KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia -- Ted Ligety, who skis the way a swordfighter slashes, was inclined to apply his saber-like edges to a soft portion of the Olympic giant slalom course on his second run down the mountain.
But U.S. ski team coach Sasha Rearick warned him not to blow his chances with a preventable mistake. Ligety had carved up the snow and the field on his first speedy run. No need to gamble.
“The idea was to ski the second run as if it was a strategic chess match, which Ted executed brilliantly,” Rearick said. “There was a clear spot where he could have made time on everybody with his style of skiing, but we told him to ski it safe.”
Ligety followed the plan, annihilated the opposition and confirmed his nickname of “Mr. GS” with a gold-medal performance in his specialty Wednesday.
For Ligety, who has ruled the World Cup circuit for the past five years, winning at the Winter Olympics was a relief.
“It’s my best event, and I wanted it the most, so I put a lot of pressure on myself,” Ligety said. “To pull through is an awesome feeling.”
Ligety, who won the super-combined at the 2006 Games, became the second American to win two Olympic alpine golds, joining Andi Mead-Lawrence, who won the slalom and giant slalom at the 1952 Oslo Games. He’s the first non-European to win the event.
He did it by relying on his signature style, which not only defies the laws of physics but the anatomy of the human knee. To watch Ligety’s turns is to marvel at his balance and power through extreme leans. His skis are bent at a nearly 90-degree angle to the snow.
His other nickname is “Shred” — also the name of his ski equipment company — and that is what Ligety does when cutting past gates.
Bode Miller — who placed 20th — explained: “He goes deeper, and his turn is longer. Watch the other top guys and you see a flat spot between their turns, where the pressure stops, and each new turn is starting from scratch. But Ted will keep turning until it’s time to link to the next, and that way he generates more speed.”
Ligety, 29, honed his distinctive skill in Park City, Utah, where he started skiing at age 2.
“I’m definitely a student of the sport, and I analyze ways to get faster,” he said. “I was able to develop a unique technique, using the ski rules to my advantage. I’m always looking for ways to push myself. If I ever stay static, I’d have no chance the next year.”
Miller compared Ligety’s creation of a trademark form to the way Alberto Tomba, Hermann Maier and Michael Von Gruenigen set themselves apart.
“Everyone is trying to do what he’s doing because of the equipment and course sets,” Miller said. “He’s so much better at it.”
Ligety skied with such a relaxed flow down the Rosa Khutor hill on the first run that he built a large .93-second lead.
He arced rhythmically through the switchback turns. About three hours later, as the sun dipped in and out of gathering clouds, he put down a more controlled run and still won by a comfortable margin of .48 seconds over Steve Missillier of France with a cumulative time of 2:45.29. Alexis Pinturault of France was third.
“He’s amazing,” Germany’s Felix Neureuther said. “He led the whole race and kept it very smart.”
Ligety said he played the Bear’s Brow jump conservatively. He had studied the course over two years of occasional practice with Russian skiers. His first five times down, he didn’t even finish.
“I knew how big of a jump that was, and it wasn’t worth taking any risk,” he said. “I didn’t want to catch any air there or lose time. It guarantees that I don’t lose a second on the flats.”
After a warm week and wet Tuesday turned snow to stew, it hardened overnight.
“With it getting a lot colder, it’s almost transformed,” Ligety said. “It’s almost like winter now. It’s a lot less summery than it has been.”
A sluggish Ligety won no medals in Whistler, Canada, four years ago after his success at the 2006 Games. Expectations grew for the Sochi Olympics as he collected season GS titles. At the 2013 world championships, Ligety’s three golds in super G, GS and super combined made him the first man since Jean Claude Killy in 1968 to pull off a hat trick. He was in contention for the super-G gold here but flew off a jump awkwardly. He will be favored to win Saturday’s slalom, as teammate Mikaela Shiffrin is favored to win Friday’s women’s slalom.
“Being a favorite is never easy because there are so many factors out there,” Ligety said. “Every time in the start gate I feel that anxiety. It’s skiing — the least guaranteed sport for winning a medal.”