good team around me,” Pinturault said. “That’s something that brings me a lot of self-confidence.”

Zan Kranjec of Slovenia came 0.63 behind in third, followed by American duo Tommy Ford and Ted Ligety, who trailed by 0.70 and 1.09, respectively.

Ford, with his best career World Cup finish, and Ligety, with his best since January 2018, came close to ending the U.S. men’s program’s longest World Cup podium drought in two decades. The American men had zero World Cup podiums last season for the first time since 1997-98.

Lucas Braathen of Norway posted the fastest second run to climb from 23rd to sixth, 1.10 behind Pinturault, while Swiss prospect Marco Odermatt dropped from third to 13th after coming wide on a left turn halfway down his final run.

Pinturault finished runner-up to Hirscher in the overall standings last season, making him one of the favorites to take over from the record eight-time champion from Austria as winner of the sport’s biggest prize.

“It’s not so easy for us that Marcel isn’t there anymore,” Pinturault said. “We have a lot of pressure, more than before. Usually all the pressure was on Marcel. But this is a wonderful start for me.”

Pinturault also won the traditional first GS of the season in the Austrian Alps when it was last held in 2016. The race was canceled due to bad weather in the past two years.

Sunday’s win was Pinturault’s 24th career victory, and 12th in giant slalom. He also won Olympic bronze in the discipline in 2018.

“This was the first event of the new season, you had to get used to racing again,” said Pinturault, adding it was “cool, a super start” for the French team to place 1-2.

The result came as a surprise for Faivre, who said before the race that his start in Soelden had been doubtful after back problems affected his pre-season training.

“It was a tough summer because of the injury. We didn’t really know how long it would take for me to heal,” Faivre said. “But training the last two weeks went very well. I had a lot of fun.”

While France led with the top-two spots, the U.S. ski team had an excellent start to the season as well with Ford and Ligety’s achievements backed up by Ryan Cochran-Siegle finishing in 11th.

Ford improved one spot from his previous best — a fifth place in Alta Badia, Italy, last season — on a hill where he had never scored World Cup points before.

“I am feeling strong. My first run was just solid skiing, real safe. The second run I definitely trusted it more and let it go. Psyched with this personal best,” said Ford, who posted a photo from the race on his Instagram account and wrote: “Nice way to score points for the first time in Sölden.”

In sharp contrast to Pinturault, another favorite in the post-Hirscher era struggled in the opening race.

GS world champion Henrik Kristoffersen failed to find his rhythm in the opening run and finished eight-tenth behind Pinturault, before he almost skied out in the final run, losing control of his inside ski in a wide left turn. The Norwegian ended up more than two seconds off the lead in 18th.

“It was a classic mistake that cost me,” Kristoffersen said. “But it’s only the first race of the season.”

The anticipated season-long duel between Pinturault and Kristoffersen will go into its next round at a slalom in Levi, Finland, on Nov. 24.

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Ted Ligety will keep ski racing, so long as he’s contending

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Ted Ligety, a seven-time Olympic or world champion, had a best finish of eighth on the World Cup circuit last season. That is simply unacceptable for the most successful U.S. male Alpine skier in history.

“If the best race result I get all year is eighth place, like last year, then I’m not going to be doing this for much longer,” said Ligety, a 35-year-old father whose 321 career World Cup starts are the most among active Olympic medalists now that Lindsey Vonn and Aksel Lund Svindal have retired. “I don’t want to keep going if my peak is eighth place. I want to keep going if I can win races.”

Ligety knows how to win at the season-opening giant slalom in Soelden, Austria (Sunday, 5 a.m. and 8 a.m. ET, NBC Sports Gold).

He prevailed a record four times between 2011 and 2015, before a string of significant injuries: a hip labrum tear in 2015, a season-ending ACL tear in 2016 and season-ending surgery for three herniated disks in his back in 2017.

He raced full seasons the last two years but not at his typical level — one World Cup podium (two weeks before the PyeongChang Olympics) and finishes of 15th and 11th in his bread-and-butter giant slalom at the 2018 Winter Games and 2019 Worlds.

Ligety said he’s felt healthy through preseason training. The back is the only concern at this point, and it’s holding up.

“It’s always hard to say until race season starts because there’s nothing quite like the forces and pressures a race puts on your body,” he said.

Ligety will deem this a successful season if he’s winning races. His 25 career World Cup victories (24 in giant slalom) are most among active men with longtime rival Marcel Hirscher‘s retirement.

“It’s always hard to see at the get-go, but I’m hoping [winning or making the podium] is possible in Soelden,” he said. “It’s been a hill that’s treated me well. I’ve had a lot of success here. That’s definitely the goal.”

His chances may be greatly impacted before he gets to the start gate. Course setups in recent years have worked against Ligety, known for his unique ability to carve turns.

“It’s pretty crazy watching video from 2014 versus now how much less turn there is,” he said. “Nowadays, a course is almost dead straight. It’s really done a lot different, for nothing other than just a trend within the coaches setting that way. Maybe this year, the person who sets the first course maybe sets a turning one, and all of a sudden we start having turning courses again.”

NBC Sports analyst Steve Porino said Ligety is one of the more difficult racers to read.

“Because he really can race above his training ability,” Porino said. “If I base it on what I saw last year, it’s going to be one of these scenarios where if the course and conditions are in his wheelhouse. … When they’re straight, he doesn’t stand much of a chance. But they’re not all going to be straight.

“When the course has a lot of swing to it, he’s still really good at that, and he’s got a chance of being on the podium.”

Ligety plans to race a more limited schedule than in years’ past — just giant slaloms, and probably the Beaver Creek super-G — and spend more time back home in Utah with his family. His current stretch ahead of Soelden — three weeks on the road — will be by far his longest away from home.

Ligety will use that extra time for training and to race on the U.S.-based World Pro Ski Tour, which runs from December to April.

“If I go past this season, then probably going through the [2022 Beijing] Olympics, but otherwise it’s really hard to say,” he said.

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Ted Ligety scales back race schedule

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Two-time Olympic champion Ted Ligety is scaling back his race schedule as he enters the final portion of his decorated Alpine skiing career.

Ligety, a 34-year-old who has endured many injuries since his last World Cup win in 2015, said he will race strictly giant slaloms this year. The World Cup season starts in late October.

“So it’ll be a little bit easier schedule on my body,” Ligety said in a KPCW radio interview in his native Park City, Utah. “I’ll be able to be home a little bit more as well, and then we see. I mean, I would like to keep going as long as I feel like I can win races and feel healthy. That’s really the biggest part, and nowadays I have a 2-year-old son, and there’s more factors than there was when I was 25 years old.”

Ligety, nicknamed “Mr. GS” for his giant slalom prowess, has a 2014 Olympic gold medal and three world titles in that event.

He also owns an Olympic combined title from 2006 and world titles in the super-G and combined from 2013, but he hasn’t won a race in one of those disciplines since January 2014. And since then, he has undergone back and knee surgeries and dealt with hip problems.

“There’s a lot of hard miles on my body up to this point, but I’m still enjoying it,” said Ligety, whose 321 World Cup starts are the most among active Olympic medalists now that Lindsey Vonn and Aksel Lund Svindal have retired. “Right now, I feel really healthy and trying to get to a point where I feel I can win races. That’s the goal right now.”

Ligety, a four-time Olympian, has not publicly committed to a 2022 Olympic run.

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